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Pittsburgh voters may have two reformers to choose from

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You probably didn't notice it, crammed as it was in a room above a South Side bar, but the race for mayor of Pittsburgh probably began Jan. 5.

 

I say "probably" because it was hard to tell for sure. The room was crowded with members of the political activist group Democracy for America, and it was hard to hear what anyone was saying. Besides, neither of the two guest speakers, City Councilor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb, had formally declared they were running. (Lamb made his candidacy official Jan. 10; Peduto says he'll announce his decision next month.)

 

Still, anyone who had doubts about the political implications of the event needed only glance into the hallway, where Lamb's nephew was assiduously jotting down Peduto's remarks before his uncle arrived.

 

Peduto and Lamb have a lot in common. Both hope to attract followers who want change not just in the mayor's office but also in the city's political climate. They hope to attract everyone, in other words, who isn't excited by former City Councilor Bob O'Connor, the race's front-runner even though he hasn't announced his candidacy either. Peduto and Lamb are both technocrats who frequently use phrases like "city-county consolidation" and "government efficiency." Both have styled themselves as reformers willing to stand up against the party machinery. 

 

Peduto, though, tilts at windmills. He's waged quixotic efforts against the Mon-Fayette Expressway, and taken on the local U.S. attorney over the privacy-invading PATRIOT Act. There's not much a city politician can do about those issues, except perhaps lose political backing by fighting over them. Lamb has stayed away from such battles, which is one reason insiders say he's palatable to city business leaders and power brokers.

 

Peduto's stances do appeal to a core of younger activists, however. And the only question about their zeal is whether Peduto can keep it in check. Days before Lamb formally announced his campaign at the City County Building, for example, some Peduto followers were talking about crashing the event with "We Want Peduto" signs. Peduto himself had to nix the idea.

 

But the crowd at the Democracy for America event showed just how carefully he has laid the groundwork for a campaign. Present were campaign organizers and protégés of Peduto's Guyasuta Fellowship, in which young people weigh in on public policy issues. Whatever else such efforts accomplish, they ensure Peduto has a ready-made core of junior politicos to draw on. Like any smart politician, Peduto has blended political self-interest with a broader agenda.

 

Indeed, if you combine Lamb's big-money potential with Peduto's ability to rally the young and restless, you might have the ideal candidate. Separate them, though, and you have two guys whose biggest problem may be each other. If they draw from the same pool of reform-minded supporters, they may cancel each other out and allow someone like O'Connor to win.

 

Of course, the conventional wisdom is that no one can beat O'Connor anyway. Reporters, at least, seem dubious about anyone else's chances: When Lamb announced his candidacy, reporters peppered him with questions about whether O'Connor was beatable, and whether Lamb's campaign slogan -- "New Leadership Now" -- was an attack on the front-runner.

 

I'm not sure the conventional wisdom is right. But even if O'Connor wins, the race for second place might be just as important. Peduto and Lamb might not get to be the figurehead for the city, but they could still be the figurehead for their party's loyal opposition.

 

That might be the more interesting job. The next mayor will govern in the shadow of a state-appointed financial oversight board, and no one knows how much power he will have. Certainly he won't be able to offer giveaway contracts to city employees in order to stay in power, like Murphy did to win his re-election against O'Connor in 2001.

 

You can bet O'Connor is glad that happened. His narrow loss spared him the agony of presiding over the city during the last four years. It's also why his candidacy seems certain today. A loser in 2005 might well feel the same way next time around.

 

In other words, Peduto and Lamb may have one other thing in common that wasn't apparent on Jan. 5: For both, there might be far worse things than losing.

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