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Same Old Story

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This is the first mayoral election in Pittsburgh history where all three of the Democratic candidates have Twitter accounts. Which is good news if you thought local politics had too much nuance, and needed to be made more simplistic. But does it make a difference otherwise?

More broadly, does it matter at all that we suddenly have a profusion of young people seeking public office?

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, of course, is 29. But his two Democratic challengers, city Councilor Patrick Dowd and police-officer-turned-attorney Carmen Robinson, are both 40. Two other independents who have made noise about running, Franco "Dok" Harris (son of the famed running back) and attorney Kevin Acklin, are 29 and 32, respectively.

By my reckoning, the median age of mayoral candidates is 32. The median age of Pittsburgh as a whole, meanwhile, is just under 37.

At first blush, it's hard to imagine how Pittsburgh's political scene -- so notoriously sclerotic and resistant to change -- could produce a field of candidates that was disproportionately young. But the situation isn't quite as unprecedented as it sounds.

Just in my lifetime, Pittsburgh has had a handful of mayors who wouldn't qualify for AARP benefits. Tom Murphy was just shy of 50 when he took office in 1994. Pete Flaherty and his successor, Richard Caliguiri, were both in their mid-40s. In fact, both Dowd and Robinson have claimed the title "Nobody's Boy," which Flaherty first used as his slogan nearly 40 years ago.

But that sums up the strange state of Pittsburgh politics: We have young candidates running on slogans that are as old as they are. Because while the politicians may be youthful, the political culture is pretty decrepit.

Just ask Gloria Forouzan, who in the late 1990s co-founded the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (PUMP), which sought to give younger residents a voice at the table. "There's still a plethora of old people at the Democratic committee," she points out -- so if they want the party's endorsement, young candidates have to curry favor with older party members.

And there's another way of looking at this. What if the appearance of young candidates isn't a sign that the political system is open to change, after all? What if only young people are crazy enough to think they can change it?

Harris, Robinson and Acklin have never held elected office. Dowd has been on council for two years. Compared to politicians like city Councilor Doug Shields (age 54) and Michael Lamb (age 46), they have much less to lose. For a more established politician, losing badly enough may also mean a loss of political credibility. And running at all could trigger political reprisals that hurt their constituents.

So maybe all that separates this crop of campaigners is ... they aren't old enough to know better.

Still, I'm hoping it's not as bad as all that. A generational shift has almost certainly occurred, if only because it's hard to think of anyone over the age of 60 who does have the political stature to run for mayor. (State auditor general Jack Wagner? He's got bigger fish to fry. Former Alcoa head Paul O'Neill? Sorry, but "former Bush administration official" isn't what voters are looking for in a résumé these days.)

Could it be that Pittsburgh -- Pittsburgh! -- doesn't have a single prominent senior in local politics? Maybe Forouzan should start a campaign to get more old people in office.

"That'll be the day," she says. The work PUMP started won't really be done, she adds, until city council and other assemblies are more representative -- of young people and everyone else.

It would be even better if identity politics were the beginning of that discussion, rather than the end. Local politics can be so hidebound that just electing a different kind of face -- young, female, black, gay, whatever -- seems like a triumph. But as we've learned, it's not always so. I know people who've worked alongside Forouzan for a decade, hoping to see more young people at the table. Yet they're the ones most likely to deride Ravenstahl as the city's Youngest Living Old Boy, the Eddie Haskell of local politics.

"I don't think we're at that tipping point" where diversity of candidates actually has an impact on policy, Forouzan acknowledges. "But I think we're inching there painfully."

By the time it happens, though, all these young Democrats may have gotten old.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this column misidentified the position held by auditor general Jack Wagner.)

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