December 22, 2004: Headlines: COS - Paraguay: Politics: City Government: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Tom Murphy the man offers contrasts: the Peace Corps worker who warred with state legislators and his own party, the seminarian whose prickly personality made enemies where he needed friends, the runner who refuses to run again

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Paraguay: Special Report: Paraguay RPCV Tom Murphy, Mayor of Pittsburgh: December 22, 2004: Headlines: COS - Paraguay: Politics: City Government: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Tom Murphy the man offers contrasts: the Peace Corps worker who warred with state legislators and his own party, the seminarian whose prickly personality made enemies where he needed friends, the runner who refuses to run again

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Tom Murphy the man offers contrasts: the Peace Corps worker who warred with state legislators and his own party, the seminarian whose prickly personality made enemies where he needed friends, the runner who refuses to run again

Tom Murphy the man offers contrasts: the Peace Corps worker who warred with state legislators and his own party, the seminarian whose prickly personality made enemies where he needed friends, the runner who refuses to run again

Tom Murphy the man offers contrasts: the Peace Corps worker who warred with state legislators and his own party, the seminarian whose prickly personality made enemies where he needed friends, the runner who refuses to run again

Murphy's out

By Andrew Conte
Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's legacy is a tale of two cities.

Not a mile from the glittering sports stadiums in a formerly underdeveloped area Murphy rechristened the "North Shore" languish the boarded-up buildings of the once-bustling Fifth-Forbes commerce center.

A city that boasts impressive corporate and foundation wealth is run by a government too poor to pay its bills.

Murphy the man offers similar contrasts: the Peace Corps worker who warred with state legislators and his own party, the seminarian whose prickly personality made enemies where he needed friends, the runner who refuses to run again.

In the end, as Murphy announced Tuesday that he won't seek a fourth term as mayor, he must inevitably be compared to the man against whom all Pittsburgh mayors are measured. Murphy's Renaissance III fell short of David L. Lawrence's original edition, and Murphy won't match Lawrence's four mayoral wins and 13 years in office.

"I've not been afraid to get into that conflict," said Murphy, 60, in announcing that he'll leave office when his third four-year term ends in January 2006. "And for better or for worse, part of my legacy is that I enjoy conflict. I enjoy the necessity of getting things done and what that means. I've tried to do the very best job in every case. If I've offended people, I apologize."

Making his announcement from the mayor's conference room -- after he signed the 2005 city budget he was ordered to chop by state overseers -- an emotional Murphy, his left arm around wife Mona's back, said: "I love the job, but there are parts of it that are very difficult. It is not an easy job being mayor of Pittsburgh, being an agent of change in the city. After 12 years, it is time to move forward to something else. It's really a personal decision on my part. I'm 60 years old, and there's lots of things I want to do with my life."

Murphy's decision comes as the city struggles to avoid insolvency and the mayor remains under investigation for his role in a 2001 election eve deal with the fire department that led to a sweetened contract for firefighters, their endorsement of the mayor and his thin victory margin over challenger Bob O'Connor.

Murphy has been damaged by his bruising three-year battle with his former colleagues in the Legislature to win new and increased taxes for the city.

Asked to identify his legacy, Murphy pointed to "a very aggressive development agenda."

"Over time, people will come to understand what happened here," said Tom Cox, Murphy's top lieutenant. "There is brick and mortar, if anybody will see it. The objective legacy is palpable."

Murphy's supporters praised his pursuit of new and increased taxes to bail out the financially strapped city; his detractors argued that Murphy exacerbated the problem by refusing to cut spending to square with the city's declining population.

"He planted a lot of seeds, and we have yet to see how things will grow," said Mark Schneider, president of the developer The Rubinoff Co. and chairman of the city-county Sports and Exhibition Authority. "He was willing to risk his own political capital to get something done and willing to tell people something they didn't want to hear, that we had to change certain things."

City Controller Tom Flaherty chairs Allegheny County's Democratic Party, which counts Murphy among its members. Flaherty offered no praise for the mayor.

"His legacy will be a lot of (city employee) layoffs, cutbacks in traditional core services, if not the elimination of traditional core services, and very dangerous and speculative economic and fiscal policies," said Flaherty, who is considering a run for mayor.

O'Connor also is expected to run, with a host of others believed to be considering the campaign leading to the May primary.

"We had some battles, but I have a lot of respect for him," said O'Connor, who recently left his job as Gov. Ed Rendell's representative in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Rendell declined to comment on Murphy's decision.

Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb, who's also considering a run, said the past "few years have been very tough on the city, and to some degree, Tom Murphy will be remembered for that. But as time passes, I believe people will look back and have a much more balanced view, and he will be known for the positives as well as the things that did not turn out so well."

State Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side and another potential candidate, said an "assessment of Mayor Murphy's tenure has to include the significant successes he has had in helping to revitalize many city neighborhoods. As far as failures, I believe he should have made the city's broken revenue structure a top priority from the beginning. He had huge political capital that could have been spent to reduce the pain we are going through now, but much of it was wasted."

Asked whether he would endorse a potential successor, Murphy cracked, "I'm not sure my endorsement would help anybody."

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, who toyed with idea of running for mayor before deciding against it, said Murphy "had a very dynamic vision for the city that resulted in major projects such as Washington's Landing, the new housing in the Nine Mile Run area (Summerset at Frick Park) and significant development on the North Shore. On the other side, Fifth and Forbes is an obvious failure for the mayor, and there has been an inability on his part over the years to create the political support needed to move some critical issues forward."

Murphy, the son of a steelworker, first sought elected office in 1978, after he and his wife worked in rural Paraguay when they served in the Peace Corps.

After he returned home from New York City in 1973 with a master's degree in urban studies, Murphy started his rise from the lowliest of positions -- making no more than $10,000 a year as head of the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council.

It was there -- working alongside residents on such community issues as paving cobblestone streets -- that Murphy gained an understanding of neighborhood issues, said Bill Strickland, one of the mayor's close friends.

When Murphy eventually decided to seek elected office, his friends could hardly believe his ambition.

"He never sort of expressed an interest in formal political life," said Strickland, chief executive of the Manchester Bidwell Corp., a North Side arts-based jobs training institution. "He wanted to work at the community level."

After 15 years in the state House, Murphy was elected mayor in 1994. He espoused a strategy to grow Pittsburgh out of its post-industrial malaise, brought on by the collapse of the steel industry. His theory was that the city could reinvigorate itself by inducing development with tax breaks.

He set out over the next decade to build stadiums, lure department stores Downtown and win tax exemptions to keep businesses from leaving the city. Murphy envisioned pricey housing on a slag heap outside the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and made it so. People entered a lottery to buy the first homes at Summerset at Frick Park.

Despite the gleaming new buildings and stadiums, Pittsburgh didn't attract enough new taxpayers to pay for a city government that grew in the good times and wasn't forced to shrink in the lean.

"There's a mountain of debt that reflects the 'pyramids,' " said Robert Strauss, a Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor, referring to the mayor's development projects. "Whether the pyramids were a good idea or not remains to be seen. Right now, we see a lot of debt to pay."

As the city's financial crisis came to a head -- with many people blaming Murphy -- the man who studied at a Cincinnati seminary seemed to find fiscal religion.

Throughout the past year, Murphy repeatedly said he was taking responsibility for the city's near-insolvency. In a move that stunned some political observers, Murphy last month finally owned up to submitting "phony" budgets -- city spending plans balanced by one-time Band-Aids or based on phantom revenue.

Just a week after winning his third term in 2001, Murphy announced the city would have to drastically cut spending and reform its tax structure to remain solvent. That became the beginning of what Murphy would come to call a "three-year odyssey," ending with the Legislature's approval last month of new and increased city taxes.

Throughout the process, state lawmakers said they might have acted sooner if Murphy had cut enough spending -- and if they had liked Murphy a little better. Ultimately, the Legislature approved the taxes only after creating its own oversight board, which prescribed deep spending cuts before recommending new revenue.

Murphy said he does not feel that process -- which included angering residents by closing city pools and recreation centers and losing the support of city unions as he laid off workers -- cost him a shot at a fourth term. He did acknowledge that his popularity has fallen.

An April poll by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review showed just one in 10 city residents willing to give Murphy another term. Politicians eyeing their own runs for mayor said more recent polls showed him to be vulnerable.

Murphy's fall, though steep, hasn't been sudden. He beat O'Connor, the former council president, by just 699 votes in the 2001 Democratic primary after winning city firefighters' support with a sweetened contract.

"As far as the mayor's legacy is concerned, it's a hard call to make at this point," said Councilman Alan Hertzberg, who chairs the finance committee. "A lot will depend on how the city's financial situation turns out. He has had some great things happen while mayor, especially in the area of development. But those positives could easily be outweighed by the negative if the city fails to make a quick economic recovery."

City Councilman William Peduto agreed.

"... I think it is important to look back on the positives of his administration rather than the negatives," Peduto said. "I think part of his legacy will be that he was the first mayor of this city since the region changed after World War II to take true steps to change tax policy."

Murphy said he's done with campaigning, but not finished as mayor. He said he will spend the next year implementing a budget crafted with the state oversight board and trying to spur Downtown redevelopment.

Oversight board Chairman Bill Lieberman described Murphy as "a great partner ... and I'm looking forward to working with him for the balance of 2005."

Murphy cited the Fifth-Forbes corridor among his greatest regrets. Under his watch, the city touted the taxpayer-subsidized openings of two department stores -- Lord & Taylor and Lazarus-Macy's -- only to see them close after a handful of lean years. The corridor is lined with boarded-up buildings -- many of them bought by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority as Murphy tried to attract a master developer.

Murphy, who divides his time between his Perry Hilltop and Butler County homes, said he has no plans beyond next year. He talked yesterday of how he and Mona dream of returning to the Peace Corps. He also said he's been offered jobs, but doesn't have anything lined up, in or out of government.

Summoning the seminarian of four decades ago, Murphy said: "God will take care of us."

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 765-2312.

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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With Lloyd Pierson's departure, Marie Wheat has been named acting Chief of Staff and Chief of Operations responsible for the day-to-day management of the Peace Corps. Although Wheat is not an RPCV and has limited overseas experience, in her two years at the agency she has come to be respected as someone with good political skills who listens and delegates authority and we wish her the best in her new position.

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Story Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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