Mayor pushes for students to stay in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s got a new mayor — and he’s only a few years older than a college student.

At 26, Luke Ravenstahl has taken a large northeastern city under his wing. The ex-city council president is confident his age will be the last thing on Pittsburghers’ minds in a matter of months.

“When I first became a city councilman, I was the 23-year-old city councilman,” he said. “Six months into my term, I was City Councilman Luke Ravenstahl.”

Ravenstahl was sworn in as mayor on September 1, following the death of Bob O’Connor, who had taken the office only
eight months prior. The Pittsburgh city charter states that if a mayor is unable to finish a term, the council president can accept or decline the post.

Even if Ravenstahl were 56 and not 26, questions of age might still dominate his term as mayor. For the mayor, every day is a demographic juggling act. He is working to keep young Carnegie Mellon graduates, whom he described as some of the most recognized in the world, in Pittsburgh. At the same time, he is working on a new city budget to meet the costly needs of an aging resident population. He is also handling intense scrutiny over his age.

“The sooner I am referred to as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl — and not the 26-year-old mayor — the better,” he said. “My age can be an asset. I plan to use it to my advantage.”

Only a year after his election to city council in January 2004, Ravenstahl was elected city council president in a compromise after a more experienced ally, Jim Motznik, failed to get enough votes.

“Things have been on the fast track, so to speak, but I continue to take it one step at a time,” he said.

Accordingly, restraint and caution has marked his actions, as he attempts to keep a financially struggling city on an even keel after the death of the much-loved O’Connor.

“I’ve never gotten too far ahead of myself and thought, ‘Oh, I can do this or do that,’ ” he said. “It works best if I do the best job I can as mayor each day, and then hopefully the residents of Pittsburgh will be happy.”

This civil-service instinct and devotion to Pittsburgh might be in Ravenstahl’s blood. He comes from a family of Pittsburgh politicians: His father was a district judge, and his grandfather was a state representative.

The mayor attended North Catholic High School in Pittsburgh’s North Side, where he was a kicker on the football team. From there, he went to the University of Pittsburgh for a year before transferring to Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. After graduating with a degree in business administration, he began a career in sales. Shortly thereafter, politics beckoned.

“When the opportunity arose for myself to run for city council, I gladly accepted that challenge,” he said. “If you [would have] told me that I was going to be mayor when I was finishing college, I would have told you that you were crazy.”

Only four years removed from finishing college, he said he could relate to the needs of an important demographic for the city.

“Allegheny County is an older community, but the city limits in Pittsburgh actually has a high population of youth and young professionals,” he said.

With this in mind, Ravenstahl met with Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon last Monday to discuss issues affecting the college-age population.

“I didn’t think as much about his age after we met,” said Cohon. “What impressed me most was that he was pushing for specifics, specifics for creating job opportunities and an environment to keep young people.”

Ravenstahl’s realistic view of his potential also impressed Cohon.

“[The mayor] is aware of the limits on what the government can do,” Cohon said. “They don’t create jobs. They create the environment for others to create jobs.”

The numbers might be on Ravenstahl’s side in the fight to keep youth in Pittsburgh.

A September 14 report in The Economist noted that since the early ’80s Pennsylvania has become the state with the second-oldest population in the country, with Allegheny County being the oldest section. But the U.S. Census Bureau noted in its 2000 census that Pennsylvania’s over-64 population will grow less than any other state over the next 25 years, while the country’s elderly population as a whole will grow twice as rapidly.

Ravenstahl mentioned some specifics for creating job opportunities for graduates, hoping to take advantage of statistics like these.

“If we have a student from CMU presented with the opportunity to intern with organizations as a sophomore or junior, whether it’s programs with UPMC, Highmark, some of the banking institutions, or medical fields, my hope is that familiarity will begin to develop,” he said.

The mayor also hopes that a student taking advantage of internship programs would naturally fit into a full-time position in Pittsburgh down the road.

Ravenstahl also mentioned a desire to start a youth advisory commission for college students. These commissions are relatively common at the high-school level, but non-existent for college students.

To the man who is only a few years out of school, age is just a number. He has taken this theme across the country in the opening weeks of his ascendancy to mayor. From the bright lights of press conference flashbulbs to the even brighter lights of the David Letterman show on September 9, Ravenstahl is trying to change the conventional wisdom on a city’s very identity.

“Mr. Ravenstahl is a young man taking over an old steel town that has lost all its mills, nearly half its population, and much of its downtown commercial district in the last several decades,” stated The New York Times in a September 9 article.

The Times is subscribing to a decades-old notion in calling Pittsburgh an “old steel town.” The Allegheny Times reported on September 21 that the college population now eclipses the over-65 population by about 3000 people.

“I had the opportunity to do some national media appearances. This is great because it gives us the opportunity to tell our story nationwide, that our college students agree that [Pittsburgh] is a great place to live,” said Ravenstahl.

Recent security issues in the city threaten to put a damper on any such consensus. In response to questions about the recent shooting on the Duquesne University campus, Ravenstahl cited his budget proposal. “I am committed to getting the number of officers on the street back to 900. I think that’s important because our police force has continued to decline over the years,” said Ravenstahl, who grew up in a community of police officers and firefighters. The number of police in the city hit a low of 845 this year.

With his budget proposal, Ravenstahl also said he wants to continue many of the initiatives that his predecessor O’Connor began. His $429 million budget was described by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a September 28 editorial as “not a radical departure.”

“It could be a defining moment for a politician who is a blank slate for most Pittsburghers, and who may face voters as early
as next year,” stated the Post-Gazette in a September 18 article, referring to his budget proposal.

“I envision downtown as a place for young professionals to congregate, gather, and spend time together,” said Ravenstahl, also hinting at plans for the Fifth and Forbes corridor to become more residential.