Pittsburgh gets 26-year-old mayor
Baby-Faced Mayor Takes Over an Aging Pittsburgh
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By IAN URBINA
Published: September 9, 2006
PITTSBURGH, Sept. 7 At 26, many people havent even
decided on a career. Luke Ravenstahl is already the
mayor of Pittsburgh.
In the four short years since he left college, Mr.
Ravenstahl has mastered the art of being at the right
place at the right time, and last week he became the
youngest mayor of any major city in the country, after
the previous mayor, Bob OConnor, died of a brain
But now comes the hard part. As he strives to be taken
seriously and take charge of a city only recently back
from the brink of bankruptcy, the baby-faced Mr.
Ravenstahl said that even the smallest decisions felt
What to wear to the Steelers game? Stick with his
standard blue jeans and football jersey or don a
button-up polo and black slacks, setting a more
serious tone at his first public appearance since Mr.
OConnor was buried?
I guess Im taking it one decision, one day, at a
time, Mr. Ravenstahl said Thursday before heading to
the game, having chosen the awkward hybrid of football
jersey tucked neatly into pressed suit pants.
Mr. Ravenstahl is a young man taking over an old steel
town that has lost all its mills, nearly half its
population and much of its downtown commercial
district in the last several decades. Having just
ascended from being City Council president, he now
faces difficult contract negotiations with city
firefighters and has to draft a city budget with
approval from two state oversight bodies that have
Shy and business-minded, Mr. Ravenstahl, a Democrat
who said he averaged 12 Diet Pepsis a day, also
follows on the heels of one of the most popular and
gregarious politicians in the citys history.
Ravenstahl is a perfect storm of ambition, political
pedigree and luck, and it has taken him far, said
Morton Coleman, a professor of social work at the
University of Pittsburgh. But it has also left him
with a lot to prove.
For Mr. Ravenstahl, whose résumé consists largely of
playing football in college and working as an account
manager for a courier service, the first challenge may
be to loosen up.
With our mayors, Tom Murphy was the guy who wouldnt
know what a tailgate party was if he got invited to
one, OConnor was the guy throwing the tailgate party,
wearing the chefs hat, and Ravenstahl is the guy
nursing a beer in the corner and trying to decide
whether its safe to double dip that chip, said Sean
Cannon, a political writer for Carbolic Smoke Ball, a
satirical Web site and the citys equivalent of The
Asked if he is nervous, Mr. Ravenstahl looked at his
Steelers jersey before offering an impish grin.
Hes a young guy too, you know, Mr. Ravenstahl said,
pointing to the number 7 and referring to Ben
Roethlisberger, the 24-year-old Steelers star who last
year became the youngest quarterback to win a Super
Bowl ring. By his side, Mr. Ravenstahls press
secretary a white-haired man at least 30 years his
elder nodded quietly.
Mr. Ravenstahl, who got a $40,000 raise, to $94,157 a
year, by going to mayor from councilman, has yet to
develop an agenda of his own, but he is eager to
strengthen the citys economy.
The rap on Allegheny County, where we are located, is
that its the second-oldest county in the country,
he said. But Pittsburgh has 50,000 college students,
and our challenge is to figure out how to retain them
and to increase downtown development.
Mr. OConnor was known for taking weekly strolls
through different neighborhoods and chatting up
residents about potholes and the city budget. His face
is plastered on billboards everywhere that read Lets
Redd Up Pittsburgh a campaign intended to
straighten up (or, in Pittsburghese, Readying up)
Mr. OConnors brief tenure corresponded with a sense
of renewed hope in this city of 325,000. Shortly after
he took office in January, the Steelers won the Super
Bowl for the first time since 1979. Then, in July, the
city was the site of Major League Baseballs All-Star
Game, which attracted thousands of tourists.
The biggest problem with Luke right now is all the
uncertainty surrounding him, said Doug Shields, who
was elected the new City Council president on Tuesday.
Hed be a fool not to use OConnors playbook. At the
same time, he is going to need to establish himself as
his own man.
One of the biggest uncertainties is how long he will
remain in office. The citys lawyers have said that,
according to the city charter, Mayor Ravenstahls term
will not expire until November 2009.
Other lawyers, however, including the chairwoman of
the city Democratic committee, have argued that Mr.
Ravenstahl must face the electorate next year, and the
matter is likely to be decided by the courts. Mr.
Ravenstahl, who under the charter had the option to
turn down the mayors office after Mr. OConnor died,
said he intended to run, regardless of when the
election was held.
Fate has played a role more than once in Mr.
Ravenstahls political rise.
Last December, after rival City Council factions
deadlocked over who should be president, Mr.
Ravenstahl emerged as the compromise candidate,
becoming the citys youngest council president ever.
That put him in line to succeed Mr. OConnor.
In 2003, Mr. Ravenstahl cashed in on his familys
political name (his grandfather was a state
representative and his father is a widely known
district judge) and toppled a seasoned incumbent.
Growing up on the citys North Side in Observatory
Hill, a neighborhood of firefighters and police
officers, Mr. Ravenstahl attended one of the areas
most prestigious Roman Catholic high schools. He
graduated in 2002 from Washington & Jefferson College
in Washington, Pa., where he was a star kicker for the
football team. After college, he married (his wife,
Erin, is a beautician) and he worked for a courier
service before running for a City Council seat.
Luke is very mature and doesnt make the same mistake
twice, said John Banaszak, a former Steelers
defensive lineman who coached Mr. Ravenstahl in
Mr. Banaszak recounted a game early in Mr.
Ravenstahls career when he was told to kick a squib
kickoff toward the sideline in hope of keeping
possession, but instead he kicked it down the middle.
The opposing team recovered the ball and ran halfway
up the field with it.
I chewed him out, and he never disobeyed an
instruction the rest of his career, Mr. Banaszak
said, adding, I think he takes that same wisdom with
him in politics in that he knows when he is getting
good advice and he follows it.
Jim Motznik, a councilman and an ally of Mr.
Ravenstahl, said concerns about Mr. Ravenstahls age
would dissipate once the city saw his work ethic.
Lukes age will come up, Mr. Motznik said, but you
will see its just a temporary question. It came up
with the presidency role, but those questions went
away very quickly.
Mayors elsewhere have been younger. Jeff Dunkel was 18
in 2001 when he was elected mayor of Mount Carbon,
Pa., a borough of about 100 residents in Schuylkill
County. Small towns in New York, North Dakota and
elsewhere have also elected teenagers as mayors.
But, according to the United States Conference of
Mayors, Tallahassee, Fla., is the only other city with
a population over 100,000 that has had a mayor as
young as Mr. Ravenstahl Scott Maddox, who was 26
when he was elected in 1995. Detroit, Cleveland and
Dearborn, Mich., have had mayors who were 31, the
Mayor Ravenstahl said he was still coming to terms
with the challenge he faced.
Last night at the wake I was very emotional, he
said, and thats when it hit me that this is real. I
only then started to think that this was actually
happening and I will be leading the city.
[At City Hall, the mood remained somber. On Friday
city crews finally took Mr. OConnors name off the
double-glass doors to the mayors office and began
painting on Mr. Ravenstahls a move purposely
delayed until the day after the funeral, even though
Mr. Ravenstahl has officially been mayor for a week.]
At the Third Avenue Deli, a sandwich shop frequented
by City Hall regulars, the owner, Jimmy Cvetic, said
he was withholding judgment on Mr. Ravenstahl.
I call him Cool Hand Luke, Mr. Cvetic said. Hell
be all right, but hes going to need a cool hand to
get through this.
Sean Hamill contributed reporting.