On Your Mark … | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

On Your Mark …

Mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis prepares to run a race no one thinks a Republican can win

When Mark DeSantis jumps into a political campaign, he does it almost literally. Speaking beneath the grand rotunda of the Pennsylvanian on Grant and Liberty on June 26, announcing his candidacy for mayor, he could barely stand still.

Throughout the 14-minute speech, his words were deliberate, but his movements never stopped, swaying from left to right almost constantly.

“Our journey begins [bob to the right] with the choice we make [weave to the left] here and now [sway to the center],” DeSantis told the crowd of about 80. “I believe [left-right] we no longer have the option [left-right] of staying on the well-traveled path for it has become our road to ruin [right … left-right].”

Sometimes the movements make the 47-year-old entrepreneur, consultant and former lobbyist a little hard to watch. Was he bobbing and weaving, like a boxer readying for a title fight? Or is DeSantis, a Republican running in a Democratic town, seeking the right place to position himself, somewhere between left and right?

Whatever the reason, don’t mistake DeSantis’ swaying for nerves or trepidation.

He’s never run for office before, and in his first race he’s taking on incumbent Luke Ravenstahl, a Democrat whose support seemed so broad that he faced no opposition in the May 16 primary. This in a town where another name for Republican is “sacrificial lamb.”

But DeSantis is no neophyte. He has spent a great deal of his professional life around politics, at both the state and national level. He’s spent a lot of time around politicians working as a legislative staffer and lobbyist in the mid-1990s.

This time, though, DeSantis is the politician. He may face fierce scrutiny … or worse yet, no scrutiny at all. The conventional wisdom, after all, is that a Republican will never be mayor. And voters may well write him off even before learning who he is or what he’s about.

“The last Republican mayor of this city was born in the 19th century and may or may not have been a Civil War veteran, I don’t know,” DeSantis laughs in an interview with City Paper. And in fact, no Republican has held the post since the Great Depression.

Why should this time, and this guy, be any different?

“I have to worry less about what has happened here in the past and focus more on my goal when I entered this election — giving people a choice,” DeSantis says.

“People don’t give a damn about things like party affiliation as much as certain people think they do. What they want to know is, ‘Will this candidate give me a legitimate choice for a future different and better than the plan I’m being handed now?’”

With November a mere five months away, DeSantis is going to have to move fast to make his pitch — even faster than he moves behind that podium.

Mark DeSantis doesn’t just have to just sell his plans and programs in the next five months. He’s got sell the voters on Mark DeSantis as well.

He doesn’t have a record of elected service to point to. Nor does he have a name or face that everyone recognizes. In fact, up until he launched an 11th-hour write-in campaign to get on the ballot, most Pittsburghers had never heard of Mark DeSantis.

DeSantis says he hadn’t made the decision to jump into the race until after the deadline to place his name on the ballot had already passed.

However, when Ravenstahl’s sole Democratic challenger, city Councilor Bill Peduto, dropped out of the race earlier this year, Ravenstahl was poised to become the mayor until 2009 without ever having run a competitive race. To DeSantis, it didn’t seem right.

“It’s my job to get our message out there and make sure that the people of this city have at least two clear distinct choices when they go to vote in November,” he says. “It’s up to Luke to put forward a clear message about the next five years: That’s his moral obligation.”

“I had some concerns launching a write-in campaign because no one had ever run one for this purpose, so we had to make sure we didn’t get too far ahead of our abilities to get the necessary votes,” says DeSantis.

In fact, DeSantis got 910 write-in votes in the Republican primary — many more than the 250 he needed to earn a spot on the November ballot.

To DeSantis, that outcome is a sign that voters are worried about the city’s direction. While the city posted a budget surplus in its most recent fiscal year, trouble is on the horizon. The city is currently in a form of financial receivership, its finances monitored by two oversight boards and the state’s Act 47 — legislation that dictates budgetary decisions made by distressed municipalities.

“We are a ward of the state, and that ain’t good,” DeSantis says. In 1974, he notes, city voters approved a home-rule charter that allowed for more decisions to be made at the local level, rather than in Harrisburg. “In a sad irony, we have less control now than we did before the home rule charter. That’s terrible … and it’s getting worse.”

So what qualifies DeSantis to save the city? He points to years working in and with government.

DeSantis was a policy analyst for the first President Bush’s science adviser before taking on a similar role in the Department of Commerce. He also spent three years working as the top aide for the late Sen. John Heinz.

Heinz, a moderate Republican, was beloved in this Democratic town — a feat DeSantis will need to emulate. DeSantis also worked to get former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey, another business-minded moderate elected in 1999. He then served as a member of Roddey’s transition team.

On the local scene, DeSantis has written a number of op-ed pieces in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the need for government reform. He was a co-founder of the Citizens for Democratic Reform, which in 2002 began leading the charge to reduce the county’s row offices from 10 to 5.

That campaign proved successful, thanks to a referendum in 2005, and DeSantis backers say the effort shows how he blends principle and pragmatism.

“Mark has shown that he can identify what the major problems are and that he’s a candidate who will listen to the voters, not just provide lip service,” says Bob Hillen, who chairs the city’s Republican committee. “There were some people who wanted to eliminate all of the row offices and some who just wanted to dump jury commissioners. Mark was in there working hard to find a balance.”

Today, DeSantis spends his time working as president for Mobile Fusion, a technology startup on the South Side. He also serves on the boards of several other firms.

But his best selling point may be the vibe he gives off: a Pittsburgher who has just had enough of watching the city he loves crumble.

“Mark’s love for Pittsburgh is unquestioned,” says his younger brother, Dan DeSantis. “When he came back 10 years ago he said he was moving Downtown. I told him he should move into Shadyside or Squirrel Hill, because nobody wants to live Downtown.”

DeSantis moved to the Pennsylvanian, the former railroad station whose rotunda sheltered his campaign kick-off. In a city as neighborhood-focused as Pittsburgh, a Downtown ZIP code may not help DeSantis reach voters where they live. But Dan DeSantis sees his brother’s choice of home as a statement of principle.

“That’s the heart of the city, he knows that’s where the city’s core strength lies and by doing that he was putting his money where his mouth is.”

Not surprisingly, given his party affiliation and the fact that he has never run for office, DeSantis is running as a political outsider. But as the campaign moves forward, Democrats may try to paint him as the ultimate political insider: a lobbyist.

According to DeSantis and his many online biographies, he has worked in the past as a lobbyist for Texas Instruments, a major technology company, and as a consultant for “companies working with or seeking to work with the public sector.”

That is, perhaps, a strange résumé for a candidate who complains the city can’t “go to the state, hat in hand, to fix our problems.” And it’s never easy to run as an outsider when much of your career involves lobbying. In her 2006 bid to retain her Congressional seat, Republican Melissa Hart and her backers told everyone who’d listen that the Democratic challenger, Jason Altmire, had been a lobbyist for UPMC.

Altmire won anyway, but Duquesne University law professor and local Democratic insider Joe Mistick says, “You can almost guarantee the Democrats are going to be painting [DeSantis] with that brush.”

But DeSantis isn’t worried about the label, and some of his employers say he has much to be proud of.

“I was a lobbyist for five years with Texas Instruments,” DeSantis says. “I’m not going to hide that fact; I don’t think it was a negative thing.

“Right now, the city has a bunch of hired lobbyists who spend all day trying to get money from other places, and that’s a bad strategy to fix our problems. When you go looking for money or grants from the government, you should go from a position of strength, not go hat in hand when you’ve never done anything to solve your own problems.”

John Boydock, the former vice president of government relations with Texas Instruments, hired DeSantis after his work at the White House in the mid-1990s. Boydock says DeSantis’ main job was to lobby the government to help fund technological research, specifically in the area of semiconductors.

Texas Instruments works in that field — 96 cents of ever dollar the company earned last year was from semi-conductor sales — but Boydock explains, “The research is too costly for one company to do alone.” In most instances, Boydock says, the government-funded research was matched 50/50 by money from the private sector.

Boydock says DeSantis was successful at his job, although he couldn’t put a dollar amount on how much money he got the government to spend on research. “Mark is a very smart man,” he says. “He’s also great at surrounding himself with the best people around to get the job done.”

Another DeSantis client, Canada-based ECI Composites, makes protective material for armored vehicles, according to its CEO Gary Whittaker. Whittaker says he hired DeSantis’ consulting company, Formation3, to help the company better position its defense division in the United States. Whittaker says DeSantis had useful contacts in government, but he stresses that “He wasn’t out there scratching and begging for government defense dollars. He looked for new markets; where could we sell our products next?

“Mark has an incredible strategic mind,” Whittaker adds. “He sees how the pieces fit together and will fall into place as you’re moving forward.

“When we were discussing moving our business to the United States, the first place that came to Mark’s head was Pittsburgh. He’s always selling the city to outside companies.”

Whether DeSantis can sell the city on an outside candidate, though, is another matter. To the extent that most Pittsburghers recognize his name, they know him as “the Republican.”

He does, in fact, have connections to the GOP’s more polarizing figures. DeSantis contributed $400 to former Sen. Rick Santorum — certainly no John Heinz moderate — in 2000 and $250 in 2006. He contributed another $1,000 to George W. Bush in 1999. (He also gave $250 to Arlen Specter in 2002.) Still, by Beltway standards, these are paltry sums. Local GOP cash cow Richard Mellon Scaife, by contrast, has donated more than $116,000 to candidates, and another $150,000 to the Republican Party since 1998.

“I’m not ashamed of my party affiliation or candidates I’ve supported in the past,” DeSantis says. “People aren’t electing me to the U.S. Senate or appointing me as ambassador to Finland. They’re electing me as mayor of the city of Pittsburgh to deal with the problems of the city.

“We all have our own beliefs system, and that’s what makes this a great country. But I have to focus on the issues in front of me and that’s how do we make this city great again?”

DeSantis says the city has long suffered from poor management. Pittsburgh, he says, needs strong leadership willing to re-examine the way that government does business. And the message of his campaign is: Change has to come and sooner rather than later.

DeSantis points out that almost a quarter of the city’s budget goes toward paying long-term debt — more than twice the national average. He also says the city’s pension fund, a reserve to pay benefits for retired city workers, has only 40 cents for every dollar it will pay out in benefits. “What’s the solution our local government gives to get us out of this financial mess? ‘Let’s go to Harrisburg and ask them for money,’” DeSantis says.

During his official campaign kickoff he outlined six priorities for the city with a promise to detail the specific plans as the campaign unfolds. They are: confidence in our leaders; greater personal safety; fewer and fairer taxes, sustainable economic development, efficiency, effectiveness and transparency; and bridging the cultural divide.

On some of these points, DeSantis has begun to lay out some initiatives, including plans to measure and publish the real impact of every program and department, and create a management contract between the city’s leadership and its citizens. He cites Charlotte, N.C., as a model of good governance.

With the help of outside consultants, Charlotte crafted a “Balanced Scorecard” to articulate key objectives — reducing crime in “hot spots,” for example — and to measure success at meeting those goals. In addition to tracking straightforward data like the number of police calls, Charlotte also hires a polling firm to survey residents about their attitudes regarding safety and other issues.

As the example of Charlotte and DeSantis’ own Post-Gazette writings suggest, he’s running for mayor as a sort of elected management consultant. But for the moment, he’s a consultant short on specific recommendations. He advocates for consolidating city services as long as they don’t cause a hardship on city residents, for instance … but so far he’s cautious not to say which services could be streamlined.

DeSantis says he will more completely lay out his proposals and policies in the coming weeks.

“We need to start with a blank sheet of paper,” he says. “There are 3,200 people working for this city and they are good people. I’m not anti-government by any means, but we have to revisit our notion of what our government is for. It doesn’t exist for itself, but for the people who live here and we have to reorganize it for that purpose.”

DeSantis says you must first identify what services are crucial, and then you decide how big government needs to be to provide those services. “We for years have said, ‘Here’s your government, this is what we’re going to live with,’” he adds. “We have a government that’s basic structure, focus and size was built for a population that hasn’t existed since I was born. We have to rightsize and reorganize from the ground up.

“Rightsizing,” of course, is corporate HR-speak for “layoffs,” and DeSantis says staffing cuts might be necessary. But even so, he contends, making cuts now will reduce the need for even deeper reductions in the future.

“If we don’t change our course, we are going to fly into the side of a mountain,” he says. “We have over $2 billion in debt liabilities. That’s unprecedented. It’s probably the highest debt liability per capita in the United States.”

Moreover, DeSantis says, cutting costs and debt now will create fiscally fertile soil to grow new and existing businesses and industries. DeSantis says the city prides itself on its sustainable physical beauty and new projects like the stadium-area development, “but there are other areas of this city that are falling apart.

“We were just named the most livable city, and that should mean that every part of the city is livable. We need tpstart dialog about our neighborhoods and ask, ‘Is this the best we can do here?’ The answer in a lot of cases is no.”

DeSantis’ campaign kick-off drew fewer than 100 people, with about 10 of those being members of the media. Some would argue that’s not a bad turnout for a sweltering-hot Tuesday morning, but it speaks to the uphill climb he has.

Hillen, of the city GOP, says DeSantis will get some help that other city Republicans haven’t had. Officials with the county and state GOP are finally taking an interest in a Pittsburgh city election, he says, and that hasn’t happened since 1969. He says Republicans have always just conceded the city to the Democrats, but not this year.

“We’ve gotten the state GOP’s base donor list and they’ve never wanted to release that before to city candidates,” Hillen says. “I’m sure it has to do with his connection to Sen. Heinz and to the first President Bush’s administration.

“The fact is you can’t win without the almighty dollar,” Hillen adds. “Combine that with a very good, open-minded candidate who will listen to voters and provide solutions and that’s a pretty good mix.”

Mistick says money is important, but that the most important thing that DeSantis will need are Democrats in large numbers voting against the party. Mistick says DeSantis will have to be “walking on a razor’s edge,” that fine line between being a Republican but not so Republican that he “scares off Democrats who might vote for him.”

Some Democrats are already stepping out for DeSantis. He was introduced at his kickoff event by Kilolo Luckett, a young African-American Democrat, who describes herself as an “informed voter.”

Luckett, a real-estate broker, is also on the board of the Community Design Center and a member of the Women and Girls Foundation, a group that campaigns for equal rights for women. Luckett says she has known DeSantis for a couple of years and has admired his intelligence and openness.

“He appeals to a range of people regardless of their political affiliation,” she explains. “I have always been a Democrat, but I’ve never walked into a booth and just pulled a lever or pushed a button for an entire party slate.”

Luckett says she sees DeSantis as his “own man” where she often thinks Ravenstahl is too easily swayed by others be it party leaders or other officials. She adds: “He just doesn’t think cohesively and collaboratively, and we need that now more than ever.”

Maybe this is the year. Maybe the time has never been better for a sweeping change. Already this year, two Democratically endorsed city council candidates — Len Bodack and Jeff Koch — were ousted by reform-minded challengers in the primary.

“I’m encouraged because the people who won those seats are reform-oriented folks,” DeSantis says. “People are ready for change and they want it now.”

But this is still Pittsburgh, where Dems outnumber Republicans five-to-one. “Those council races did signal the winds of change,” Mistick says. “But it was still Democrats voting for other Democrats; I don’t think they’re ready to change this much.”

Still, Mistick adds, “If he can engage the incumbent in a series of debates, perhaps several separate ones focusing on major issues, then the voters have already won. 

“For a Republican to win there has to be a perfect storm. There would have to be a catastrophic incident with the Democratic candidate and even then there would have to be a really strong Republican candidate waiting in the wings.”

DeSantis figures to be a stronger Republican than those the GOP has put up in recent years, at least: Unlike Joe Weinroth and James Carmine, the previous Republican contenders, DeSantis has extensive practical government experience, and deeper connections to Republican higher-ups. He’s also facing a rival who might prove to be a weaker Democrat than Bob O’Connor or Tom Murphy, the previous Democratic nominees. While Ravenstahl’s aura of political invincibility was enough to hedge out any Democratic challengers this year, his inexperience has arguably been on display lately — most recently with the controversial promotion of three city police officers with a history of domestic-violence allegations.

“My single ambition is to change the way we do things here; to no longer be satisfied with the status quo and just being good enough,” DeSantis says. “I know that change is risky and it’s a lot to ask people to take that risk with me. But when people are willing to take big risks, you can accomplish great things.”

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