The Gospel, According to Luke
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
PITTSBURGH -- In a makeshift auditorium on the banks of the Monongahela River, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton assembled her team of Pennsylvania power brokers. They sat in the front row behind a velvet rope, dressed in dark suits and waving at the crowd. There was the Pennsylvania governor, the county commissioner, a handful of major chief executives . . . and a kid they called Luke.
About 300 people filed into the auditorium to hear Clinton's speech on the economy, and Luke walked onstage to introduce her. He had a boyish face and spiky brown hair, and he stuffed his hands into the pockets of a too-big suit. He spoke hurriedly while pacing, persevering through the sort of nervousness one might expect from a college student, or a campaign volunteer, or an enamored Clinton supporter. Then he introduced himself.
"I'm Luke Ravenstahl," he said, "the mayor of Pittsburgh."
At 28, the youngest big-city mayor in modern U.S. history has become one of Clinton's key backers in Pennsylvania, her top surrogate in its second-largest city and an effective rejoinder to the idea that Sen. Barack Obama, her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has a lock on young voters in the state.
A former football place kicker at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., Ravenstahl, a Democrat, won a seat on the Pittsburgh City Council at age 23 and became the default council president two years later when rival factions could not agree on any other leader. In 2006, Mayor Bob O'Connor died of brain cancer, and Ravenstahl, then 26, by law became his successor.
Tucked into the steep hills of western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh has traditionally been run by the kind of working-class, third-generation German and Irish immigrants who helped propel Clinton to victory in neighboring Ohio. The city, less diverse than Philadelphia, is bunkered on all sides by 100 miles of backcountry. Its population is shrinking, and more than 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Pittsburgh's legendary steel and manufacturing industries have long since faded, leaving the city in a continual quest for new employers. On the campaign trail recently, Clinton credited Ravenstahl for helping "reenergize Pittsburgh," and the two politicians share a simple vision: maintain Pittsburgh's status as a manufacturing hub by investing in clean energy research and relying on universities such as Duquesne, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon for innovation.
"We are a town that could use some fresh perspective," said Sophie Masloff, 90, a former Pittsburgh mayor. "I like this boy, Ravenstahl. Something needs to change, so why not take our chance?"
Ravenstahl's effectiveness as a mayor -- and as a Clinton endorser -- remains difficult to gauge, because his tenure so far has been defined by unpredictability. Is he the enigmatic politician wise beyond his years? Or the boy enamored with new toys and prone to silly missteps?
During his 18 months in office, Ravenstahl has persuaded Pittsburgh's professional hockey team not to leave town, balanced the budget, cut city spending and helped promote new housing developments downtown. He was elected to retain office by 63 percent of voters in 2007. He recently announced an ambitious plan to make Pittsburgh more efficient by combining city and county governments -- an agenda that, if executed, would ultimately eliminate his job.
"He's not in this for himself, because he never even wanted to be mayor in the first place," said Jim Motznik, a city councilman. "I anticipate he could be the mayor as long as he wants. The city loves him, because he's so fresh and so young."
So young, critics counter, that he used his status as mayor to talk his way into a photo opportunity with Tiger Woods at last year's U.S. Open. So young that he allowed two major city employers to pay his $9,000 entry fee for a charity golf tournament. So young that, in 2005, he had a verbal altercation with a police officer while sitting in the stands of Heinz Field during a Pittsburgh Steelers game.
In October, Ravenstahl borrowed an SUV that had been purchased by a federal Homeland Security Department grant and used it to drive friends to a Toby Keith concert. When confronted, he paid the city for use of the car and apologized. But Ravenstahl also said he planned to keep going to concerts and bars, because "that's what 27-year-olds do, and I shouldn't be any different."
"The magnitude and exposure that comes with the job, that's just something that still is amazing to me," he said. "No matter where I go or what I do, you're recognized. There's no time when you're not the mayor. . . . There's no such thing as a small issue anymore, and everything is examined and talked about."
Ravenstahl, whom friends consider an introvert, had hoped to keep a lower profile when he left his job as a sales representative for a courier service to run for City Council in 2003. The son of a district judge and the grandson of a state representative, he defeated the Democratic incumbent in the primary and spent the next six months attending council meetings to learn about key issues before winning the general election.
He was a quiet and thoughtful council member, colleagues said. Ravenstahl told friends he felt content to be on the council, with a house near his parents and a wife, Erin, who worked as a beautician at a hair salon.
"Luke figured, we all figured, that he'd be right there for years," Motznik said.
Ravenstahl found out he would become mayor while watching a Friday night football game at his high school. Just eight years earlier, he had played quarterback and led North Catholic to the state semifinals. Now, sitting in the bleachers, he answered his cellphone and learned that O'Connor had died just eight weeks after his cancer diagnosis. Ravenstahl left the game with his wife and drove downtown to be immediately sworn in. He refused to move into the mayor's office until after O'Connor's funeral.
"After that happened, two families, their lives just changed immediately," said Judy O'Connor, Bob O'Connor's widow. "Luke handled it well, and that's why I still support him. It couldn't have been easy. We were grieving, the city was grieving, and here he was, like, 'Oh, no. Mayor? What am I going to do?' "
Ravenstahl's transition into office has inflicted some damage on his lifestyle. A caffeine addict, he drinks about 10 bottles of Diet Pepsi each day and then gnaws on their plastic caps. He rarely gets home before 9 p.m., and he aims for half a day off on weekends.
His youthful good looks have helped make him a sort of crossover celebrity -- the Britney Spears of Pittsburgh, his spokeswoman says -- who faces incessant demands for interviews and appearances unprecedented for a Steel City mayor. Seeking privacy last year, he made what this city considers the ultimate sacrifice: Ravenstahl temporarily stopped attending Steelers games and watched from home instead.
The steep learning curve that has defined his time as mayor will probably continue, Ravenstahl said, because most political experiences are new to him. As he stood onstage with Clinton recently, he could not help but marvel at the circumstances: He is the mayor of a crucial city in a swing state that will help decide a historic presidential election.
"No matter if you're 26 or 56, there's nothing that can prepare you for all of this," he said. "There's no book you can read. You just learn by going through it."