City in Transition
3:30 am
Fri January 3, 2014

Once a Promising Political Novice, Mayor Ravenstahl Leaves Office ... And Politics?

Outgoing Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced on March 1, 2013 that he would not seek reelection, after a tenure marked with a mix of triumphs and stumbles.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

When Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was quietly sworn into office following the 2006 death of Mayor Bob O’Connor, the 26-year-old City Council president became the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city. 

Headlines around the time included the following: “Hope surrounds new Pittsburgh mayor, 26” and he made several national television appearances, including a spot on "The Late Show with David Letterman." But as he heads out of office, the last months of his tenure included headlines such as “Luke Ravenstahl Maintains Low Profile Amid Federal Probe.”

“He did have a promising start, and he handled that transition, those difficult times with grace,” said Joseph Sabino Mistick, professor of law at Duquesne University. “Even the national publicity that would probably have caused a lot of people to stumble was handled smoothly, and he comported himself well and made Pittsburgh proud. So we all thought, this young fellow’s going to do it, that the kid’s gonna pull it off.”

But troubles started shortly after he took office. In 2007, the City Ethics Board raised questions about Ravenstahl’s attendance of a two-day charity golf outing with UPMC and the Pittsburgh Penguins paying the $9,000 entry fee. Also in 2007, he was criticized for using a Homeland Security-funded SUV to go to a Toby Keith concert in Washington County. Those were a couple of examples of what Mistick called a series of personal judgment calls, or political missteps that were just bad.

“And it sort of took the wind out of the sails of his administration," he said. "It could never get back on track because it seemed to be one fumble after another in terms more of personal judgment than anything else.”

Ravenstahl was elected to finish the term of Bob O’Connor in 2007 and elected to a full four-year term in 2009. In early 2013 he launched a re-election campaign, then one day later called for the resignation of now former Police Chief Nate Harper. That followed the start of a federal investigation that eventually led to Harper being charged with tax evasion and conspiracy. He has since pleaded guilty to both.

Just a few weeks after launching his re-election campaign, and following Harper’s resignation, Ravenstahl announced he was dropping out of the race and would not be seeking another term. Ravenstahl said the job had taken a toll on him and his family.

Mistick said Ravenstahl was not cut out for public life. During this time rumors were swirling about the mayor’s involvement in financial issues under federal investigation.

“The rumors themselves, whether they had any substantive support, had to be unnerving,” Mistick said, “and I think he decided he just didn’t need all this, regardless of where it was headed for him personally or on a legal front, he just didn’t need the added pressure so he just pulled the plug.”

For his part, starting with his March 2013 announcement, Ravenstahl has maintained his innocence.

“Many will speculate about my motives and will conclude the investigation is the reason for my decision, it’s not, because I’ve done nothing wrong,” said Ravenstahl at a March 1 news conference. “That will be proven over time.”

Prior to the announcement, one of Ravenstahl’s former bodyguards claimed the mayor knew about police debit cards linked to an account outside of the city’s purview and part of the federal investigation. Ravenstahl has said the bodyguard's accusations are "patently false." The federal investigation is ongoing.

There were some triumphs of the Ravenstahl administration. Under his watch, the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship program for all city school students was launched, the G20 Summit went off without any major hitches and the economy continued to grow.

“Unfortunately, for many of the people in his administration, whatever accomplishments they’ve managed to have during this administration will be eclipsed by the personal failings, the personal stumblings and embarrassments of this mayors,” Mistick said.

Ravenstahl’s final months in office have seen him making very few public appearances, and when he does the focus has more often been on why he is not making more appearances. He has just because he hasn’t met with the press, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working. As for what follows his term as mayor, back in March he said he had something lined up.

“My next job, my first job will be T-ball coach,” Ravenstahl said last March. “I’m excited, this April, to coach my son’s T-ball team. I won’t be paid for that position, but that’s my first gig.”

Beyond that, it’s not clear what Ravenstahl will do, though he has said he plans to stay in Pittsburgh. Speculation has swirled on whether his political career is over. Mistick said that remains to be seen.

“They used to say there are no second acts in American politics,” Mistick said, “but of late that seems to be not so true. People weather all sorts of scandals and missteps and embarrassing situations, and they come back for another swing at the ball. Who knows if he can come back? I think he’ll probably wait until he’s a bit more settled, if he has any interest in returning or he just may decide that private life is more to his liking.”

As for the future of the city of Pittsburgh, Mistick is optimistic for what Mayor-elect Bill Peduto brings to the table.

“Bill Peduto has struck the perfect note for the future, especially in the wake of what we’ve been through,” Mistick said. "He’s opened government up, some traditionalists would say even too wide, but he’s opened it to the masses. He’s willing to listen to anyone and everyone who has an idea … and he’s going to take us to the next level.”

Peduto will be sworn into office at 1 p.m. Monday.