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Compromised Position

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Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he plans to build "a bridge to a New Pittsburgh" in the coming year. How many council members plan to cross it remains to be seen.
  • Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he plans to build "a bridge to a New Pittsburgh" in the coming year. How many council members plan to cross it remains to be seen.

Just last week, City Paper noted that for Pittsburgh politicos, "an early sign of what life will be like on Grant Street comes ... when council chooses a president." 

Based on council's choice -- Darlene Harris -- life isn't going to be simple. For anyone. 

Harris has been a frequent supporter of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. But she won the presidency with backing from the mayor's most vocal critics -- councilors Bill Peduto and Doug Shields -- as well as Bruce Kraus and newcomer Natalia Rudiak.

"Sometimes you have to give away the crown to save the kingdom," Peduto explained after the Jan. 4 vote, which took place before an audience packed into council chambers. 

Ravenstahl avoided a total rout: Peduto had sought the presidency himself, but in the end had to back Harris.

Ravenstahl was backing Theresa Kail-Smith, who took office only last year. Her bid was backed by a rival faction: Ricky Burgess, Patrick Dowd, Harris and newcomer Robert Daniel Lavelle. Customarily, those who back a president receive plum committee assignments in return ... and it was widely believed that Lavelle would be Kail-Smith's choice to chair the powerful Law and Finance committee.

For Peduto, that would have been doubly painful: Not only has Peduto held that post, but he helped Lavelle campaign earlier this year. What's more, other than Harris, none of the councilors supporting Kail-Smith had served more than two years in council. 

"We had to make sure that council stayed independent," said Peduto after the vote. 

Harris was the weakest vote for Kail-Smith, but she would agree to switch sides only in exchange for being named president. In a Twitter post, Peduto called Harris' ascension "the best option we could achieve. I'm sad but relieved." Harris quickly reappointed Peduto to the finance chair. Kraus, Shields and Rudiak also received choice committee spots. 

During a brief speech to the audience, Harris glossed over the partisan considerations. "I would hope for solidarity," she told the packed room. She expressed a fervent wish for council "to work in unity, and also to work with the mayor." 

Even so, her ascension is clearly a setback for Ravenstahl, who stirred the pot with a last-minute veto of a prevailing-wage bill on New Year's Eve. Council had unanimously supported the bill, but Ravenstahl's veto came too late for council to override it before its 2009 term expired. 

Harris was among the five members who voted to override Ravenstahl's prevailing-wage veto, and says she'll support the measure again. "My name was on that legislation, so I was comfortable with what we had," she says, while promising to "listen to everyone involved."

To some, Harris might seem an unlikely person to bridge such divides. During her prior tenure on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board, debate was notoriously fractious. Matters came to a head in July 2002 -- when Harris was first vice-president, behind board president Jean Fink. Three local foundations announced they were pulling more than $2 million a year in funding, citing "the bickering, distrust and chaotic decision-making that now seem endemic" to district leadership.

The foundations didn't restore the money until early 2004, by which time Dowd had replaced Harris on the board, and Fink was replaced as board president. 

Dowd declined to comment on Harris' ascension to the head of council. But despite reassuring words on all sides, bad blood seems a certainty: Peduto and Lavelle, close allies until weeks ago, did not speak to each other during the hour-long proceedings, despite being seated side-by-side. Peduto is also at odds with Dowd, who strongly objected to council's handling of the prevailing-wage bill, even though he voted for it. 

Harris has begun trying to heal wounds: She nominated Kail-Smith as president pro tempore -- a choice unanimously endorsed by the rest of council -- and put her in charge of the Public Safety committee. 

During his own inauguration event, a few hours later, Ravenstahl struck a conciliatory note as well, pledging to help construct "a bridge to a New Pittsburgh." 

Addressing supporters at the Pittsburgh Project, on the North Side, Ravenstahl urged local leaders to "work together, building a bridge across the disagreements which have divided us." Ravenstahl noted that the city faces a series of challenges, most notably a pension fund in chronic need of money. A tuition tax proposed by Ravensthal last year was scrapped, but local non-profits pledged to help find alternative solutions this year. 

"As much time as we spend bickering with each other," echoed Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, who served as master of ceremonies,"we will just hold the city back." 

But bickering may well continue. Burgess and Patrick Dowd were visible at the outset of the inaugural event; Harris and Kail-Smith arrived together later. No one in the Peduto faction, however, appeared to be in attendance.

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