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Election
City council president campaign off to an early start

Thursday, May 22, 2003

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Now that the Democratic primary is over, Pittsburgh City Council can get down to some real business.

Such as who is going to be council president next year.

Two new members will join council in January, and others are already talking about the vote for president after their swearing-in.

Behind the scenes, current President Gene Ricciardi and finance chair Sala Udin are running against each other for the job, a campaign that could foreshadow the next mayoral race in 2005.

The two mayors before Tom Murphy were council presidents and Bob O'Connor rode the job to within 699 votes of beating Murphy in the May 2001 primary. Murphy, 58, has not said if he will run for a fourth four-year term.

Ricciardi and Udin said yesterday they are concentrating on the city's finances, not the council leadership position, but others said the politicking has already begun.

Councilman Jim Motznik, a Ricciardi ally, was counting the votes yesterday morning, wondering which candidate the two probable newcomers -- Democratic primary winners Luke Ravenstahl and Doug Shields -- would support in January. He was also pondering the odds of neither Ricciardi nor Udin nailing down the five votes needed to win the job.

"I could be the compromise candidate. You can write that," said Motznik.

The primary results could also affect the city's budget debate and Murphy's relationship with council.

Council will have two lame-duck members -- Barbara Burns and Tucker Sciulli -- for seven months while the city struggles with a $60 million budget shortfall.

They may be called on to approve a state oversight board on city finances or new taxes, if they are authorized by the state Legislature. Alternatively, if Murphy's budget proposals fail, the pair may have the thankless job of legislating during layoffs and talk of bankruptcy.

Councilman Alan Hertzberg also is possibly a short-timer, with a say in both the budget and the presidency.

The Sheraden Democrat is running against Republican Jill Rangos for the third open Common Pleas Court seat in November. He said he would keep opposing Murphy's budget proposals until then.

Though Hertzberg said he is focusing on the judicial race, he noted that Ricciardi is his campaign chair and said he would be "leaning toward" supporting Ricciardi for another term as president in January.

Sciulli beat Republican Daniel Wiseman in a special District 5 election Tuesday. He will fill the seven months left in the term of O'Connor, who resigned to work for Gov. Ed Rendell.

But in the Democratic primary race for a full term beginning in January, Sciulli lost to Shields by 14 percentage points. Wiseman won the GOP nomination but is a long shot in the general election because of the Democrats' 5 to 1 registration advantage.

Yesterday, Shields said he has already "given thought" to his vote for president, but not made a decision. He noted that Ricciardi gave him "tremendous support" during his campaign against Sciulli and two other Democrats.

Sciulli said yesterday that he will not keep Shields in the District 5 office while he serves out the term, citing bad blood from the campaign. Shields, O'Connor's former chief of staff, has worked in the office since 1992.

Ravenstahl, 23, beat Burns by 10 percentage points Tuesday in the District 1 Democratic primary, and faces no Republican opposition in November. He said Udin, whose district abuts District 1, called to congratulate him yesterday, but he has not thought of the council president's race at all.

Ravenstahl attributed the primary win to door-knocking and other grass-roots campaigning, a voter registration drive aimed at 18- to 25-year-olds and voters who were tired of Burns or Murphy, her longtime ally.

"Combine all the above," Ravenstahl said of his campaign tactics, "plus some resentment against Barbara Burns and the mayor for whatever reason, and I was in the right place at the right time."

Burns, 54, was the first council incumbent to lose a Democratic primary since Joseph Cusick in May 1997.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.

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