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Editorial: The next mayor / Only through change can Pittsburgh survive
Sunday, October 30, 2005

If Pittsburgh voters could use a computer to design the ideal candidate for mayor on Nov. 8, the result would be a mix of Democrat Bob O'Connor's neighborly optimism and Republican Joe Weinroth's desire to do things differently. Unfortunately, no such candidate is part of the five-man field.

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 5-1, Mr. O'Connor, 60, the former councilman and near-nominee four years ago, is the prohibitive favorite to follow three-term Mayor Tom Murphy. Mr. Weinroth, 46, a lawyer who is pushing stiff yet sensible fiscal medicine, would have a better chance for victory if the state and county GOP had invested more resources in his bid -- this being a prime chance in Pittsburgh's history for the minority party to make its move. Alas, 2005 found Republican leaders fast asleep.

The other candidates for mayor are:

David Tessitor, 54, a North Side resident not gainfully employed who is pushing open government, historic preservation, anti-sprawl and an end to public subsidies;

Titus North, 44, a translator and a Pitt adjunct professor from Squirrel Hill who is promoting the Green Party agenda of ending "corporate welfare" and "police brutality";

Jay M. Ressler, 58, a coal miner from Lawrenceville who is running not so much a mayoral bid as a campaign for the Socialist Workers Party's anti-capitalist doctrine.

All of which leaves Pittsburgh voters with two substantial candidates, Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Weinroth, both from Squirrel Hill.

Although we endorsed Bob O'Connor for his party nomination last spring, we're concerned that he will not act with the kind of boldness and independence that the moment requires. He will encounter a City Council of fellow Democrats, most of whom have resisted making hard decisions over the last two years and who are expecting Mr. O'Connor to save Pittsburgh with his personal charm and past work for the governor.

We don't mean to sell that short, but it won't play with the Republicans who control the Legislature and the hostile lawmakers who sit in the suburbs. The only way a Mayor O'Connor will get their attention and further state support is by demonstrating, through aggressive cost-cutting and a rejection of business as usual, that he is a new force for fiscal responsibility and an elected leader who will act ahead of the state oversight agencies.

However, we don't see a brave vision and a break with the past when Mr. O'Connor, in interviews, calls for speeding up the city's permit process, combining services with the county and seeking in-kind benefits from nonprofits. Pittsburghers have heard it all before, and in a town that is still not safe from bankruptcy it's just embroidery on the linens of the Titanic.

Yet Mr. O'Connor's evangelism in the neighborhoods on behalf of a clean city, good schools and safe streets is an important message to sound, now that Pittsburgh has constructed new public amenities and needs to concentrate on its internal health. The former councilman's can-do spirit comes at the right time -- if only it could be married to a substantive plan of financial action.

Joe Weinroth, cheated out of a strong voice in this campaign by his under-performing party, would open up trash collection to competitive bidding and consider shifting Emergency Medical Services to a consortium of hospitals. Although the firefighters union endorsed him, he told its leader that more contract cuts may be necessary. While he said "public safety is the last thing we'd cut," he'd still examine the reduced number of fire stations and see if more could go. He would also like to "equalize" the contracts of the police and fire unions and reduce the number of council seats from nine to five.

It's a more ambitious approach than Bob O'Connor has enunciated. The trouble with Mr. Weinroth, even if lightning strikes and he wins, is that he will be stymied by a Democratic council still yearning for the past.

That's why voters, long before a slots casino comes to town, need to take a gamble. They need to hope that Bob O'Connor, once he takes the reins, will see that the old ways don't work and only new thinking will save Pittsburgh. Some of that thinking is spelled out in the Weinroth platform, but it will take a gutsy leader of the majority party to enact it into law.

We'll take a chance that Bob O'Connor is up to the job. The city is plum out of other options.

First published on October 30, 2005 at 12:00 am
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