A Day in the Life of Allegheny County Exec Rich Fitzgerald
It’s a late afternoon in August and people are busily setting up for the annual Mt. Lebanon Democratic Committee picnic on a sprawling lawn facing a tree-lined street. A procession of state and federal candidates arrive to mingle with supporters but the person who draws the most attention is Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald
. As he bounds across the lawn, smiling and greeting well-wishers, a gentleman takes me aside and whispers, “He works 80-hour weeks, you know.” Fitzgerald certainly works the crowd on this day, stepping to the microphone last and offering up a passionate, unscripted, pitch-perfect 20-minutes on behalf of Democratic candidates all the way up to President Obama. It’s a bravura performance.
What makes this 53-year-old engineer and Pittsburgh native, who didn’t seek political office until he was 40, tick? A love of region certainly factors in, and it’s on ample display on a recent day filled with meetings, events and the glare of television cameras. The County Executive’s scheduler, Sonya Dietz, sorts through nearly 100 requests for his time on a daily basis and packs the schedule at his request. “He doesn’t want anyone to feel shut out,” she says. “He wants people to know what’s going on in his county. I worked on Council for six years and have never seen anybody work as much as he does.”
An 8 a.m. meeting on how to make it easier for county residents to obtain voter ID (a judge has since put the state’s voter ID law on hold) is followed by a chat with the head of Central Catholic High School, Fitzgerald’s alma mater. Then it’s off to Station Square for the Ohio River Watershed Celebration, where the County Executive will deliver brief remarks. His entourage is small, consisting of Director of Communications, Amie Downs, and a detective from the Allegheny County Police Department acting as driver and security detail. The official vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee, is equally modest. The drive across the river gives Fitzgerald plenty of time to weigh in on issues. On transit, he’s sanguine about the prospects for the region.
“Transit to the airport is a long-term plan. The subway extension to the North Shore was a big accomplishment and is huge in helping development all along the line to the South Hills. Now that we’re across the river, the airport and the North Hills will probably be next. It probably won’t be rail to the airport but bus rapid transit like that in [Cleveland’s] Cuyahoga County. Cost- and time-wise, these can get done, and we have to look at the reality of cost.”
The issue of cost around Port Authority service is another ongoing conversation as Fitzgerald is looking to use Regional Asset District (RAD) funds to bridge a budget gap in Port Authority funding, a proposal which has received mixed reviews.
“I know that the Port Authority in the past has been inefficient and high cost, and people are unwilling to pay taxes into a system that’s not providing a good service. Now, people are giving public transit a second look. They love the subway extension and being able to go to the casino, the Steelers, a concert on the North Shore. I don’t see Mitt Romney saying ‘I’m a Tea Party guy’ any more, or lining up with the Norquist pledge. People realize there are good taxes and bad taxes, and they want to pay for the good stuff. They want us to spend our money wisely.”
After a quick check with Downs on the reason for the Ohio River celebration, Fitzgerald hops out of the Jeep and boards the Gateway Clipper to shake hands with dignitaries and constituents (he knows many) on the way to the podium, where he welcomes the group and speaks to the importance of working together to protect our waterways. This collaborative spirit is a theme the County Executive returns to throughout the day.
Back at the office, the day takes a turn as the media has caught wind of the fact that Fitzgerald has made an $8,000 contribution to an exploratory committee formed by mayoral hopeful and City Councilman, Bill Peduto. The two men are close, having arranged the first City Council/County Council summit almost a decade ago. Peduto also backed Fitzgerald’s race for County Executive early on. As reporters push microphones and pose questions, Fitzgerald’s message is clear.
“Bill Peduto has filed an exploratory committee for mayor. He hasn’t officially announced that he’s running. I’ve already given $50-75,000 in campaign contributions this fall, to Obama and others. Bill Peduto helped tremendously in my primary; he spoke on my behalf. I’m a supporter of Bill and if Bill decides to do this, it’s his decision. I tend to be loyal to those who support me.”
After a brief meeting with Port Authority head Steve Bland, Fitzgerald and company are off on foot to the Westin to welcome delegates at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s 97th
annual convention. Fitzgerald’s brisk, light pace belies his tall frame and he is keen to know his audience and their expectations in advance so he can speak freely, without notes.
“This is what I do. I sell. If I make a presentation, I engage. If I read notes, I lose the audience. I come from a family of salesmen. Look at Bill Clinton – he has such a way of drawing people in, of getting them to pay attention. Like when he points that finger. It’s a way of laying things out in common terms, a conversational tone.”
After a quick ten minutes on the Pittsburgh renaissance and a pitch to the audience to see the Pirates while they’re in town, Fitzgerald skips the lunch portion of the meeting and hands the microphone over to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl as he heads off the stage.
The relationship between the County Executive and the Mayor comes up often around Grant Street and Fitzgerald is quick to point out that his role involves much more than the city of Pittsburgh.
“People focus on the city but it’s just one of 130 municipalities in Allegheny County. The city is now 20-25% of the county population where it used to be 75%. I like to work with the mayor on things we can work with. You’ve gotta work hard in this job – gotta get out there to the North Hills, everywhere. I go to a lot of places and pride myself on what I do. People see that and it pays off. This is a fun job! To have a change of career at age 53, a brand new job...it’s exciting.”
Back in the Jeep, it’s off to Shaler for the groundbreaking of a new wing at HEARTH, a community-home for single women with dependent children. Congressman Jason Altmire is also at the event and a gaggle of elected officials dig golden shovels into a muddy hillside under a steady rain. The most heartwarming part of the event is a young woman who lived at HEARTH with her mother and siblings for several years and is now an honors student at Pitt. Her mother, who obtained a college degree in the intervening years, watches her daughter with pride, tears forming in her eyes.
Fitzgerald finally pauses for lunch at 2:30 in the afternoon and it’s simple: two apples and an orange at his desk. Chief of Staff Jennifer Liptak walks in to discuss a bond refinancing and reviews the county’s day from an operational perspective. The County Executive takes the stairs to the fourth floor Gold Room shortly before 3 p.m. for a meeting of the Regional Asset District board, at which he’ll make public comments in support of RAD funding for the Port Authority. City Councilman Bill Peduto and State Senator and Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa are also on the agenda, and it’s clear Fitzgerald is lining up support for his plan.
“You have to work in teams, collaborate. I pride myself on it. I had a difficult primary and, yet, almost every elected official supported me because of the relationships I built over the years and how I supported folks in business, the community, foundations. One of the things I’ve prided myself on is being able to bring partners together. You have to have these various partners to move the region forward.”
Fitzgerald’s greatest collaboration may be with his wife, Cathy, a pharmacist at Children’s Hospital whom he met while in college, she at Pitt and he at CMU. They have eight children and he is quick to give his wife the credit for raising them well. Soon, Fitzgerald will walk his eldest, Jocelyn, down the aisle.
After a late-afternoon stop at a fundraiser for Clean Water Action on the Northside, where he sneaks a brownie from an ample buffet while (almost) no one is looking, Fitzgerald and his evening security detail are off to the Carnegie Music Hall for yet another fundraiser and an evening performance by Bill Cosby, but not before picking up Cathy for the County Executive’s version of date night. A wide smile crosses his face.
“This is a great place to live.”
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen