A Conversation with Mark DeSantis | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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A Conversation with Mark DeSantis

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 Everyone said there was no way a Republican could become mayor of Pittsburgh. As it turned out, they were right. But the Republican who tried, Mark DeSantis, sat down with City Paper three days after the Nov. 6 primary to talk about his race against Luke Ravenstahl, and his potential future in the public eye. [Editor's note: This is the full text of the interview conducted Nov. 9, 2007]

So, how are you doing?

I'm tired.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I was just getting worn down and probably ultimately I think I need to take some time off. It's intense; it's very, very intense. And you've got to be at your best when you're talking to people about their lives, which is what politics is. ... The problem with campaigns is you get down to the wire and people get ground down, they get tired and they say things that you have to be careful about. You get worn down and that's when you say stupid things.

Is there something that you said that you thought was stupid in the waning days that you wish you could have back?

No, I knew I was getting tired. The challenge is to keep your energy up. You have an obligation; you're running for office. They don't care if you're tired. They shouldn't care ... you're the candidate. When you're pitching, it's up to you to be energized and focused. But anyway, it was a very satisfying experience. I learned a lot about Pittsburgh and I came away more optimistic than I was before I started the race. I know that's hard t imagine when you get beat two-to-one.

Yeah, I mean what gives you optimism? You did better than some Republicans before you, but was it really enough of a margin to make you optimistic? You're not really optimistic that a Republican can become mayor of this city are you?

No, because I didn't go into this thinking, "Gee, I want to be the first Republican mayor," or for that matter that someday there's hope for a Republican mayor. I don't care about that stuff. I believe in advancing our city's cause and purpose and I believe that's what this campaign ultimately did. It raised the bar for what people think of government and their leaders; I think it changed that permanently, actually. I say that because our campaign talked frankly abut what was wrong with this city and that message resonated. I know that because my opponent was using our rhetoric in his campaign. ... So there was agreement that the message was very true. People heard it. One bad thing that's been true in this city is that very few elected leaders talk honestly to their constituents. Many, in fact, talk down to their constituents. We wanted to talk to people as peers and people responded.

Do you think your opponent did that? Do you think he caught on that people weren't responding to his message?

I think he caught on because his tone and his rhetoric changed in the past few weeks. ... It's not about message. The issue is about how you communicate with people as much as what you communicate. If you treat people with respect and make assumptions that they like you care about their community and think about the issues. If you treat people with respect, they respond. If you give people platitudes and empty messages and empty rhetoric, they see right through it.

Do you think your opponent was doing that early on? Especially the way he responded to some of these highly publicized incidents?

Yes and I also think that many other local, elected officials talk in these platitudes and empty rhetoric. There are too many local elected officials that this is the best paying job that they can get, and they're not very good at what they do. What's needed are people who understand the spirit of public service and people who are willing to have the moral courage to take risks on behalf of the people they represent.

I don't suppose I could cajole you into giving me a couple names of those officials, could I?

(Laughs) Let's just leave it at that.

Do you respect Luke Ravenstahl more now than you did when you start this process and two, do you really think he can do this job in the manner that you think it needs to be done?

I respect Luke. He's a good, decent person and I believe that he's sincere and he wants to make a difference, I believe that. But I believed that going in. But I don't believe that he's the right person for the job. But he is mayor and the fact is we have to make that work. Somehow we have to make it work. Sometimes when you find yourself in a situation where someone's ... leading and you don't agree that the person should be there, you have to respect the office of mayor and you have to acknowledge their leadership. Because ultimately your values are with the community and advancing the community, not in some personal grudge. He is the mayor ... and we have to make his leadership work right now. The ambition is to make this community better; it's not about political agendas. I'm willing to work with Luke.

What capacity do you see yourself continuing in to try and work toward that?

Deputy Mayor.

I guess it doesn't hurt to ask.

I'm going to be a private citizen. My ambition is to get this minority loan program, micro-loan program off the ground. I've been at it now for, even before I started the campaign. I need to get it off the ground so it's ready to go next year. I'm going to look into ways that as a citizen we can support some sort of consolidation effort. Another thing that is an interest to me is getting the home rule charter changed to get a spending cap in place tying changes in spending to changes in the consumer price index.

Do you think your run for mayor, the public face you've created for yourself over the past several months has positioned you better to do this, or is this something you could have done before you ran for mayor?

I would have done the micro-loan program anyway. But the other two initiatives, it probably helps to have an identity through the campaign. But the reality was it was a team effort and thee were a lot of people involved who were energized by the campaign and they'll be helping as well. SO the better value of the campaign was energizing a whole lot of people who had never previously been involved in the political process.

Talk about your micro-loan program.

We've got to raise some money, I estimate we're going to raise between $250,000 and $300,000. The program will fund minority-owned businesses. It's a micro-loan program that has worked in Philly and it's worked in other countries. Borrowers can borrow from $500 to $5,000 and they don't need collateral or a credit check. The lenders are other business people in a given neighborhood. So what we'll do is target say three to five neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh or possibly outside the city and we will find a group of a half a dozen to a dozen business people and we will give them the right to lend money. To make a choice who among them or others from that neighborhood who want to borrow money. Now this isn't a grant program, it's a lending program. Sometimes the businesses, like my little business, we watch a thousand dollars very carefully. Many of these businesses, their gross revenues may be no more than $50,000 or $75,000.

There have been similar programs on the Internet that have been quite successful.

The value of this one is that in addition to the money, I'm going to create a peer network that will include not only business people form the neighborhood, but also entrepreneurs form around Pittsburgh who would be mentors and advisors to people starting up these businesses. What I saw when I was teaching entrepreneurship at Robert Morris, and what I've seen in my business is there's a cultural divide between the community of entrepreneurs, mainly the tech community that I'm in, and entrepreneurs and business people mostly in the African-American community. There's a divide. They don't know each other. What I'm going to do is bridge that and get people talking. It's not going to change the world, I acknowledge that, but you've got to start somewhere.

Let's talk a little bit about the campaign and the election. If you actually could live on the Internet, I think you might have actually won the election.

(laughs) The Virtual Mayor, that could be my avatar.

I don't say that as a joke. If you lived in that community at all, you really started to feel like, "Hey, Mark DeSantis could win this thing." How did you balance that against what you knew from, I assume you did polling? Did you have a sense going in what the numbers would be, and did you maybe buy into a little bit of this sentiment going on in the blogosphere?

I believed we could win, up until the end. I'd seen some numbers and they weren't great, but they were doable, they were workable. The Internet, the blogosphere, was one of the more fascinating things about this campaign in that there was a contest, almost like a precursor of the campaign battle on the blogosphere. So, early on during the write-in phase, you'd see snippets here and there and there were people dubious of the effort dubious of me, my candidacy, of a Republican. (His cell phone rings). Hang on one second. (Into cell phone:) Can I call you right back?

That was my mother.

Did she also think you could win?

Yes.

But she reminded you constantly, "You know it's a four-to-one advantage for the Democrats?"

(Laughs) She knew it was five-to-one. ... As we started to dialog, I actually reached out to the bloggers because I thought if I could reach a few bloggers early on, they could influence a few others and we'd at least get heard. I didn't know if they'd agree with me, but I'd at least get heard. There were a lot of preconceptions about me being a Republican, and the blogosphere is influential. It had a lot to do with us getting momentum. I really believe that. It has to do with the media reading the blogosphere. ... These thought leaders in these communities read the blogosphere. They all kind of influenced each other in this cycle of influence and so I knew that if early on we were going to get heard, I had to get heard directly from the blogosphere people. I sat down with many of them because nothing can replace face to face. I also knew from talking to people that Pittsburgh is a diverse community and if you're going to be mayor, you have to mayor for everyone, not just for people who use the Internet or People of a certain income level. So, as much as the Internet is helpful in the political process, the old-school politics of meeting face to face. ...Human-to-human contact is irreplaceable.

How did you fare with that face-to-face contact?

One of the things that probably we would have done differently is early on we went into neighborhoods and we talked to a lot of people in the summer, but we didn't publicize it. We didn't put any P.R. around it. I would just go out and start chatting with people and that I think conveyed the impression that our grassroots started late, when in fact we were grassroots from the get go. We just weren't using it for a P.R. benefit. The reason we didn't is I didn't think I'd be able to have an honest exchange with people with cameras in tow. It's harder to talk to people when there's a freakin' TV truck standing eight feet away. But there are a lot of what ifs?

Is there a what if now that you think about it that could have swung things a little differently? Something that you thought, "If I would have done this, or I would have done that?" Or is it just a sad fact that you didn't have a chance because of the "R" after your name?

There's nothing the campaign could have done. The campaign people were at peak performance from the beginning all the way through. I'm so proud of them. Something I could have done was simply start sooner. And that's my issue, not the campaign's issue.

Would you have maybe gone (on the ballot in the primary) rather than as a write-in in the primary?

If I had decided sooner I probably would have done that. But a Republican can win, don't, uh, there's no ...

Do you still believe that?

Yeah.

I find that maybe a little tough to believe because you've been tagged as the best Republican candidate in years for the office of mayor --

Centuries. (Laughs)

-- Right, at least decades, against a mayor that has lost popularity at a surprisingly stunning rate in the past several months. Anything he could do to put himself in a negative light, he did it. ... So if it wasn't this time, what has to happen next time for a Republican to win, you'd think there would need to be criminal charges against the Democratic candidate?

I think starting earlier, raising more money earlier. More outreach earlier. Where we did not succeed was in the African American community. When the tallies came in, Luke won his neighborhoods big.

Which you'd expect.

But where we faltered was in the African American communities. The message we had didn't resonate and I fault me, not the campaign or the African American community. It was my inability to get the message out and to sit down with enough people and communicate what I was about.

Did you not focus on those neighborhoods enough, or did you not say the right things?

We worked hard, but I didn't work hard enough, I guess.

Would that have been enough to swing the election?

Yes. If you look at the numbers, if you took the numbers he got in the African American Community and you just made them comparable to that to one, it actually becomes a competitive race.

Do you think the comments the last couple weeks of the campaign, -- Luke's constant effort to tie you to Rick Santorum and George Bush -- that that's where some of those comments made some headway, was just simply calling you a Republican enough to damage your credibility?

I don't know. People were laughing at it out loud. Laughing at the tactic. I sure hope with most of the voters it didn't resonate, because it was a silly thing.

Did that show you that he was concerned, that he was worried about you? That seemed sort of desperate.

Oh yeah, they were concerned. It was very desperate. The two things that convinced me that they were deeply concerned was the Bush, Santorum, Iraq War nonsense and his get out the vote effort. They spent a lot of money to get out their vote. They were extremely worried.

What do you hope that Luke learned from this challenge, if there's one thing that you hope that he took from your message?

I would hope that he understands that this is a real job. That results are the only thing that matter. In the end, that's what he needs to focus on. This is truly a challenging time for this city and this is a big job and real results are all that matter.

Do you see yourself taking up this challenge again in two years? Because at that point, I think Luke has shown his weaknesses and Democrats are going to come out en masse to try and take him out of office.

Look, I think there are plenty of reform-oriented Democrats: You know, Mike Lamb, Bill Peduto, (Dan) Frankel, all of these folks, wouldn't it be great if we had a woman, an African American woman. Let's get some new blood in the game. That's what's needed here. Competition is great. The competition of this campaign and the competition of future campaigns raise the bar. Everybody performs better when there's competition. That's one of the things we tried to stress in this campaign.

What was the high point and the low point of this campaign for you?

I think when we were right around our fourth or fifth debate, probably about three weeks out and we knew we had momentum -- incredible momentum. That was the high point. We really felt like we had a shot at that point.

Probably the low point, I've got to say there really weren't any. The most challenging time was at the very beginning because a wall of cynicism greeted us and rightly so. People were thinking, "Come on now, a Republican for the mayor of Pittsburgh, give me a break. Who are you, you never held public office, you're a write-in." ... We had to push through that wall of cynicism and show that we were serious.

Maybe you're not going to run for mayor again, but do you have ambitions for other public office? You may now be one of the most popular Republicans. What about a countywide run? Would you have had better luck running against Dan Onorato than Luke Ravenstahl?

My view is this. This wasn't about any political move on my part. It was about what I thought was the thing that needed addressed and that was the city. The city is the anchor for the entire region. There were so many problems in the city, and there still are, that weren't being talked about. So I felt compelled to run for mayor because if you don't get the city right, there's not much else you can do. So it wasn't about political positioning or posturing for me. It was, "Let's talk about the city of Pittsburgh." The county has problems, a lot of problems, but the city is the flywheel for the region.

Are you anymore positive that the city can experience an upswing after this campaign, or is it still in the same situation it was before?

No. ...The people in this city are much more savvy of the problems in the city. I'm absolutely sure of that. They're much more savvy about what the real problems are -- not the false problems and the distractions -- but the real problems, the debt, the pension liabilities, the abysmal performance of our city government. They see these things for what they are, real true problems that need fixing. Additionally, they've heard different solutions and they want to see results. We've raised the bar on people's expectations about what city government is or could be. We showed them alternatives . . .So I believe that people's expectations are much higher than they were before and people are going to demand more and the elected officials in this city . . .Let's put it this way, if you're an elected official in or around this city and you weren't watching this campaign carefully, you aren't going to be an elected official much longer. People are fed up with the nonsense.

Knowing what you know now, would you still have gotten into this ring back in May?

You bet.

Any regrets?

None.

So what do you do now? take a break and then jump back into your business?

I've done a few things and I'll probably take a break, take a week or two off and get right back into business. I'm excited about getting re-engaged in my businesses.

Mark DeSantis at his campaign announcement June 26
  • Mark DeSantis at his campaign announcement June 26

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