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Game On! The Once and Future Mayoral Race

Pittsburgh City SkylineIt often comes as a real surprise, but the future does offer a clear choice every once in a long while. This year’s Democratic Mayoral Primary Election appears to be just one of those times.

Before he decided to bow out the conventional wisdom held that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would best his then two declared opponents in the Democratic Primary and, as nominees of that party generally do, cruise on to reelection in November.

Until that time, the past election that best served as a model for this contest was probably the 2005 Primary. As was expected to be the case this year, that was also a three person race in which Mike Lamb and Bill Peduto, Ravenstahl’s then opponents, faced Bob O’Connor, who, having run twice before, largely played the role of de facto incumbent. Turnout for that election was 58,843 votes (36 percent of registered Democrats). In that contest, Lamb received 22 percent of the vote, finishing first or second in 197 voting precincts situated within 24 wards, while Peduto obtained 24 percent of the vote, placing first or second in 199 voting precincts located within 29 wards. Very close, indeed.

Well, so much for that scenario.

The sudden and unanticipated absence of the incumbent from the fray resulted in a vacuum that was quickly filled by up to seven additional, and equally unanticipated, would be contenders, all scrambling to get their names on the ballot. With a far greater field of candidates expected, the new model for this election seemed to become the 1989 Primary. This is the last time that there was an election with six contestants. Welcome to the Roller Coaster.

In that case turnout was 110,558 votes (61 percent of registered Democrats) and Sophie Masloff, the only woman in the race, prevailed with a mere 30,481 votes (28 percent). This is an identical percentage of the vote that was obtained by City Councilman Patrick Dowd in the 2009 Primary and one percent more than Jack Wagner received in the 1993 Primary. As indicated above, it is also only a few percentage points more than were received by both Michael Lamb and Bill Peduto in the 2005 Primary. In addition, in 1989 itself Masloff was followed by four other candidates each of whom drew souble digit percentages of the vote. These were Tom Murphy, who received 23 percent, Frank Lucchino with 21 percent, Byrd Brown obtaining 15 percent and Tom Flaherty accruing 14 percent of the vote, respectively.

These figures only further demonstrate the fluidity of such a multi-candidate election, and, consequently, the far lower number of votes that would be needed for a candidate to triumph in such a situation. In that respect, this years race might well have proved to be its’ equivalent if things had just remained static. However, as we now know, that was not to be the case.

Take three.

No sooner had the final date for filing nominating petitions in order to place their names on the ballot arrived than the situation began to transmute yet again. The last minute determinations to not run made by State Senator Wayne Fontana and County Councilman Bill Robinson, as well as State Senator Jim Ferlo’s and City Council President Darlene Harris’s subsequent decisions to pull out of the race only served to illustrate how unpredictable the situation remained. Finally, Michael Lamb’s choice to remove himself from consideration further roiled the state of affairs.

The resulting situation with four residual candidates might be more reminiscent of the 1997 Primary in which Tom Murphy and Bob O’Connor faced off against each other for the first time. This race offered a real contrast and choice with first term Mayor Murphy and O’Connor, in his first attempt at resting the office, receiving 54 percent and 42 percent of the vote, respectively. A third candidate, Chaston Roston rounded out the field with 5 percent of the vote. Turnout for this election was 66,730 votes (40 percent of registered Democrats).

This election perfectly illustrated the need for a successful mayoral candidate to be able to stitch together a far broader winning coalition across diverse geographical regions. There could be no victory with a small plurality of the vote under these circumstances, a situation reflected in the current contest.

So, what happens now?

We now bear witness to a bit more drama as the actual contest winds down. However, we also have a far better, although by no means yet definitive, view of how this performance will culminate. At the very least we can outline some of the strengths and weaknesses that each of the remaining candidates have brought to the arena. Here’s the lineup.

Bill Peduto:

City Councilman Bill Peduto has been running for Mayor longer than anyone else in the race. He enjoys strong support from progressive voters in his East End district and the departure of Michael Lamb and Jim Ferlo, along with the endorsement of City Councilman Patrick Dowd, should allow him to consolidate that element of the electorate. Ferlo’s exit from the contest should also help eliminate any lingering competition for support in Peduto’s geographic base. In addition, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s backing has offered Peduto greater access to financial contributors and the support of organized labor. This may prove to have been of particular importance now that both Peduto and Wagner are no longer constrained by the City Campaign Finance Statute.

Over the past years Peduto has offered support and resources to candidates for Mayor, City Council and State House. Several of these victorious officials, as well as State Senator Wayne Fontana, have reciprocated by offering their endorsements of his candidacy. It can be assumed that a cornerstone of Peduto’s campaign was to always seek votes beyond the geographical limits of his council district by accumulating lists of progressive and African American voters who supported the candidates that he backed in these districts. Ironically, while relying upon such a plan in the three person race with an incumbent in which he first found himself embroiled may have been a flawed approach, the subsequent, but fleeting, larger field of candidates might have fractured the vote enough to make it a far more viable strategy. However, the now radically narrowed number of candidates probably places Peduto back at square one on that count.

Four initial polls, including one of his own, showed Peduto’s support to be stalled at around a 30 percent plurality of the vote, the same amount that he had enjoyed for well over a year and largely concentrated in his East End base and among progressive voters. While this is a substantial amount in the multi-candidate field that existed for a brief time, Peduto still faced the additional burden of preventing Ravenstahl’s unmoored supporters in the senior, working class, South Hills and African American communities from coalescing around either Lamb or Jack Wagner, an event that appeared to be occurring as these polls showed Wagner’s support at 40 percent. This presented the Peduto campaign with its’ second great irony. While during the first Mayoral debate Peduto had indicated that he would like to see Lamb exit the race, Wagner’s sudden presence made it critical to his chances that Lamb stay in the race in order to divide any geographic and ideological support that might otherwise accrue to Wagner. Lamb’s departure seemed to end that hope. However, subsequent independent polls indicated that the race had first narrowed to a statistical dead heat and then had Peduto pulling ahead by between 7 and 9 percent. That said, it should be noted that neither candidate has released results from their own recent polls either confirming or refuting these numbers.

In addition, having badly lost the Democratic endorsement against Ravenstahl during his abortive run in 2007 and fearing a repeat of that embarrassment, Peduto shied away from entering that contest this year, cautiously ceding it to Lamb in the wake of Ravenstahl’s departure. Consequently, several prominent committee officers had to resign their positions in order to support his candidacy. Lamb’s exit, and the fact that the election has proceeded with no endorsed candidate, made these resignations unnecessary and the issue of endorsement moot.

Finally, Peduto has spent years defining himself and his campaign as “not being Luke Ravenstahl”. As Peduto himself conceded at a second debate, with the mayor out of the race and subsequently faced by a single real alternative, he could no longer take this route and would have to find and focus upon other selling points for his candidacy. In a final irony Ravenstahl’s weighing in by running ads against Peduto has allowed his campaign to cling to that strategy by attempting to morph Jack Wagner into the mayor.

Jack Wagner:

A former City Councilman, State Senator, Auditor General and candidate for mayor, lt. governor and governor, Jack Wagner brings considerable experience, gravitas and name recognition to this race. He has shown the ability to obtain considerable support from organized labor, somewhat of a vacuum since Ravenstahl exited the race.

A resident of the South Hills and conservative Democrat, Wagner has his own built in geographic base as well as ideological support from both senior and working class voters. The absence of Ravenstahl and the exit of and simultaneous endorsement by Michael Lamb, as well as the support offered by State Representatives Dan Deasy and Harry Readshaw and City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, may have only helped to solidify those bases. With the additional endorsement of Darlene Harris and no other North Side candidate on the ballot, Wagner also has the potential to make real inroads in this region, particularly since he also has the support of Jim Ferlo who maintains close ties to North Side resident Luke Ravenstahl. Ferlo’s backing of his former City Council and State Senate colleague might also provide Wagner with some benefit in parts of his own East End base. Finally, the support of Councilman Ricky Burgess may allow Wagner to accrue some votes in the African American community. In short, with a real effort Wagner had the potential to draw support from a broad variety of constituencies and geographic areas.

If conventional wisdom is to be believed, until the mayor exited the race Wagner was planning on sitting out the Primary and facing Ravenstahl as an Independent candidate in November. This late start and sudden need to pivot may have left him at somewhat of a disadvantage in assembling a first rate campaign operation and putting together a comprehensive plan, a fact that may be very much in evidence on Election Day.

Jake Wheatley:

State Representative Jake Wheatley represents a large, although geographically limited part of the city. However, African Americans make up 26 percent of the population of Pittsburgh, a significant voting bloc although smaller than in many other urban areas and hardly monolithic, as is indicated by City Councilman Reverend Ricky Burgess’s endorsement of Jack Wagner and State Representative Ed Gainey’s and County Councilman Bill Robinson’s support of Bill Peduto. Nonetheless, past elections indicate that Wheatley has the potential to make significant inroads with that electorate throughout the city. Indeed Carmen Robinson drew 13 percent of the vote in the 2009 Primary and Byrd Brown received 15 percent in the 1989 Primary. The most recent independent polls have Wheatley with between 6 and 8 percent of the vote, an increase of as much as 3 points since the last previous such poll.

Wheatley could replicate these performances, becoming a major presence in the race and drawing much needed support from Bill Peduto, who has previously backed African American candidates for office and will be relying on votes from those districts to push him over the top. The Peduto campaigns effort to define a vote for Wheatley as a vote for Wagner only serves to emphasis this concern. Indeed, the sudden cash infusion of a $10,000 contribution from Ravenstahl’s PAC may afford Wheatley’s campaign the ability to make previously unanticipated inroads with voters. However, even if he does not reach these levels, Wheatley, as the candidate who has the ability to redirect support to another player, stands poised to become a prominent advocate for his constituents parlaying their support into a pivotal position in the race and playing post election role all out of proportion to the level of support that he receives.

A. J. Richardson:

The least known of the candidates, on the face of things Richardson appears to have been no real factor in the race. Nonetheless, with three candidates vying for votes any small impact, even the 1 percent of the vote that polls showRichardson receiving, could result in a ripple effect accruing to another aspirant. Witness the 2001 Primary, in which Tom Murphy and Bob O’Connor faced off against each other for the second time, receiving a plurality of 48 and 47 percent of the vote, respectively. Two other candidates each received 2 percent of the vote, denying either of those top two finishers a majority finish.


It was highly doubtful that voter turnout this year could ever have been anywhere near as high as it was in 1989. Nonetheless, as is shown above, an election with no incumbent assumed to be a foregone victor and field of contrasting candidates focused on mobilizing and turning out their own supporters could well result in a voter turnout far higher than in recent mayoral primary elections and certainly than was expected a mere few months ago. Indeed, it is now entirely possible that turnout could approach the 40 percent level seen in 1997, with 63,600 or more voters going to the polls.

Assuming that this is correct, either Jack Wagner or Bill Peduto will then need to earn over 31,800 votes in order to prevail. If they wish to build in a safe margin of victory by emulating the 54 percent of the vote received by Tom Murphy in the aforementioned 1997 Primary, they must strive to obtain more than 34,300 votes.

If Jake Wheatley and A. J. Richardson do indeed take 8 percent and 1 percent of the projected vote, respectively for a total of 5,730 votes, 57,936 votes are left to be divided between Peduto and Wagner. In that case, either would need more than 28,900 votes to claim victory. Again, a safety margin of 54 percent would require over 31,200 votes. The remaining question for each of these candidates becomes how to get there from here.

In past elections, either Bill Peduto or other elected officials who have endorsed his candidacy have prevailed in 243 voting precincts that are situated within 29 wards. Consequently, these are the precincts which should be targeted by the Peduto campaign. Using the highest performance of any of these candidates in each of these precincts indicates that Peduto could receive up to 22,800 of the projected 36,600 total votes that would be cast here. Under this scenario, Peduto would need to accumulate an additional 9,000 votes from the remaining 159 voting precincts in order to prevail. In order to reach the higher threshold of 54 percent, Peduto would need an additional 11,500 votes.

The 128 voting precincts situated in Council Districts 5, 7 and 8, those districts in Peduto’s geographic base, are projected to provide him with 14,700 (55 percent) of these votes. Wagner, on the other hand, could receive 11,900 (45 percent) votes from these precincts.

Likewise, there are 348 voting precincts that are located within all 32 wards in which Jack Wagner or other elected officials who support his effort have had electoral success. As with Peduto, these are the precincts upon which the Wagner operation should concentrate. Again, taking the highest performance by any of these candidates in each of these precincts shows that Wagner could receive as many as 35,800 of the projected 53,400 total votes that would be cast here. In this case, there are far more precincts accounted for than under Peduto’s situation. As such, if Wagner reaches his goals here he would already have 4,000 more votes than are necessary to win, pushing him beyond the 54 percent cushion. Any additional votes that Wagner would accrue from the far fewer remaining 54 voting precincts would merely add a greater cushion to his victory.

The 131 voting precincts that are located in Council Districts 2, 3 and 4 are situated in Wagner’s geographic base. It is thought that he might accrue 13,800 (66 percent) of these votes. Peduto could receive 7,100 (34 percent) votes from these precincts.

Council Districts 1, 6 and 9, with their 145 voting precincts, include the remaining areas that are not located in either Peduto’s nor Wagner’s home areas or have majority African American populations. They are also the areas that one of the last independent poll indicated were most up for grabs by either of the two major candidates, and belonged to Jake Wheatley’s base. As such, these precincts may play an outside role in deciding who will be the next mayor. Peduto stands to receive 7,300 (36 percent) votes in these precincts, as opposed to Wagner’s projected 13,200 (64 percent) votes.

As was noted at the start, and throughout all of its’ many permutations, there remains little certainty in this contest, other than that all bets are off and anything seems possible. The above projections are just that and the smallest detail or error, such as far lower than expected voter turnout or an extremely well organized Election Day operation, and all of the tedious work that goes into making that happen, could change everything making the difference between success and failure. Candidates playing in this new game ignore this at their peril, as does the local electorate. We once again live in interesting times and the future truly does offer real and clear choices. Election Day will tell the tale.


David Wassel is a lawyer and political consultant who lives in White Oak, PA outside of Pittsburgh. He had worked on campaigns for a variety of offices at all levels.

One Response

  1. given the low turnout, bringing out 15 more voters could tip the election. 🙂

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