Update: 11:03 p.m.
Mayor Bill Peduto easily won the Democratic party nod to run for reelection in November on Tuesday, and he’ll be unopposed in the general election.
So, barring anything drastic, he essentially just earned another four years at the city’s helm.
In stories about Democratic primaries in Pittsburgh, journalists often note that it is the de facto mayoralty, usually citing voter registration or historical advantages.
But here’s the brief history (as told by newspaper clippings, recorded interviews and historic texts, of course) of why, when it comes to choosing mayors, Pittsburgh’s Democratic primary is really the race that matters … and, perhaps, why Peduto’s blowout win wasn’t a surprise to anyone.
Democrats’ rise to power in Pittsburgh
In November 1929, Republican Charles Kline was re-elected mayor of Pittsburgh. The incumbent was the first to hold the office for consecutive terms after legislation prohibiting mayors from succeeding themselves was repealed in 1923. Kline wasn’t the last Republican mayor, but he was the last to be voted into the office.
Four years later, City Council President John Herron replaced Kline, who was convicted on charges of malfeasance … a scandal kickstarted by the illegal purchase of a very, very expensive rug. Later that year, Herron campaigned to stay on as mayor against Democrat challenger William McNair. Seizing on growing dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, the Democrats won the election, ending 28 years of Republicans holding the mayor’s office.
“The little machine henchmen with their knowing smiles … now know that no political machine is all powerful,” the Pittsburgh Press editorialized May 15, 1932, a gem surfaced by the Post-Gazette’s Digs. For decades to come, Klein’s infamous rug remained in the mayor’s office as reminder of how not to conduct business, per WESA. It wasn’t removed until 1992.
Republicans remained marginally competitive over the next few decades, but failed to retake the mayor’s office from the Democrats, who were enjoying swelling support in urban centers, nationally, as a result of the New Deal.
Meanwhile, David L. Lawrence became chairman of the Democratic Party in Pittsburgh in 1920 and served as McNair’s campaign manager, leading the Democratic party back to the mayor’s office.
Which, of course he, himself, would hold for more than a decade.
Lawrence was the architect of Pittsburgh’s Renaissance I and greatly improved what was then known as “The Smokey City.”
He also developed an extraordinary, unlikely, bipartisan partnership with Richard King Mellon. Their work led to the growth of the public-private partnership. Business leaders in Pittsburgh began to work alongside the Democratic party in Pittsburgh, led by Lawrence.
“With substantial control over much of the region’s wealth in the hands of R. K. Mellon, the corporate business community could act with uncommon unity in support of urban growth projects, which Lawrence and his council would approve with matching unanimity,” Gregory Crowley writes in his book “The Politics of Place.” “There was no well-organized audience for opposition, in government circles or in the broader community.”
Lawrence won four mayoral terms, holding the office for 14 years before surrendering it to serve as Governor of Pennsylvania. He’s is considered one of the great American mayors.
And, no, that’s not like a “Most Livable City” title. While NYC’s Fiorello LaGuardia holds the title of “Best American Mayor,” Lawrence is a finalist in that conversation. Using methods usually deployed to rank U.S. presidents, Melvin Holli, a long-time professor at the University of Chicago, determined that Lawrence was the third best big-city mayor. (If you’re interested, Lawrence’s biography, “Don’t Call Me Boss,” is worth a read.)
So, Pittsburgh’s mayor will always be a Democrat?
Two recent(ish) Republican candidates notably received more than 30 percent of the vote: John Tabor in 1969 and Mark DeSantis (who ran against Luke Ravenstahl) in 2007.
In 1973, Democrat Mayor Pete Flaherty won both the Democratic and Republican nominations in the primary election, a feat only to be repeated once, by Ravenstahl in 2009.
With 11 consecutive elected Democrat mayors, it would seem that, yes, Pittsburgh’s mayor will always be a Democrat.
But while it’s true that a Dem. has occupied the office for 84 years running, the party doesn’t always get its way in the race. See also: 1969. Flaherty ran for mayor under the banner of “Nobody’s Boy,” a means of distancing himself from the Democratic Party machine.
“Pete broke with the organization and ran as ‘Nobody’s Boy,’” Moe Coleman, director emeritus and advisor to the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, said in interview with The Incline. “When he won, the machine started to fall apart.”
Flaherty, raging against the machine, defeated Democratic Party candidate Richard Caliguiri.
Caliguiri, who became mayor when Flaherty left to serve in the Carter administration, won his first term running as an Independent against Democrat nominee Tom Foerster. Caliguiri is the only candidate to successfully beat a Democratic nominee for mayor since the Democrats took control of the mayor’s office in 1933.
Several times since “Nobody’s Boy” became mayor, the Democratic Party endorsed candidate has been overtaken by someone challenging “the establishment” or simply because the field was too broad to provide a meaningful pick. As recently as 2007, then-council member Peduto ran against a “restored machine” supporting Luke Ravenstahl.
“It’s not that we have a one-party system. We have one machine that has taken over our party, that’s running the city and county,” Peduto said in an interview with City Paper in 2007 after dropping out of the primary race for mayor.
He went on to win the Democratic party nomination for mayor without the party’s endorsement in the 2013 primary.
How does the 2017 primary stack up against previous races?
Peduto’s victory over opponents John Welch and Darlene Harris on Tuesday was solid. In terms of margin of victory, it’s comparable to Richard Caliguiri’s third primary victory in 1985. Caliguiri ran up a 53-point margin over his closest challenger. Peduto ended Tuesday evening with about with a 51-point lead over John Welch. The average margin of victory since 1969 is 27 points (discounting 1977 and 2009).
The average share of a primary winner is above 60 percent of the vote, with the challenger(s) only garnering about 18 percent or so (each). In that regard, Peduto’s victory is still better than average.
Even with an incumbent, primaries’ margins are not always nearly this substantial. Twice since Lawrence’s tenure, an incumbent has maintained their seat with only a plurality of the vote — and only once has it elected a new mayor running for a vacant seat.
While Peduto’s victory was substantial enough for him to reference a mandate in his victory speech, there is a caveat to the decisiveness of his victory: voter turnout. By the end of the day, voter turnout reached just about 17 percent — a slightly lower turnout than in 2013.
But the incumbent increased his votes-for by 11 percent despite lower turnout. Even with low turnout, Peduto’s victory was undoubtedly large — an endorsement of “New Pittsburgh,” Coleman said in interview with The Incline.
Those upset about Uber and bike lanes had a clear outlet to voice their frustration: Coleman said, “Harris is ‘old Pittsburgh,’ and there are a lot of people that will agree with some of her positions.”
“Peduto represents a rapidly changing city,” Coleman said. “You have a city population that is quickly becoming younger, more tech-centric and more educated.”
So could Peduto be mayor for life?
Short Answer: Yes.
Long Answer: Without a legal term-limit, it’s likely Peduto’s job to give up. To find the last time Pittsburgh unseated an incumbent mayor, you need to go back to November 1933, when Democrats unseated the incumbent Republican mayor. (For context, in 1933: FDR was sworn in a few weeks before Hitler became dictator in Germany. Gene Wilder, Joan Rivers and Willie Nelson were born. And, of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers were founded.)
Incumbent candidates generally win elections — that’s true nationally, not just not in Pittsburgh. Those running for re-election don’t have to work as hard to get their name out there, and they have an easier time fundraising: It’s known as the incumbent advantage.
But if the idea of Peduto as forever-mayor makes you uneasy, know that he isn’t keen on the idea either. In an interview with the Post-Gazette, Peduto noted his 12 years on council and said he was “ready to go” after his third term.
“There are [term limits]. It’s called sanity,” Peduto told the PG. “I would say 12 years is a good limit. If you can’t get it done in 12 years, I don’t know if you could.”
Corrections: Two graphics previously misspelled former Mayor Bob O’Connor’s name, one of which misidentified Tom Murphy. John Tabor and William McNair were previously misidentified. This story has been updated to include Republican Mark DeSantis’ 2007 run.