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8 Lessons From Luke Ravenstahl

Growth and success mark the tenure of Pittsburgh’s unlikely mayor, as do controversy and tension. Now, as Ravenstahl leaves office, what have we learned?




Illustration by Evette Gabriel
 

 

Sitting with Luke Ravenstahl seven years ago in the living room of his Summer Hill home, it was hard not to feel optimistic about him, and his city. After one month as Pittsburgh’s mayor, he no longer had time to feed his fish or cut his own grass. But the former college football placekicker had trotted gamely onto the field of executive-level political office. Locals admired his humble, graceful handling of predecessor Bob O’Connor’s death. The national media seized the youngest-big-city-mayor-ever storyline and contrasted it with Pittsburgh’s stodgy image.

Already, though, there were hints Ravenstahl wasn’t prepared for the uneven turf of celebrity.

“You can’t just run over the hill to the store and get a carton of milk,” the new mayor, then 26, told me. “I’m a lot more recognizable, and that’s probably what’s been the hardest.”

That didn’t get any easier. On March 1 of this year, Ravenstahl cited the job’s high profile as the chief reason for abandoning his re-election bid.

Had he stayed in the race, some analysts say, he might have won the pivotal Democratic primary despite a federal investigation of city government, private turmoil spurred in part by news of his divorce and a record featuring as many slip-ups as successes. Instead, a mayor who once braved the hot lights of the “Late Show with David Letterman” settled early into an uneasy twilight that makes his place in the city’s history hard to predict.

What made him so special?

“Just the fact that he was so young,” says Yarone Zober, the mayor’s chief of staff. “And beginning a tenure as mayor where he was leading a city that was known up to that point nationally and internationally as a smoky, rust-belt, frankly dying city. To many across the city and the country, he was seen, I think, as a symbol of hope and a symbol of new possibilities.”

What made him so maddening?

“At first, he was like the prince [who] took over from the king,” says Guy Costa, director of the Department of Public Works until late 2009. And later? “It was like going back to old-time politics, letting people get away with whatever they could.”

This year, Ravenstahl’s police chief, Nate Harper, resigned and was indicted in federal court. The mayor’s public and private affairs attracted the FBI’s interest. Regardless of how the federal probe ends, it’s likely that city politics for years to come will be informed by the lessons of Luke.

 

Lesson 1: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

 

I was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s city government reporter for the first half of Ravenstahl’s tenure and the federal court reporter — part of a team covering the investigation — during the denouement. In the early days, I had near-daily access to the mayor as he tried to continue the drives O’Connor launched and add his own stamp to city government. Since March, however, reporters have had very little access to Ravenstahl. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story.

Traditionally, Pittsburgh elects mayors who have served multiple terms on council or in another office and have run in at least one citywide race. Tom Murphy, who served from 1994 through 2005, was a state legislator who won the mayor’s office on his second try. O’Connor, a council veteran, seized the crown on his third try.

Ravenstahl, on the other hand, served fewer than three years on council, including seven months as its president, before O’Connor fell ill. O’Connor’s two-month struggle with brain cancer before his death in September 2006 gave Ravenstahl little time to prepare.

“He had to ask himself many times, ‘Is this something I’m willing to do?’” says Zober. “This was not a position he had anticipated taking on, particularly not in such an early stage [of] his political career, and [of] his life.”

The evening of O’Connor’s death, Zober walked across the City-County Building’s fifth-floor lobby from the mayor’s suite to council offices and handed Ravenstahl a blue folder containing a letter asking him to accept the post. The new mayor’s face, as cameras and reporters watched him reach for the folder, was a taut weave of determination and terror.

“Any interested party that got in bed with him, politically speaking, ended up with egg on their face.”  — Doug Shields, former City Council President

During his first six months in the office, Ravenstahl sought to step into O’Connor’s shoes and simultaneously hit his own stride. He participated in negotiations sealing the deal for the Consol Energy Center, launched a revamp of Market Square and implemented tax abatements for new housing. He created the 311 help line, started a Women’s Commission, pushed for more diversity throughout city government and publicly proposed (with then-city schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt) the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program.

“He is an amazing risk-taker, and in politics, that’s pretty hard to come by,” says Zober. Exhibit A: The public announcement of The Pittsburgh Promise at a time when no funding was available for it. “When Superintendent Roosevelt and Mayor Ravenstahl stood up and announced it together as this great dream, The Pittsburgh Promise, many mocked it … [Ravenstahl and Roosevelt] knew that in order to make that happen, you had to discuss it publicly.”

Accepting the G-20 Summit in 2009 was a dice roll as well; it meant preparing for protests, fronting millions of dollars for costs and placing much of the city under virtual martial law for two days. Pledging not to add to the city’s debt was another crapshoot. Both paid off.

“Bold means holding lines on taxes, even at a time when you could use more revenue,” says Zober. “Bold means not borrowing any more money, [the way] prior administrations did.”

Bold also meant trying to privatize parking in the city and tax tuition. Both of those bids crapped out. Were those moves too audacious?

“I don’t think so,” says Zober, who recognizes that politics can be a now-or-never game. “Ultimately, you’re only able to serve in these positions for so long.”

 

Lesson 2: A Mayor’s Life Is Not His Own

 

During Ravenstahl’s second six months as mayor, he seemed to want to be anywhere but in the city’s corner office. He jetted to New York with Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle hours after he and other officials sealed the arena deal. He attended, as a guest of the Penguins and UPMC, the two-day Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational golf tournament, rather than stay close to a contentious public hearing concerning his promotion of three police officers accused of domestic abuse. He took a GMC Yukon the city bought with Homeland Security funds to a Toby Keith concert.

Painted as immature, he sometimes had tantrums.

“I understand I’m being held to a higher standard. But at the same time, I’m going to continue to be who I am because that’s the only way I know to be,” he told a campaign forum of executive women hours after news of the Yukon excursion broke. He pledged he’d learn from mistakes. “But at the end of the day, I’m still going to continue to be who I’m going to be, and go to concerts like I always have, and go to have a drink with my wife in bars. That’s what 27-year-olds do, and I shouldn’t be any different.”

He kept that particular promise — except the part about his wife, Erin, with whom he separated shortly after his 2009 re-election. She divorced him in 2011.

“Mr. Ravenstahl evolved into a very hands-off mayor with a penchant for playing golf and providing himself with other entertainments,” says Doug Shields, who was city council’s president and the mayor’s frequent foil for five years.

As one adviser to the mayor recently said, “He spent too much time on the South Side and not enough time at work.”

Ravenstahl never got used to the idea that city residents would want regular updates through the media about his whereabouts and activities. At times, he refused to name the neighborhood in which he was living. Zober says Ravenstahl felt he was scrutinized far more intensely than county or state officials, or mayors of other cities, perhaps because of his youth.

In February 2010, 10 days after he found himself snowbound at his Seven Springs birthday party while a near-record snowfall paralyzed the city, Ravenstahl told a room full of reporters he didn’t have “a responsibility to tell you where I am every second of the day.” Cameras rolling, he asked the assembled press corps whether they were going to ask what color underwear he wore.

It was the political version of punching out a paper-towel dispenser.

 

Lesson 3: Keep Your Friends Close — and Your Council Members Closer

 

In the political world, where grown men use tools — rumors, slights, shifting alliances, lists of enemies — left by most of us on the middle-school playground, it’s nearly impossible to avoid dust-ups. Successful mayors, though, rarely fail to persuade a majority of council members to vote for important legislation.

At the end of 2007, Ravenstahl had a resounding electoral win under his belt. One-third of council’s membership, however, had changed; two of his allies, Len Bodack Jr. and Jeff Koch, were among the vanquished. Ravenstahl’s administration tried to convince council members to pick a mayor-friendly president, rather than Shields or Bill Peduto, with whom the mayor had sparred since taking office. It looked as if the swing vote would be the freshly elected Patrick Dowd, who had defeated Bodack.

Ravenstahl, Zober and other administration allies lobbied Dowd into the night in the run-up to the vote. Dowd decided to back Shields.

“For some reason, I thought I should call the mayor and tell him personally,” said Dowd. “In his living room, I explained that I needed to vote for Doug … As I left, Luke told me [Bodack] had come to him asking for a job, and he wondered if I would have an issue with him going over to [the] Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.” Dowd suggested the hire would make the mayor and the authority look bad. The water authority, with its mayor-appointed board, hired Bodack anyway.

Ravenstahl never developed a relationship with Dowd, who ran against the mayor in the 2009 Democratic primary. For four pivotal years, the mayor was unable to build a consistent council majority.

The administration often accused Shields, Peduto or Dowd (who resigned in July to join a nonprofit group) of playing politics. Ravenstahl, notes Zober, “became mayor and the following year had to run for office. There were people in council who wanted that office.”

Murphy, though, overcame council insurgents to win majorities on tough votes, including the one — brokered by Shields — in favor of a tough fiscal recovery plan. By contrast, Ravenstahl’s 2010 bid to solve the city’s pension shortfall by leasing parking meters and garages to a private firm garnered just one council member’s yes vote. A sweetened offer got two.

The firms that would have underwritten the deal and operated the parking system “were stunned,” says Shields. The administration had assured them they “had six, maybe seven, votes to approve the lease.”

 

Lesson 4: Friends Come and Go, But Spurned Former Staffers Accumulate

 

Usually, a new mayor sweeps out most of the old mayor’s crew and establishes his own. When Ravenstahl took over, that had just happened under O’Connor, and the young prince came in with no ready-made inner circle of his own.

The result: a sputtering transition that never seemed to end. Seven years in, some departments and bureaus were being led by acting directors — rather than permanent heads who would have carried stronger mandates.

Ravenstahl kicked off his reconstruction of the mayor’s office in 2006 when he sought to promote O’Connor’s right-hand man, Dennis Regan, from operations director to public safety director. But Regan was accused of meddling in internal police affairs; though he denied the allegation, he resigned under pressure. Some O’Connor loyalists never trusted Ravenstahl again.

Pat Ford, another former O’Connor staffer, took the city’s top development job, replacing a holdover from Murphy’s administration and becoming director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. He was upended in a controversy over a contract for a digital sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center. In his August 2008 resignation letter, Ford accused the administration of “a culture of deception and corruption.” A federal grand jury looked into Ford’s accusations, but no indictment came of it.

“The guy made a lot of mistakes, I guess, but overall, I think his legacy is going to be strong.” — Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital Developer

Sometimes, Ravenstahl’s second choices worked out much better than his first. Former fire chief Mike Huss took the top public safety job and held it from the G-20 Summit through Harper’s indictment and down the administration’s rocky home stretch. The URA job went to Rob Stephany, who applied citywide what he learned in his previous job engineering East Liberty’s rebirth. Turnover, though, can hurt: A politician’s most dangerous enemies are often disgruntled former employees.

Costa, the DPW head, says he retired because the mayor thwarted his efforts to discipline some of his staff members, and those at the top ignored ideas he sent up the chain of command.

“When I left, I never got a phone call from the mayor saying thanks or good luck,” Costa says. “It’s not only me; it’s other directors as well.”

This year, Costa signed on as campaign manager for Peduto, the mayor’s nemesis, in the Democratic mayoral primary. A Ravenstahl-controlled campaign committee ran ads aimed at torpedoing Peduto, and most of the mayor’s backers swung to candidate Jack Wagner, the former state auditor general.

Peduto won anyway.

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” Costa says, “it felt good.”

 

Lesson 5: Mistakes Can Be Opportunities — or Just Mistakes

 

When preservationists heard that Ravenstahl wanted to ramp up demolition of condemned structures — regardless of the buildings’ historic significance — they worried they were headed for the kind of bruising battle they’d fought when Murphy sought to tear down swaths of downtown.

The opposite proved true.

“We started out discussing their program to demolish houses. We didn’t want that to occur in historic neighborhoods,” says Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation president Arthur Ziegler. Those talks evolved into a partnership in which the city landed state funds, earmarked them for preservation and contracted with Ziegler’s foundation to administer redevelopment. “I would call that a unique commitment to historic preservation,” Ziegler says.

How involved was Ravenstahl? “I wouldn’t say engaged in the details, no,” Ziegler says. “He certainly was interested in the concepts, and he showed up publicly when appropriate.”

Unfortunately, Ravenstahl didn’t always handle disagreements that gracefully.

In 2007, after he promoted three police bureau members who had been accused of domestic abuse, advocates for women saw an affront — but also an opportunity to work with a young mayor they hoped would jump at the chance to forge alliances.

“I would have assumed that this young, Democratic mayor would share all of our political ideologies regarding civil and equal rights for women, minorities, workers and the environment,” wrote Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation, in response to questions for this article. “However, throughout each legislative process, we witnessed the mayor balancing his own inexperience and youthful enthusiasm with the strong arms (and opinions) of those who had political power and influence over him.”

The police promotions, for instance, were never reversed, partly because the Fraternal Order of Police vowed to fight any such move in court. Ravenstahl backed new rules for handling domestic-violence accusations against city employees, including police.

But rather than attend or even monitor a packed public hearing on the legislation, the mayor went golfing.

Later efforts by advocates to work with the administration on issues of diversity and pay equity ended in more frustration. The mayor, says Arnet, “would only come to work with us on the implementation of these efforts once his advisers were convinced that he — and he alone — could benefit the most from the legislation or action politically. This was a cynical position to be driving such a young person.

At the end of the day, it was about who ‘won’ and who ‘lost’ [the] game of political tug of war.”

 

Lesson 6: It Takes a Personal Touch

 

Where O’Connor could hardly walk a city block without being roped into a dozen conversations, his young successor would often brush by constituents with a nod or a quick handshake.

“People want their elected officials to be honest and sincere and real, but there’s also a political side to it — known as glad-handing or back-slapping — that comes with the job,” says Zober. “Even though he has a great deal of love in his heart for the people of Pittsburgh, it’s not his natural inclination to walk up and down the street and kiss every baby.”

He seemed to have the right temperament, though, for sealing deals.

Some five years ago, as the national economy headed into a tailspin, The Mosites Co. made a push to land one of a handful of new stores planned by Target. Ravenstahl “met with Target face-to-face in his office, which really changed the course of that project,” Steven Mosites Jr. said in response to questions for this article.

The mayor, says Mark Minnerly, director of real-estate development for The Mosites Co., brought to the table “a very simple set of statements about what the city would do and what the city expected Target to do.” He also displayed “an interesting mix of confidence and humility.”

Target picked Pittsburgh.

At the Target ribbon-cutting, says Minnerly, the mayor “said, ‘My son loves the Target [slushies,] and now we don’t need to leave the city to get one.’”

The takeaway, to Minnerly: “Here’s the mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, and he’s a very real person.”

“The mayor made a good appearance. He was a young mayor. He’d go to the White House, host the G-20, all of that,” says developer Todd Reidbord of Walnut Capital, who has served on the City Planning Commission throughout Ravenstahl’s tenure. “We now have national firms investing in Pittsburgh, outside capital.

“It’s so easy to bash him — and rightfully so in some respects. The guy made a lot of mistakes, I guess, but overall, I think his legacy is going to be strong.”

 

Lesson 7: Don’t Disturb the Nonprofit Bear

 

The December 2007 announcement that UPMC would take the lead role in underwriting the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program could have been the kickoff to an enduring partnership between the Ravenstahl administration, the schools and the area’s biggest employer. It might have even provided a framework for philanthropic collaboration with city government for years to come, addressing one of the city’s most persistent disconnects.

The medical system’s $100 million pledge initially appeared to have no strings attached. But not long after it was unveiled, Ravenstahl submitted legislation to council that would have allowed UPMC to take a credit against the Promise if it were ever obliged to pay taxes. Because the provision came as a surprise to city council, members loudly rejected it. UPMC the philanthropist suddenly saw itself painted as an opportunist, largely because the Ravenstahl administration didn’t lay groundwork for the bill.

“I found it notable that any interested party that got in bed with him, politically speaking, ended up with egg on their face,” says Shields, a critic of the credit against future taxes.

A 2009 proposal to tax college tuition couldn’t win a majority vote and alienated university leaders. The schools helped Ravenstahl save face by joining a panel of legislators, nonprofit and business executives, labor leaders and students that sought to build support for a solution to the city’s pension shortfall.

Relations between the administration and UPMC never healed completely. The health care giant stopped backing a consortium of nonprofits that contributed funds to the city. That consortium’s donations to the general fund slowed to almost nothing in 2009 and 2010 before rebounding to $3.5 million in 2011. This year, Ravenstahl announced a lawsuit challenging UPMC’s tax exemption. The medical system counter-sued, accusing the city of violating its constitutional rights.

 

Lesson 8: It Takes More Than a Symbol to Lead a City

 

In June 2007, the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service flew Ravenstahl to Little Rock as a speaker at its Faces of the Future lecture series. Not far from the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, spurred in part by audience questions, the mayor compared his life to that of the former president.

Nobody in the crowd found that the least bit ridiculous.

Even as late as 2011, Ravenstahl was touted nationally as a face of youthful public service. At Harvard University, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the youngest president ever elected, handed Ravenstahl the New Frontier Award for public service by a young person.

Fifteen months later, Ravenstahl seemed a much older man in an interview for a Post-Gazette story about accusations made by his former security detail member Fred Crawford Jr. The former detective had said the mayor knew that a series of debit cards were tied to an unauthorized credit union account fueled by misdirected funds. Crawford also described a mayor who frequently used his bodyguards, city car and prestigious office to pursue good times deep into the night.

The mayor denied virtually all of Crawford’s account. But he didn’t show the kind of fire he did when, say, he was accused of misusing the tricked-out SUV or jumping in Burkle’s plane. His head hung. He rubbed his eyes. He spoke carefully. His decision not to run came a week later. He didn’t blame Crawford, the federal investigation or sagging poll numbers. (Zober notes the mayor’s favorability rating remained above 40 percent.) He attributed the decision to public scrutiny and the toll it took on those closest to him.

Ravenstahl did not publicly explore the reasons for the media’s, and presumably the public’s, intense interest in him. He made it clear, as he had publicly and privately before, that he thought it was unfair and driven by “nasty and vicious” politics.

But was it driven just as much by the complex relationship between the symbol and the man? Ravenstahl wasn’t a prince. He wasn’t the next Bill Clinton. He wasn’t the model for 20-something or 30-something public service.

He was a young man promoted before he’d really learned his job, before he had really come to know himself. Like a parent, the city clad him in its own regrets and memories, pushing him to be all it had once been — or perhaps had never been. And like many an overburdened first son, the pressure drove him. It also bent him and, yes, aged him.


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