In the Jewish faith, there’s a prayer about being idealistic. God gives you your ideas while… In the Jewish faith, there’s a prayer about being idealistic. God gives you your ideas while you’re on the mountaintop, and you take the idealism back down into the valley with you.
Lester Ludwig translated that idealism into 3 cents in the city’s last mayoral election.
Ludwig, who ran as a write-in candidate, wanted grocery stores like Giant Eagle to ask customers for 3 cents, which they could donate to one of three different programs. This, he said, would fund an increase in police officers and allow many Pittsburgh students to attend college for free. He advertised this idea on yellow flyers that had pennies with legs dancing toward a thermometer to show how Pittsburgh could reach those goals.
“For the first time in history, the public would have a choice,” he said. “That’s money that’s real.”
Lester Ludwig has run for mayor of Pittsburgh three times. He has been to most City Council meetings since 2003. He drove to the state capitol in Harrisburg to push the creation of a drug trafficking program in southwestern Pennsylvania. He has interviewed local officials in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region. He went to Washington, D.C. to introduce a proposal to the Department of Education.
Ludwig is not a city official nor a professional politician. He is a 77-year-old former food supplier from Philadelphia. Yet he ran as a write-in candidate in the mayoral election this past fall after losing to Bob O’Connor in the 2005 Democratic primary and later in the general election. Ludwig felt he had a chance, despite what he called a “political machine” here in Pittsburgh, referring to the city’s political system.
City Councilman Bill Peduto, who represents areas including North Oakland in District 8, said that he has known Ludwig for almost 10 years. Ludwig is one of a group of people who come to meetings regularly to voice concerns.
“He’s a colorful individual,” Peduto said of Ludwig.
When he ran for mayor in 2005 against Ludwig and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Peduto said Ludwig was especially harsh on him at a debate one night.
“Throughout the debate, he kept attacking me, which was kind of strange because I wasn’t the frontrunner, Ravenstahl was,” Peduto said.
But after the debate, Ludwig approached Peduto.
“I was expecting him to say, ‘Sorry about that,’ but instead, he said, ‘Hey, can you give me a ride home?’”
Peduto said that event summarizes Ludwig — it’s not about the candidate or the bill. It’s about the issues.
“I wish there were more people like that in politics,” Peduto said.
Before this year’s election, Ludwig was hopeful. Despite not having a party or fundraisers or a campaign staff, he planned his schedule around the possibility that he might become mayor. After he lost to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Ludwig felt frustrated with politics.
Ludwig hasn’t counted the write-in votes yet. But according to unofficial results, 165 people wrote in names in the election. The other candidates — independents Kevin Acklin and Franco Dok Harris — “didn’t really say a damn thing,” he said.
“It became a contest of how much to say about nothing,” Ludwig said. “And I come in fourth, but really, not at all.”
New ideas, unlikely places
Ludwig’s 3 cents idea is similar to one of his first proposals to City Council, which started with bags of grass.
In 2003, Ludwig’s wife brought home some free bags of perennial grasses local volunteers were handing out. But Ludwig thought the bags were a bad idea. They cost money at Home Depot. Why did the city give them away for free?
“Little did I know what effect that wagon-load of grass would have on my life,” he said.
He started to go to City Council meetings, something he hadn’t considered before. Since then, he’s spent six years presenting “new thinking,” “constructive,” “innovative” ideas for the city, he said. But it was hard to get others to support his ideas — unless, of course, Ludwig became mayor. Currently, the city is facing a multi-million-dollar hole in its budget.
“It’s evidence of what?” Ludwig asked rhetorically.
“Corruption!” he answered.
“And poor judgment,” he added.
Ludwig wants to sell advertisements to put on Pittsburgh’s bridges. Businesses could buy space for their logo on huge paintings of the likes of Degas and Monet, which would be hung over the bridges. Instead of having rusty bridges, clothe them in cloth, Ludwig said. He hoped the revenue raised in advertising could pay for the upkeep and cost of maintaining the bridges.
He hoped that his sorts of unconventional ideas could keep young people in Pittsburgh. He said Pittsburghers are voting with their feet — they are leaving the city.
“My three sons left,” Ludwig said.
Two sons are in New Jersey and one is in Washington, D.C.
“And I have eight grandchildren I never see,” he said.
It’s like Lech-Lecha in the Old Testament, when God told Abraham to cut off all your relationships and go, Ludwig said.
“But I won’t tell you where it is,” Ludwig said God told Abraham. “That’s the message from the city.”
‘I am the captain of my ship’
Ludwig was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 30, 1932, in the heart of the Great Depression. His father held three jobs. As a child, Ludwig used to ask his mother why they ate so many potatoes, he said. There was an Eddie Cantor song at the time that said “Potatoes are cheaper, now’s the time to fall in love.”
As a Jewish kid growing up in a large city, Ludwig said he got taunted by people as he walked home from the Patterson Grammar School in southwest Philadelphia.
When he was older, he began to attend Central High School. He explained that at 6-foot-2 he wanted to be a basketball star. He shot hoops instead of studying. He went to Temple University for a year and didn’t do well. When the Korean War began in June 1950, his mother told Ludwig he had to start studying or face the possibility of going to war.
“I was not going to become gun fodder,” Ludwig said.
He decided to transfer to Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., where he was one of 26 freshmen. He studied atomic preservation of food.
He married his first wife in June after his graduation and decided to apply to graduate schools for food technology. He said his experience working at Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden, New Jersey, helped him get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“God plays such a strange role,” he said. After he spoke with a director of the program to which he applied, he saw a plaque on one of the buildings that said Campbell’s Soup had donated money to build it. Things like that showed up in his life repeatedly, he said.
“We look up and say, I don’t know how it happened, but thank God it happened,” he said.
He didn’t finish his degree at MIT. He stayed for a term in 1955, but said his grades dropped once he got married. Instead, he joined the army and worked as a veterinary food chemist at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. When he faced the possibility of being sent to the Middle East under the Eisenhower administration, Ludwig said he learned this life motto: “I am the captain of my ship.”
Ludwig left the army so he wouldn’t have to go. He went into the packaging business. In 1959 or 1960, he said, he applied for a job at H.J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh. He said although several departments wanted him, he didn’t get the job. But he moved to Pittsburgh anyway.
“I am the captain of my ship,” Ludwig said. “Even if I’m broke.”
Ludwig began life as a supplier in southwest Pennsylvania, which took him from supplying bakery items to selling frozen eggs. When making deliveries, Ludwig would wait until a store employee went to handle customers and would look at the slips the bakeries kept on the nail. There, he saw what other suppliers were pricing for frozen eggs.
Working for his in-laws, Ludwig decided to move the frozen egg plant to Imperial, Pa. But when his business faced bankruptcy, he had to close the plant.
“You’re damned,” Ludwig said.
“What do you have to do?” he asked.
“You have to pick yourself up,” he answered.
Ludwig proceeded to go into the salvage business, where he sold everything from “nuts and bolts to filet mignon.”
“Of course, I don’t have to tell you, I did quite well,” he said.
When business began to die down, Ludwig opened an assisted living business at the suggestion of a friend. Assisted living ended up being too hard, he said. He went back to salvage and later retired. Now, he focuses on politics and participating in the Jewish Men’s Club in Pittsburgh with his congregation.
In 2006, while Ludwig was running against former mayor Bob O’Connor as a write-in candidate in the general election, Ludwig earned the support of Dave Adams. That year, Adams, who works for Facilities Management at Pitt, created the Pittsburgh Conscience Group. As a black man from Pittsburgh, Adams hoped the group would reach out to the black community to stop the “crime and culture crime” plaguing it. Adams said that when he met Ludwig, he thought he was different from the other candidates.
“I kind of liked him because some of his thoughts were outside of the box, and some of his thoughts were innovative and progressive,” Adams said.
For the next three years, Ludwig worked with 51-year-old Adams and the Pittsburgh Conscience Group.
Ludwig was the chief investigator for the group, whose seven members aimed to be a consulting agency for local law enforcement on crimes such as drug trafficking. Ludwig’s job was to amass information and to make sure the group wasn’t duplicating services provided by any other agency.
Adams said he didn’t think Ludwig should have run in the current election like he did. Ludwig didn’t pay the $100 filing fee or collect 250 signatures for his petition, like the other official candidates.
“Les has some great ideas, but I think he’s a little old for the stress,” Adams said.
He said he didn’t think write-in candidates have a chance in Pittsburgh, or anywhere else.
“It’s not about what the write-in candidates do,” he said. The system is designed to make it as difficult as possible, and the general community isn’t educated enough to know they can run that way. Individuals who want change can’t always move past the political process in place, Adams said — or the people’s obedience to it.
“It’s almost like the town crier. You’re screaming in the wind, ‘It’s raining, it’s raining,’ and the people don’t see it,” he said.
Ludwig said he didn’t participate officially because he didn’t want to be affiliated with parties, funding, or campaigns.
But Adams said candidates have to be involved and get their name out.
“That’s where he and I went off a little bit,” Adams said. “I think that his great ideas and some of the things he said would have been helpful to the city, but they got wasted because he didn’t allow himself to be part of the system.”
Whether with a detailed list of 36 problems with city government, or a biography and contact information listing himself as a counsel to government, Ludwig shows up on campus. Recently, he tried to advocate for students when the mayor proposed a 1 percent tuition tax.
Almost another year older, after another loss, one week after losing the election to Ravenstahl, Ludwig found himself preparing for his next project in political persuasion. What if he had, by some chance, won the election?
“At 77, I really wonder if I’m ready for the pressure that office would bring,” he said.