In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans, 5-1, the outcome of a mayoral election might seem like a foregone conclusion. But in Pittsburgh this year, statistics can't tell the story.
Democratic Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Republican challenger Mark DeSantis take their battle to the ballot box today in a race that proves the adage "all politics is local."
Political pundits say DeSantis, the entreprenuer-cum-write-in-Republican candidate, poses the most serious threat to the Democratic throne in decades, collecting endorsements usually reserved for Democrats and making inroads in Pittsburgh's staunchly politically blue landscape.
In the city's history, says University of Pittsburgh political communications professor Jerry Shuster, "no Republican has done much more than get his or her name on the ballot or reach a point of credibility as a viable threat to the incumbent candidate. Mark DeSantis has done that."
Steel City's mayoral politics first made headlines this summer after the unexpected passing of Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor. Ravenstahl, the 26-year-old City Council president, was sworn in as O'Connor's successor, going down in the books as the youngest mayor in Pittsburgh history.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, describes Ravenstahl as "O'Connor's protégé" and likened the young mayor to a vice presidential pick.
"The president never expects the vice president to be president," Madonna said.
For the old steel town — facing economic hardship and an ever-diminishing populous — Ravenstahl's age seemed the youthful surge it needed to face changing times.
Local reports decorated the accidental mayor as a modern-day David against the city's political Goliath, lauding him as "charming," "honest," and "innocent."
Without a lengthy political record to attack, they turned to Ravenstahl's resume: football star, student body president, a family man from a political family. Ravenstahl's age and circumstance qualified him for the late-night circuit where he sang the praises of Pittsburgh.
"Celebrity took over," Madonna said, "It's not that he wasn't without time in politics, [it's] just that all of a sudden he's thrust into governing a city with deep-seated problems and he stumbles coming out of the box."
Beset by a series of minor ethics violations, the adjectives describing Ravenstahl's "innocence" quickly turned to "inexperience."
Susan Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, calls it "the cumulative effect."
"When Ravenstahl came in, when the former mayor died," Hansen said, "he was given the benefit of the doubt. Ravenstahl has, in some ways, acted like a kid and people aren't so willing anymore to say: 'Give the kid a chance.'"
Jim Burn, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Party, defends Ravenstahl, touting his vision as "refreshing."
"The mayor has been catching a lot of heat, more heat than he deserved," Burn said, attributing the DeSantis surge to the fact that Ravenstahl has had to make some unpopular decisions.
"It's not that the city was running smoothly," Burn said. "The mayor inherited a demanding post at a young age — when you factor everything in, he continues to grow and become an outstanding leader for this region."