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Pittsburgh gets 26-year-old mayor

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/09/us/09mayor.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&th&emc=th Baby-Faced Mayor Takes Over an Aging Pittsburgh Article Tools Sponsored By By IAN
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 9, 2006
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/09/us/09mayor.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&th&emc=th

      Baby-Faced Mayor Takes Over an Aging Pittsburgh

      Article Tools Sponsored By
      By IAN URBINA
      Published: September 9, 2006

      PITTSBURGH, Sept. 7 — At 26, many people haven’t 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 O’Connor, died of a brain
      tumor.

      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
      weighty.

      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.
      O’Connor was buried?

      “I guess I’m 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
      been mandated.

      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 city’s 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 wouldn’t
      know what a tailgate party was if he got invited to
      one, O’Connor was the guy throwing the tailgate party,
      wearing the chef’s hat, and Ravenstahl is the guy
      nursing a beer in the corner and trying to decide
      whether it’s safe to double dip that chip,” said Sean
      Cannon, a political writer for Carbolic Smoke Ball, a
      satirical Web site and the city’s equivalent of The
      Onion.

      Asked if he is nervous, Mr. Ravenstahl looked at his
      Steelers jersey before offering an impish grin.

      “He’s 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. Ravenstahl’s 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 city’s economy.

      “The rap on Allegheny County, where we are located, is
      that it’s 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. O’Connor 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 “Let’s
      Redd Up Pittsburgh” — a campaign intended to
      straighten up (or, in Pittsburghese, “Readying up”)
      the city.

      Mr. O’Connor’s 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 Baseball’s 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.
      “He’d be a fool not to use O’Connor’s 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 city’s lawyers have said that,
      according to the city charter, Mayor Ravenstahl’s 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 mayor’s office after Mr. O’Connor died,
      said he intended to run, regardless of when the
      election was held.

      Fate has played a role more than once in Mr.
      Ravenstahl’s political rise.

      Last December, after rival City Council factions
      deadlocked over who should be president, Mr.
      Ravenstahl emerged as the compromise candidate,
      becoming the city’s youngest council president ever.
      That put him in line to succeed Mr. O’Connor.

      In 2003, Mr. Ravenstahl cashed in on his family’s
      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 city’s North Side in Observatory
      Hill, a neighborhood of firefighters and police
      officers, Mr. Ravenstahl attended one of the area’s
      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 doesn’t make the same mistake
      twice,” said John Banaszak, a former Steelers
      defensive lineman who coached Mr. Ravenstahl in
      college.

      Mr. Banaszak recounted a game early in Mr.
      Ravenstahl’s 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. Ravenstahl’s age
      would dissipate once the city saw his work ethic.

      “Luke’s age will come up,’’ Mr. Motznik said, “but you
      will see it’s 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
      conference said.

      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 that’s 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. O’Connor’s name off the
      double-glass doors to the mayor’s office and began
      painting on Mr. Ravenstahl’s — 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. “He’ll
      be all right, but he’s going to need a cool hand to
      get through this.”

      Sean Hamill contributed reporting.
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