Fineman: The Politics of Pittsburgh

My editor asked: why should anyone care about a political story from Pittsburgh? Well, for one, it is my glorious but beleaguered hometown, and I was visiting for a speech to a civic group. He knew, as political junkies do, that the mayor is an interesting accident: 27-year-old Luke Ravenstahl, who ascended from the city council after the death of the elected mayor. Master Luke is the youngest mayor of a major city in modern history. Hey, if nothing else, it got him on "Letterman."

OK, the editor said, and the story is ...? My answer: Ravenstahl's challenge, and Pittsburgh's, are emblematic of our national situation at this key moment. Politically, America also is glorious but beleaguered, maxed out on credit, despised in the world, not sure we are safe nearly six years after 9/11, distrusting of our president and Congress, convinced (if you believe the polls) that we're headed in the wrong direction.

What Pittsburgh and America need, above all, is vigorous, shrewd, knowledgeable and optimistic leadership. We need to unite community and country in common effort.  And—just a thought—perhaps we need to turn to the generation coming up after the baby boom.

Maybe I'm just a homer—isn't everybody, in one way or another? But if Pittsburgh can take the next step, so can the country; conversely, if this city fails, so does the country, at least in my mind.

I wish I could be a little more optimistic.

There are hopeful signs. Pittsburgh these days is, of all things, a college town—there's not a single steel mill within city limits. With 60,000 students, it has one of the highest academic concentrations in the country. The hospitals—research and otherwise—are among the best and busiest. The biotech industry is booming. At Carnegie Mellon University, they build robots; at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, they replace body parts. Eventually, I can only hope, these trends will merge, and a Pittsburgh-bred Superman will play linebacker for the Steelers. The parks, museums, libraries, concert halls, theaters, schools—all are first class, a legacy of civic pride and the philanthropy of Carnegie, Heinz, Frick, Schenley and others. The 88 neighborhoods are remarkably intact—a rarity.

The professional sports teams are world famous, of course. When a Steelers fan died not long ago, the funeral home laid him out for the viewing as per the family's request: dressed in black and gold, sitting a Barcalounger, an Iron City beer to one side, pack of cigarettes to the other, a Terrible Towel in his lap, the TV tuned to the game. Perfect.

But the quaint, the colorful and the collegiate go only so far. Most of the rest of the facts are sad. The city per se is only half the size is was a generation ago; locals predict the population count will fall below 300,000 after the next census, which would put the City of Champions below Toledo and Aurora, Colo. The city and surrounding county together have more than 2 million people, but that is less than the total of a generation ago. Pittsburgh remains the nation's 22nd largest metropolitan area, but of the top 50, only it and one other (Cleveland, of course) have lost population since the last census.

Most of the famous corporations that built Pittsburgh have left it—a story repeated across what used to be known as the rust belt. There are virtually no Latino immigrants here for one very good reason: there are no jobs for them to hold, and the ones that do exist are clung to tenaciously by families that have been here forever. Pittsburgh remains overwhelmingly white, and strongly pro-labor. Journalist Bill Steigerwald, a shrewd observer, says there are two faiths here: "Steelerism and Unionism."

From what I see as a kibitzer and sometime returnee, the real problem of this region is political. I've been around, and I've never seen a place more desperately in need of unified, inspirational, smart political leadership. The government structure is, to put it mildly, a mess: too many bureaucrats and elected officials doing not much. That is fine for the far-too-numerous officeholders, of course. We all have to "put bread on the table," as they say in Pittsburgh, but it's a nightmare for the region.

Beside the city, there are 129 other independent municipalities in surrounding Allegheny County. The mayor is in a constant tussle with the county, run by County Executive Dan Onorato. The county has the far bigger tax base, and greater access to state funds. The city and county are sharing 911 and purchasing services, but Ravenstahl and other city officials have little interest in giving up what power they have. A merger of city and county—a move made by many other regions—would extinguish Pittsburgh's "voice," Ravenstahl told me. "No one would pay attention to urban issues."

In fact, that city already has lost control of much of its own destiny. Facing bankruptcy, it had to be bailed out by the state. A state budget-control office shares space with the mayor—a telling bit of symbolism. Ravenstahl proudly told me that the bond market is once again willing to sell the city's bonds, though they are not highly rated. That is not surprising. Of the city's $430 million annual budget, $90 million goes to debt payments. Much power rests in the hands of Gov. (and former Philadelphia mayor) Ed Rendell. Though he is a Democrat, as are most Pittsburghers, the notion of going hat in hand to a Philly guy is galling beyond words.

So what is the city to do?  Tout its "livability" for one. The "Places Rated Almanac" recently rated Pittsburgh "America's Most Livable City," ahead of latte-sipping locations such as San Francisco and Seattle, because of its civic infrastructure, stock of well-built homes and low costs. Ravenstahl is pushing biotech, proudly noting that more than a million square feet of "wet lab" space is on the drawing board.

But what the city and region need most is unity and optimism. Can somebody like Ravenstahl provide it? After World War II, famously, the two great leaders of the city got together to remake the "Smoky City." David Lawrence, the mayor, joined with Richard King Mellon, the banker, to move their respective worlds toward a communal goal: clean up the air and build a new downtown. They succeeded.

Ravenstahl can't be a new Lawrence; he simply doesn't have the clout. PNC Bank has become the mainstay of corporate life—but most of the rest of the dwindling band of major companies are run by outsiders, not by executives with long ties to the city. Ravenstahl is in a tough spot.

Growing up in a long line of politicians on this city's North Side, within sight of old Three Rivers Stadium, his personal destiny was set: football and politics. A good athlete but small, he won a scholarship to Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., but felt homesick. He transferred to Pitt, but the big-time program there was too big. He finally found a home as a placekicker at tiny Washington & Jefferson College, in Washington, Pa., where he set school records for field goals and extras points.

Interviewing him in the vast conference room is a little disconcerting. The walls are decorated with portraits of past mayors of the city, which was founded in 1758. Beneath portraits of men in powdered wigs sits Ravenstahl, with gel in his close-cropped hair. He speaks forcefully, but his words are carefully chosen. He wants to convene the corporate chieftains who belong to something called the Allegheny Conference, but he would go to them to beseech rather than command. He has little bargaining power.

But words can have power, and inspiration can matter. His challenge now is to make lifelong citizens out of the college kids who are getting such a good education here. He needs to attract the twentysomethings, college-educated, smart and ambitious.

After all, he stayed here. So must they.