Backstory: Hizzoner at 26

Pittsburgh's boy mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, looks to move a rust-belt relic to a sleeker high-tech image.

A little more than a month into his term, Pittsburgh's kid mayor has all the right answers: He and his wife try to spend time together on Sundays. He and his dad talk football daily. His mom warns him of a fickle media. His friends e-mail good wishes. He goes to church and believes he is in the job for a reason, but doesn't reflect on what that might be.

Manners perfected, hair gelled, and white shirtsleeves crisp, 26-year-old Luke Ravenstahl looks more like the new hire on the bond desk at Lehman Brothers than the leader of Pennsylvania's second largest city.

Swallowed by the gilt and brocade of his massive office in the grand-but-fraying City-County Building, Mr. Ravenstahl might be excused if he wanted to call in Crate and Barrel to change the set. Ravenstahl's desktop computer is the first personal computer ever in the mayor's office, signalling a multitude of technological ramp-ups he has planned.

"The days are a lot longer," he says of his new life, spent not just learning the job, but convincing others he is up to it.

Ravenstahl took office after a flukish turn of events. Elected city councilman in 2003, he was named its president in 2005, chosen as a compromise candidate by a deadlocked council. When the beloved, larger-than-life Mayor Bob O'Connor died eight months into his term on Sept. 1, Ravenstahl, as council president, became mayor. He will serve through 2007 or 2009, depending on the ultimate legal interpretation of the city charter, and he has said he plans to run for another term, regardless.

As new mayor, Ravenstahl has pledged to advance his predecessor's agenda, and has retained much of his staff.

While he was no "mover and shaker in city council," he did work well with O'Connor, says Jeremy Boren, who covers city hall for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. And, so far, he's "riding the wave of Bob O'Connor, who was extremely popular," observes Mr. Boren.

After graduating from Washington and Jefferson College in 2002 with a degree in business administration, Ravenstahl worked in sales for the shipper DHL. But he soon joined the family business. "I grew up in politics," he explains. He's the oldest of three boys, his father a district magistrate and his grandfather a former state representative. He recalls a household in which the phone number was always listed, the door always open to constituents, the desire always there to find the department that could help.

"I saw the satisfaction my father and grandfather received" from public service, he says. Even away in college, he'd return home on election days to work the polls. The mayor, like his family and O'Connor before him, is a Democrat.

It didn't take long for the limelight to find Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. There was the visit by CNN, the attention of The New York Times, and – the popular favorite – the field trip to New York for an appearance on David Letterman.

But real life dampened the fun on Sept. 17, when five Duquesne University basketball players were shot – one critically – on campus.

"It was a reality check," the mayor acknowledges, and like a seasoned pro, he quickly recaps the city's response: His office is working with the parties involved – campus police, city police, university administration. Together they will determine whether guidelines were followed and if future precautions are needed, or whether, in the end, it may have just been one of those things.

Ravenstahl's steadiness in this wait-and-see mode conjures up an image of the North Catholic High School quarterback who led his team through an undefeated regular season a few years back, stopping just shy of the big game at Three Rivers Stadium. And in this town, the athletic proving ground may be as important to people as the political lineage. This, after all, is football country, where Steelers posters line office windows, where 88 neighborhoods' worth of fans follow the passionate rivalries of packed Friday night high school games starring the kid next door.

The mayor's dad, an assistant coach at North Catholic when Ravenstahl was there, is now head coach there. In Division III college ball, the mayor was place kicker and also team captain.

While school-day sports may seem insignificant, their lessons endure, Ravenstahl says. "You learn that things aren't always going to go your way." The teamwork, the ups and downs, "prepared you for life."

Pittsburgh, in southwestern Pennsylvania, is home to 350,000 people. There are 50,000 undergraduates studying here, at Duquesne, University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie-Mellon University. The Steelers and Pirates both have new stadiums and the Penguins await their own. The former steel town-turned-university-technology-healthcare hub is a meld of heart, brawn, and brain. And where some see a rust-belt relic, others see new downtown condos and offices and townhouses, beacons of progress and promise of more to come. Who better than a 20-something to carry the renaissance torch?

If the youthfulness of the mayor is going to draw the national spotlight here, the powers-that-be intend to milk it for all it's worth, says Dick Skrinjar, spokesman for Ravenstahl, and for O'Connor before him. "We're taking advantage of this opportunity to tell the story of Pittsburgh," he says. That means shamelessly touting the pro sports teams, the culture, the ivy- covered towers, the easy commute. "The city is one of America's best-kept secrets. Now, with a 26-year-old mayor, the secret is out," Mr. Skrinjar says.

The mayor and his wife, his high school sweetheart, live near his parents in a three- bedroom, 2,000-square-foot house in the tight-knit, working-class North Side. The couple bought the house when they married two years ago. He makes $94,157. No mansion comes with the job, but he might like some of that downtown condo lifestyle once he and his wife, a hair stylist, can afford it.

The ability to "go to a lot of functions" is the greatest perk so far, he says. "I'm a person that likes to interact with the community at large."

He's getting to know his team and its challenges, trying to elicit confidence in city government, as he rubs elbows with business and political leaders here, with the governor, the mayor of New York, even, and political leaders in Washington. There are meetings on park reconstruction, on the budget, on downtown development. There are press conferences.

He rolls into the driveway after 9 p.m. most nights, and when he pulls up, like his dad and grandfather before him, he's likely to encounter neighbors anxious to talk. "There are not enough hours in the day," he laments already.

Through it all, he says, "We are trying to remain who we were before this."

Ravenshahl tries to continue his practice of going home to his parents for dinner with his family one night a week. "It brings you back to where you came from, and where you were brought up," he explains. "I'm on David Letterman and CNN. But it never gets to me, because when I go into that house I'm the same person I was – it's Luke."

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