His Last Resort

Our columnist has done everything else. But to change Pittsburgh, Mark Desantis has to be mayor.
Photo by David Schrott Jr. His Last Resort
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I don’t want to be mayor of Pittsburgh. I want to change Pittsburgh forever, and I’m convinced the best way to do that is as mayor. There are, however, other ways to make our city better. You could work for an extraordinary politician who cares for this city like no other place on earth.

You could start and grow businesses that employ people and do interesting things. You could be a teacher of young people and try to instill in them a sense of purpose and selflessness for their extraordinary community. You could get people “all stirred up” (as my grandmother used to say) with aggressive and sometimes angry editorials in the local paper. You could become an activist of sorts and push a controversial referendum.

I’ve done them all. Yet I’m unconvinced I’ve had any real impact on my city or, for that matter, that I did everything I could have. After all, what did I risk? I’m single and don’t have a family to care for. If I didn’t succeed in any of these endeavors who would have noticed or cared? I also know I can recover from setbacks. You do it because you can and it is right.

In May of this year I stepped up, and that meant running for office — running for mayor, no less. This was a difficult decision for me. For one thing, I’m a private person and I’m just not comfortable with people knowing or snooping around in my life. Getting a security clearance was hard enough, but having the results of that published for the world to see is another matter. Not much I can say other than I’m kind of curious what people will find.

Second, the whole thing seemed so impossible when I started. After all, our campaign started with a daunting and one-​of-​a kind write-​in effort. We only began our formal efforts at the end of June. My opponent started with $750,000 in the bank. And, as I’m reminded again and again (and again and again) by every person in the media, there hasn’t been a Republican mayor since Herbert Hoover was President. I have to admit now for the first time that every time I’ve ever heard this — and the countless other sound reasons why running for mayor is a bad idea — my private voice has always said “So what?” Absolutely nothing worth doing for your family, friends, neighbors and yourself, is ever really easy, convenient, painless or without risk.

Last, since starting this race I’m pushed one way or another to “say why I’m better than the other guy.” I am not now nor will I ever be comfortable with this; I’m not better than anyone. What I have is a view of what here needs to be fixed, what needs to be changed and what to do about it. It is a view very, very different from my opponent. My convictions are not based on a blind faith in a personal or political philosophy. Nor do they spring from a dry, academic research paper or pompous policy book. They are rooted in years of trying, faltering, losing and, on occasion, winning.

Passion drives me, and I have a terrible passion for Pittsburgh. It is a strange draw because I’ve been disappointed by what our wonderful town could be but is not. That is why I’m running for mayor. For one, we’re not creating exciting and new opportunities for our citizens, young and old, for work. Sure, we get glimmers of light here and there, but trust me: they remain only flickering glimmers. I feel less safe, and so do the people I know. There are recent studies that support this uneasy feeling, but I trust my gut instincts in personal safety more than any statistical analysis. The roads, bridges, open spaces and the other man-​made stuff that holds our beautiful community together are disintegrating before our very eyes. My fellow citizens of color don’t seem to live in the same city I live in. And we are broke — dead broke — with no one to go to for help.

As for our ailing economy, one of several things I will do is recreate our city’s tax and fee system from scratch. Some of this we can do here, and the rest will require some changes in Harrisburg. There is no “one size fits all” taxing structure. They are all custom built for the current and expected demographic, economy and development growth goals for the region. For example, far more people than ever before commute in and out of the city than live in it. In addition, the city is not a great place to grow and start a business. Our tax and fee structure is a quaint hodgepodge from another era, and that will change.

Crime is not a police problem, nor does the burden rest with the residents alone. It is a problem that requires mutual respect and collaboration between those officially tasked with public safety and everyone else. Among other things, I will create city-​wide and local police/​citizen public safety teams. These joint committees will not merely give advice but will allocate the finite public safety resources of our community in novel and targeted ways to nip our burgeoning crime problem in the bud.

Our infrastructure and our financial problems are interwoven. In fact, our unbelievable financial situation and nearly every major problem we have are tied to, derived from, or caused by our terrible fiscal state. Huge amounts of money are now consumed not to fix a bridge, hire a police officer or educate our children but just to keep the people we owe money to stay away. Less money to go around means one thing: We must get more from our government for less. That means transforming our city government into the best managed of its kind in the United States within two years. Once our city government has earned the respect of its fellow Pennsylvanians, we can go to them for all the help we need.

You may have noticed that my ideas are not new or very creative. Nor are they complicated and sophisticated. These policies, concepts and ideas have been working in countless places, organizations and communities for decades. They work everywhere, and they can and will work here. If I’m elected, we will apply them on a large scale and now.

When a previous CEO of IBM took the helm of the huge company, he was asked what his strategy was. His answer was simple: do. I’ve lived in this magnificent city in which I was born for the past 10 years, and there is one strange thing. Our problems never change.

My point is two-​fold: (1) We should be resolving old problems and addressing new ones and (2) our problems should be the consequence of trying to do something profound, new and better — not just about survival. If I win, I can assure you we will get past this mysterious timidity that has paralyzed our city. We will change.

When you run for office, you’re

obligated to tell your fellow citizens how you’re going to fix their problems. It is an expectation and prescription doomed to failure. Rather, it is your obligation to explain how we will fix our problems, and, as important, how you can convince your fellow citizens to understand and believe how this can be.

A 16th-​century politician named Joseph Addison once said, “We cannot ensure success, but we can deserve it.” Politics is not a game of finessing or spinning. It is not a game at all. It is a powerful and imperfect tool. We use it to make our community better. I believe we can and must use it this fall to make Pittsburgh a lot better. Please use it wisely.

Mark DeSantis

Mark is a management consultant and entrepreneur who lives Downtown. He is also an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Mark spent 15 years in and out of government service in Washington, D.C., before moving to Pittsburgh.

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