Young Pittsburgh mayor faces youthful independent opponents

by Ramit Plushnick-Masti

PITTSBURGH (AP)—The son of an ex-convict and the son of a Super Bowl Hall of Famer are challenging Pittsburgh’s mayor in next month’s general election. And with all three men between the ages of 29 and 33, the race has the perfect ingredients for a robust, engaging political contest.

Or maybe not.


The race between incumbent Democrat Luke Ravenstahl, 29, and challengers Kevin Acklin, 33, and Franco “Dok” Harris, 30, both independents, has been marked by little visible campaigning and virtually no interest from the public. Even the relatively youthful age and appearance of the candidates in a city with one of the oldest populations in the country is doing little to generate excitement.

“We spent two days focusing on a boy that wasn’t even in a balloon and we don’t see anything about things that really hit people,” said Harris, referring to the 6-year-old Colorado boy involved in what police say was a hoax that recently captivated millions live on TV.

“The mindset is that this race doesn’t matter, your vote doesn’t matter, just sit at home, and that’s really scary,” said Harris, son of Steelers great Franco Harris, who works for his father’s nutritious baked goods company.

For Pittsburgh, however, the stakes in the Nov. 3 election couldn’t be higher.

•Ravenstahl inherited the job from his predecessor when he died of brain cancer just months into his first year in office. The former college football star is running for his first full term.

•The city is considered financially distressed by the state. While it is operating in surplus at the moment, economists say it is not sustainable, especially since only 30 percent of city pensions are funded, one of the worst situations nationwide for a large metropolitan area.

•Pittsburgh has, so far, weathered the recession relatively well, but recent numbers show unemployment is rising and a city that never enjoyed the boom cannot afford to bust.

•The region has made progress in replacing its once powerful steel industry with a diverse economy that includes education, health care and a variety of “green” businesses—as was noted extensively in September when Pittsburgh hosted the Group of 20 global economic summit. However, Pittsburgh has to work hard to remain competitive.

Despite these and other long-term issues, including a decreasing and rapidly aging population, some residents say they won’t vote.

“I don’t care because every time you vote, everything stays the same,” said Preston Harris, a 63-year-old retired construction worker who said he is looking for a job to supplement his income and can’t find one. Ravenstahl doesn’t care about the “common people,” he says, “but there’s no one different.”

Kerry Donahue, a 27-year-old who works in marketing and lives in the city’s Friendship neighborhood, plans to vote but thinks Ravenstahl will win easily.

“People in Pittsburgh are going to vote Democrat regardless,” said Donahue, who declined to say who she supports.

A slew of positive media attention generated by the G-20 summit helps. And Pittsburgh also hasn’t elected a GOP mayor since the Great Depression; registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-to-1.

Splitting the opposition vote also makes it easier for the incumbent, said Joseph Sabino Mistick, a Duquesne law professor and top aide to former Mayor Sophie Masloff. “I don’t think we’re going to be overrun with voters who are excited about visiting the polls,” he said.

Still, Harris and Acklin have been campaigning door-to-door in some of the city’s most hardscrabble areas, hoping votes from disadvantaged communities will help oust Ravenstahl. Many are the same communities, though, that helped Ravenstahl win the Democratic primary in May.

The three candidates are also running TV ads. One of Ravenstahl’s shows the mayor driving around the city, talking about its recent successes and stressing his efforts to put more police on the streets and create jobs.

Harris and Acklin are also focusing on safety issues, the public school system— which has long struggled with declining enrollment and plummeting standards— job creation and the city’s finances.

Acklin, an attorney, draws inspiration from his childhood, when his mother struggled to raise him and his siblings while his father was in prison for armed robbery.

“There are four to five neighborhoods that are bearing their unfair share of violent crimes,” he added, noting that when he campaigned in the Garfield neighborhood a 13-year-old boy answered the door with a wad of cash in his hand because he thought Acklin was there to buy drugs.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board, which has often criticized Ravenstahl and backed City Council member Patrick Dowd in the May Democratic primary, endorsed the incumbent this time. The newspaper cited a “weak field of candidates” and what they called the mayor’s ability to surround himself with capable people.

The three candidates have had two televised debates, the most recent of which turned contentious after Acklin accused Ravenstahl of having inappropriate ties to a powerful local businessman. Ravenstahl denied any improprieties.

Ravenstahl declined to be interviewed for this story, the first time he has turned down such a request in recent years. Campaign manager Paul McKrell declined to give a reason, saying, “I didn’t ask.”

The mayor’s opponents say the residents they are talking to have similar concerns: Ravenstahl only shows up in hard-hit areas when TV cameras are around, more needs to be done to attract jobs and there is too much old-school politicking in the current administration.

“I don’t doubt that the challengers are hearing a lot of unhappiness about the current administration,” Mistick said. “I think there is a lot of unhappiness. But that is a long way from turning an incumbent out.”


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