Pittsburgh Mayor: Who is Bill Peduto?
For his first vacation after his victory in the May mayoral primary, Bill Peduto booked his own stops, packed his own bag and took only one close companion: his iPhone. Within 24 hours, traveling between Helsinki and Stockholm, he used it to tweet the following:
Great lunch meeting w/former Finnish diplomat to Baghdad 90-91 & Present Communications Director to Finland’s City of Vantaa, Antti Kuusela.
Following the flooding/heavy rain in South & West Pittsburgh. Stay safe—don’t try to drive through flooding.
They never let poor Rudolph TALK (captioned a photo of a menu featuring smoked reindeer tongue.)
16 overnight hour cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm—slow Internet, bad TV. But they do have Viking Karaoke.
Trying to pick 2-4 NHL HOF [Hall of Fame] inductees out of this list is just impossible. Respect to class of 2013.
Along the way, he also retweeted a national mayoral petition to support Energy 2030 and a factoid on a comet passing close to earth in September.
Digital media is oxygen to Pittsburgh’s likely next mayor. His Twitter feed is a gushing firehose of quips, data, policy positions, Pittsburgh promotion and YouTube parodies.
“He’s constantly posting on social media—Penguins trades, concert dates,” says his childhood friend Rick Chadwick. “The absurdity of him posting about Stockholm and energy, versus the Pens, all in the same forum—he takes great joy in that.”
At 48, Peduto is poised to capture the job he says he has always wanted but that has eluded him in the past. His primary victory has made the three-term councilman, who withdrew his primary challenge to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in 2007, the mayor apparent. Barring an unlikely surge from Republican candidate Josh Wander, the Democrat who grew up in a South Hills suburb will assume the job without earning the party endorsement—a feat previously accomplished by Richard Caliguiri 36 years ago.
Alhough he succeeds the 33-year-old Ravenstahl, Peduto’s shunning of party rituals, his tenacity and his enthusiastic embrace of wonky, sustainable ideas suggests a generational break with the recent Democratic past. He seems to simultaneously channel both Don Quixote and Machiavelli, combining why-not idealism with 19 years of hand-to-hand political combat in City Council.
Between now and the general election, Peduto finds himself in an unusual interregnum. Resigning Mayor Ravenstahl, beset by grand jury investigations and police corruption scandals, has not yet stepped aside. His successor is preparing to deliver on his promise to clean house, without usurping powers he can’t officially inherit until Jan. 6.
“Mister Mayor!” calls developer Nigel Davenport as Peduto strides across a field of rubble in East Liberty. On a blistering afternoon, Peduto is dressed in his work uniform: a sacklike navy suit, oxford shirt and striped tie. The campaign wreaked havoc with Peduto’s preferred workout (an amateur hockey league) and added bulk—and bigger suits—to his beefy 6-foot frame. Davenport has requested a meeting to discuss his development of a boutique Indigo Hotel and a new entertainment venue in the former American Legion Hall. The Highland Avenue projects are the latest additions to two decades of redevelopment in East Liberty. Peduto marches ahead of a gaggle of real estate agents, with a writer and photographer in tow, as Davenport explains the need for guaranteed parking for the $26 million effort.
“I’m so happy you’re going to save this,” Peduto says of the red-brick Governor’s Hotel, to be incorporated into the Indigo site. As he passes a broken hurricane fence, he asks what materials Davenport will use for its replacement. “It would be nicer to use metal,” the councilman suggests. At the end of the meeting, he asks Davenport to send him some paperwork and appraisals. “Make it open and transparent, and it will be easier,” he advises.
Peduto has represented Shadyside, Garfield, Bloomfield and East Liberty since 2002, learning the ropes of community engagement and civic design along the way. He tells the East Liberty story in practiced and dramatic shorthand.
“I started working for City Council [for Councilman Dan Cohen] in 1995. On my second day on the job—I lived right up the street on South Highland—I went out and my car was gone. I thought, ‘Did I walk today?’ It was actually taken by a gang and used in a drive-by shooting. At that time, East Liberty was the drive-by capital of western Pennsylvania because of heroin. The police commanders would say people were killed standing up with a needle in their arm. We started in December of that year with community-based planning: How can we bring back East Liberty? It took two years to get through the communities, getting input and buying in.”
New investment spreading from the business district now includes $2 billion in new development around the expanding Bakery Square, a fashionable clutch of high-end restaurants on the Garfield end of Penn Avenue, and new affordable and market-rate housing.
Peduto’s European trip included an invitation to tell the story of East Liberty’s transformation at a Stockholm conference on urban issues (afterwards he tweeted that he was the only American presenter). During the past decade, European travel has informed his interest in buzzy New Urbanist topics: preservation, talent attraction, public transit and new technologies such as LED. Replacing old sodium street lights with light-emitting diode fixtures saves cities energy and money. “I’m a student of cities,” he explains. In a radio interview sandwiched between appointments, he namedrops Prague, Ljubljana and Gaziantep. The latter, an eds-and-meds metropolis in Turkey, is Pittsburgh’s newest sister city, thanks to an agreement engineered by the councilman last year. He responds to the questioner with intensity, tumbling together East End accomplishments and international ideas. Then he stops short.
“I don’t want to get all Richard Florida on you,” he says with a grin.
Peduto’s mind meld with the economist and Atlantic magazine columnist dates to the late 1990s, when Florida was teaching at Carnegie Mellon. “We hit it off immediately,” recalls Florida, now based at the University of Toronto. “I thought, ‘Wow, a city council member who gets it.’ He had such a broad grasp of urban and domestic policy issues.”
Peduto describes the professor more simply. “He’s my old drinking buddy from Le Mardi Gras and Cappy’s. Prior to his book coming out, we talked about this stuff. He had a fundraiser for me in his backyard in 2005.”
Cappy’s comes up frequently when people talk about Peduto. He’s a regular late-night fixture at the Shadyside watering hole. For a single man who lives alone within walking distance, the downscale Walnut Street café with a scrim of flat screen TVs is “my living space,” he explains. Although he’s owned a townhouse in north Point Breeze since 1998, he issues few invitations.
“Remember Superman—the fortress of solitude?” he jokes. “Old girlfriends, other friends have been there. But I don’t entertain there. I have not used the stove for at least five years. I went three months without a refrigerator when the motor broke.” He describes his routine as “a bachelor’s life that doesn’t have the excitement that people think bachelors’ lives have. Last night I was so exhausted. I got home, watched a two-hour documentary on the life of Henry Ford, had some cereal, went online, then started watching the Texas legislature having an amazing filibuster.”
Peduto hasn’t married—yet. But when the question comes up, he easily admits he’s looking around. “I hope to date [as mayor]. I hope to do it the same way I do now, privately. But it’s difficult. I’ve come to the understanding that being single the rest of my life may be real. I’m hitting the back nine of my 40s more comfortably. I still would love to find that person and would love to have a family.” The youngest of four Italian Catholic brothers, Peduto’s current version of family time is visiting his 85-year-old mother, Eva, several times a week. “I change the light bulbs, open the jars. I’m protective of her.” His mother was the first member of the Zarroli family to be born in the United States; her father lived with the Pedutos and doted on his youngest grandson. Sunday Mass and family dinners were mandatory.
“I grew up devout. Couldn’t even be late for church. If Mass started at 11:30 you were there at 11:15,” Peduto recalls. “It’s probably why I am so lax on time now—growing up, everything had to be 15 minutes early or you were late. I took all my sacraments at Sts. Simon and Jude. I’m still officially in the parish, but when I attend Mass, I go to Sacred Heart in Shadyside.” Now he describes his religious observance as “between devout and cultural Catholic.” He says he has become strongly involved in Pittsburgh’s interfaith community; among the excursions he has led for Venture Outdoors, the recreation nonprofit, is a bike tour of religious landmarks, with remarks from pastors, imams or rabbis at each stop.
“My family is very conservative, very traditional,” he admits. “Growing up, my parents steered me away from extracurriculars, and I did a ton—hockey, every activity. The important thing to them was good grades, getting into a good college.”
When Peduto was elected student government president at Chartiers Valley High School, he kept it a secret from his parents.
Meanwhile, he threw himself into the job. The 1983 yearbook extolls his accomplishments. “Not only was the record for student dances shattered (19),” it reported, “Council also sponsored the first CV bonfire in eleven years, the first faculty basketball game, three film festivals… and a suggestion box.” The Pedutos discovered their son’s secret in second semester. “Because I was the president, I graduated first. They loved the fact, but didn’t understand why I wanted to do things like that.” His mother remains uninterested in politics; she refused to be featured in TV campaign commercials and declined to be on stage at the councilman’s May victory party.
His parents’ expectations that their son would earn a B.A. went unfulfilled for two decades. After losing an ROTC scholarship after his first year at Carnegie Mellon University, Peduto transferred to Penn State. Despite earning 150 credits, he lacked the necessary requirements for a degree. It wasn’t until 2007 that he completed the final coursework. He went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs in 2011. “My mom has that diploma,” he notes. After serving as an intern to congressman George Gekas, Peduto pursued politics, consulting and managing political campaigns. But his first day at an early summer job—as deputy coroner—remains a favorite story.
“I was early. My boss wasn’t in yet. A call came in. There was a body in McKees Rocks. Nobody there that morning had a driver’s license. So they asked me, ‘Will you drive the van?’ So it’s raining, a guy had been hit by a train. The officer looked at me and said, ‘OK, bag the body.’ So we began to pick the person up. I freaked out—and I dropped him. I still remember, the officer just looked at me and said, ‘Hey. Don’t hurt him.’ I went back to the office and said, ‘I quit.’ But my boss said, ‘No, that’s not your job. You’re supposed to file things and answer press calls.’ And the next summer, I went to Capitol Hill as an intern.”
By 1995, Peduto was back in Pittsburgh. When Cohen relinquished his council seat in 2002, his staffer ran for the District 8 vacancy. Two years into his second term, Peduto weighed a primary challenge to Luke Ravenstahl.
His decision to drop out of the race proved to be a watershed.
“In spring of 2007, I was in the Hill District, door-knocking. A woman recognized me, which was great; so few people did. She said [he imitates a squeaky voice] ‘Yeah, you’re doing good stuff, but I… like …Rosenthal.’ I said, ‘We’re dead.’ ” Polling showed the incumbent had a 30 to 40 point advantage. “There was no way to campaign against, ‘give him a chance.’ [We couldn’t have] all of our people knocking on doors in rain and snow, telling them every weekend when they go out how we’re going to win when we weren’t.”
Looking back, Peduto characterizes the summer of 2007 as a period of deep withdrawal.
“I was bitter about folks I considered to be friends outside politics who had abandoned us. I was disappointed by a lot of people who had asked for Act 47 [the state financial oversight Peduto had championed]. I was basically in a dark place. I started to dig myself out later in the fall. I started the Pittsburgh LED lighting project, one of the first in the world. In 2008, I went to Turkey for an interfaith dialog and spent a month in Norway, studying energy policy and regional governance through Rotary International. In 2009, I was executive producer of a documentary on the Allegheny Observatory. I got my degrees. I passed campaign finance reform and lobbyist disclosures, ended no-bid contacts, passed a clean air act and the first clean water act. And I did it while in the minority.”
Chadwick says Ravenstahl’s victory changed his friend’s calculus. “He was free to some extent. This guy [Ravenstahl] might be mayor forever; perhaps I’ll never be mayor. What do I do? I can propose new ideas.”
Peduto’s third council term, beginning in 2009, would be his last, he decided; he would run against Ravenstahl in the 2013 primary without seeking the endorsement. As finance chair, he had opposed Ravenstahl’s desire to remove the city from Act 47 oversight. That earned the ire of some city workers, who bore the brunt of reduced contracts. “I’ve had no relationship with him for the past 10 years,” says current Fraternal Order of Police President Mike LaPorte evenly. “You can’t be optimistic about something that doesn’t exist.”
Forging new relationships will be a challenge. As Peduto notes, “Camps have been created around supporting the status quo.” Attorney Kevin Acklin, who will become his chief of staff, summarizes the change: “For the first time in multiple generations, that machine we ran against is no longer in power. Our government won’t run on who you support, but what you want to work on.”
Despite Council President Darlene Harris’s complaint that the challenger “doesn’t work well with others,” less senior members of Council have forged better partnerships.
“As a member of Council, almost everything he has proposed is approved 9-0,” points out Beechview’s Natalia Rudiak, 33. She admits that Peduto’s style is less glad-handing than the political stereotype. “I think he’s actually a shy person. It’s sort of like Obama: He is much more in your face on technical details and policy issues, and not so much into—you know—shaking babies and kissing hands. He and I share jokes and links on Twitter, and we totally geek out on this policy stuff.”
In fact, the most enjoyable conversation of Peduto’s July workday is a late coffee shop appointment with John Camillus. The Pitt business professor begins with a brief discussion of triple bottom line theory, and Peduto jumps in.
“You are pre-empting me conceptually!” exclaims Camillus in a lilting Indian accent. He invites Peduto to participate in a Prague conference on the future of direct current technology in energy generation. The alternative to AC electricity powers electronics equipment and is being adopted in Third World micro-grids. Peduto not only accepts—”the mayor of Prague is coming here the next week,” he adds—but immediately plunges into the discussion, beaming and nodding.
“It’s a megatrend. Small producers will power sections of cities,” he says, hugging his folded arms tightly across his chest. “I’ve been studying a lot of net-zero energy housing to develop neighborhoods in the city. Are you familiar with ALMONO?” Peduto pulls up the plans for the vast Hazelwood brownfield site on his iPhone.
“The CEO of the world’s largest LED manufacturer in Slovenia is interested in ALMONO. He’d like to do an entire city, the first city in the world to be all LED. In return he would build a manufacturing plant and his North American headquarters in that city. Wanna go over and meet with him? After Prague?”
Camillus, looking slightly stunned, accepts. As they leave the meeting, he teases Peduto. “So, are we perhaps looking at another Renaissance?”
Peduto doesn’t crack a smile. “We’re going in the opposite direction,” he replies. “Reformation first. Then Renaissance.”