From politics to Penguins, David Morehouse is a key player

A steel beam to the head seemingly knocked some sense into the Beechview native

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At the end of this month, the hierarchy of the Pittsburgh Penguins will validate the ascension of David Morehouse to CEO, the logical capstone to an incandescent streak of success rarely glimpsed even in this city's joyful but sometimes inelegant hockey history.

If Mario Lemieux is the face of what's matured into an internationally admired organization, if Ron Burkle is its financial muscle and Sidney Crosby its signature talent, then Mr. Morehouse is inescapably its most remarkable brain.

All the more frightening then, what nearly happened to the brain-to-be that terrible day some 28 years ago, by which time Mr. Morehouse had already arrived at the blue-collar station of his life's dream. He was in the boilermakers union, working on a construction scaffold, when a steel beam snapped and swung straight at his coconut.

"I ducked, and my hard hat fell off," he said, "and the beam just clipped the back of my head. They told me, it hits me flush -- it takes my head off."

Across most of four Pittsburgh decades, plenty of hockey administrators demonstrated that you didn't really need much above the neck to run the Penguins, but that one swinging beam begat a personal catharsis that changed everything -- not only for a Pittsburgh kid of modest ambition, but also for both the hockey club and the resilient city that just last week unveiled still another dazzling public jewel, the Consol Energy Center.

Sometime after waking up in the hospital, sometime after the frustrating therapy sessions, the memory loss, the cognitive rebounds, David Morehouse was struck again, this time by the most profound thing that ever entered his brain to that point.

"I'm not using my head," he thought. "I'm wasting my brain."

And that, Mr. Morehouse said, is when he started taking classes at CCAC.

Yeah, you read it right. The CEO of the Penguins studied at the Community College of Allegheny County. He earned an associate's degree in general studies.

"I did nothing in school for 12 years," he said.

Nothing?

"I mean nothing."

You'd never suspect such academic indifference if you were able to consult, for example, one Al Gore, Nobel Prize winner, former vice president of the United States.

"The first thing I can tell you about David is that he is very smart, an extremely quick study," Mr. Gore said in a recent e-mail exchange.

"He had a great feel for people, and he was very calm under extreme pressure. He literally started with the Clinton administration at the bottom (motorcade driver) and worked his way up by performing excellently in each successive job, to the point where he came to play an important role in the White House.

"I picked him to play a key role in my presidential campaign and then, to no one's surprise, he played an even more important role in John Kerry's campaign four years later," Mr. Gore said. "It was obvious to everyone he was a guy who was going places."

Also ...

"He organized the hot pepper-eating contest in Des Moines one night."

That right there, the jarring dichotomous profile, is the essential Mr. Morehouse.

He has operated at the highest levels of government, making 17 trips around the globe on Air Force One. He has taken a master's degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He came within a mangled election of radically changing the course of American history in 2000, and again in 2004. His political skills ultimately helped keep the Penguins from loading the moving vans, and his people skills were critical in turning the team into a public relations prototype -- No. 1 among all pro sports teams in fan relations, according to ESPN The Magazine.

And still, even now, he's just sooo ... Beechview.

"He dresses a lot better than he did then," said Greg Gattuso, the defensive line coach at the University of Pittsburgh and a buddy from the old neighborhood. "He was always the guy you liked, always positive, always friendly. I was a nut case, but I never had even an altercation with him. If what's happened to him could happen to one guy, he was the guy you'd pick.

"Right there at Pauline Park, we'd play all day and all night. We'd get up late, around 11 a.m. and we'd go down there and play basketball until dinner time. Then at night, we'd play in league games. People would bring their lawn chairs and watch. There were refs, and it wasn't fun reffing those games because there were some maniacs, me being one of them."


The translator

In the '60s and '70s, the maniac quotient was indeed running pretty high in Beechview, where some of the most insane hills in the city are still a metaphor for its social topography -- a hard place to climb, with descents that are treacherous.

Treacherous came almost too early for Mr. Morehouse, or "House" as he was known then and, to many, even now. His parents split when he was 7. He lived with his mom, who worked 12-hour shifts six days a week.

"It was hard for kids growing up without two parents to navigate things," said Mr. Morehouse, 49. "I think of it as a good place to grow up, but when I tell people about it, they think I grew up in a Martin Scorsese film. Some of my friends died. They OD'ed. I remember finding hypodermic needles in Pauline Park and bringing them home to show my mom."

Mr. Morehouse once ran into some Beechview maniacs at Super Bowl XXX in Phoenix, where the Steelers were playing the Dallas Cowboys. They were walking into Sun Devil Stadium carrying NBC television cameras and microphones.

" 'Hey guys, what are you doing here?' I said. 'Are you working for NBC now?'

" 'Nope.'

" 'No? So why the ... oh.'

" 'That's right, we're going to the game. Do it all the time.' "

Some years later, he was standing on Grant Street talking to then-Mayor Tom Murphy when his peripheral vision identified another character from his deeper memories.

"As soon as I saw the guy, the mayor's voice became the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher," Mr. Morehouse said. "All I could think of was how this guy was going to embarrass me. I thought, 'Don't worry, he's probably just going to jail.' But he's walking right toward me, and I'm thinking, 'Mayor, please just finish and walk away. Walk away.' And just as he does, Guido comes up to me and says, 'Hey House, you got a twenty for a cab? I just got outta jail.' "

On Mr. Gattuso's Guided Beechview Tour (appointments only), the place gets described as pretty much intact from the working-class family enclave where House and his friends played basketball, whiffle ball, hockey, baseball and an especially virulent strain of football.

"Kill 'em quick," Mr. Gattuso called it. "Two safe areas, otherwise, kill the kid with the ball."

Up and down Beechview's sloping concrete grid, Mr. Morehouse could identify only two professions at the outer limits of his aspirations.

"Boilermaker and [Pittsburgh] Press truck driver," he said. "They were the ones with the nice houses, nice things, nice cars. There weren't a lot people going to college."

So when it occurred to him that playing basketball at Pauline Park was not technically a profession, he'd get up at 5 a.m. and totter down to Boilermakers Local 154 on Banksville Road.

"I'd look for Ironhead Gualteri, the foreman, because he was from Beechview, too," he said. "That's how I got started."

But after the beam rattled his brain and he began his higher education, Mr. Morehouse was working as a clerk on Grant Street when Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign came to town.

Mr. Morehouse volunteered in part because he found himself inspired by the candidate, but also because the prospect of being an advance man thrilled him. He'd been nowhere in his life at that point and couldn't wait to get somewhere, anywhere. It was during those early days as a low- and mid-level political operative that a unique Morehouse skill began to emerge.

"I first met him during that time, and I can tell you that David brings a very intuitive understanding of how people are going to react to things," said Mr. Murphy. "He's what I like to call a translator in the best sense of that word. He has a way of making people understand things, and he does it in very tangible ways.

"When my wife and I were in the Peace Corps, we were on a three-day boat ride on this river in Brazil. The people spoke Spanish, Portuguese and several other indigenous languages, and the most powerful people were not the ones with the most guns or the most money. They were the ones who spoke all the languages, the translators.

"The people who are really important in our society are the translators, and that's David Morehouse."


Real and tough

Mary Beth Cahill, who was part of four presidential campaigns with Mr. Morehouse, said a critical component of Mr. Morehouse's gifts is a rare ability to stay real in unreal settings.

"He's the same when he's talking to President Clinton, to Vice President Gore, or to you or me," said Ms. Cahill, who now runs a political consulting firm. "He has enough sense of himself to say, 'I'm going to do what's right regardless of what other people think of me.'

"Who else is going to body-block Al Gore? I mean Gore is a very proper person, and David stood right in front of him that night and said, 'Sir, we have to go on hold.' "

That episode was immortalized in the first scenes of the HBO film "Recount," which dramatized the events of election night 2000 and the tumultuous weeks to follow. In a motorcade on the way to the Nashville War Memorial Auditorium, where Mr. Gore planned to publicly concede the election to George Bush, Mr. Morehouse happened to be a limo or two closer to the vice president than were other campaign staffers, who were getting urgent messages that Florida's vote tally had tightened to within the margin of error.

"Our boiler room folks were telling us, 'This thing is down to 600 votes; there's going to be an automatic recount -- you guys can't concede,' " remembered Michael Feldman, a former Gore aide. "I got out of the car and started sprinting. Gore and David were already inside. I called David. I said, 'Whatever you do, don't let him on that stage. We've got to talk to him. You've got to stop him.'

"He said, 'Done.'

"Not a lot of people could have done that. David has a certain authority about him when he decides to use his physicality. He actually put himself in front of a guy with Secret Service protection and said, 'No, you can't.' He's been at the red-hot center of a lot of big decisions.

"I think toughness is definitely an element of it, but it's more just a groundedness. He knows where he comes from. He's never blown over, never moved in a strange way by his environment.

"People reach the top of their game in whatever professional environment, and it tends to affect them. Politics is one of those places. Same thing in Hollywood or Wall Street, where you're led to believe that everything you think is the most important thing in the world," Mr. Feldman said. "You can lose perspective. David never loses perspective, and that's the reason you see all these accomplished people who want him nearby. That blend of intelligence and common sense is a rarity."

John Kerry would want that very combination for his campaign, but that was four years down the road, and Mr. Morehouse had spent part of the interim working in Los Angeles in the national office of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program -- a logical private-sector step for Mr. Clinton's top strategist at the office of national drug control.

"I was writing letters of recommendation for people trying to get into the Kennedy School when someone told me I should go to the Kennedy School; they said I should take the [Graduate Record Examination] and that if I scored high enough, with my life experience, I might get in," said Mr. Morehouse, who didn't have a bachelor's degree.

"I scored high enough, but I was still shocked they accepted me. I was sitting there with all these people, some pretty impressive people, and all I thought was, 'They have to figure out that I shouldn't be here.' It was incredibly motivating. I studied like heck.

"And I've had that feeling at every job I've ever had. Maybe it's reflective of where I come from; I never feel like I've arrived. I always feel as though I have to work hard."

Mr. Morehouse had finished at Harvard by the time the Kerry campaign was up and fully functional, functional being a relative term. Mr. Kerry trailed by 20 points in the Iowa polls, another 20 in New Hampshire. Were it not for Mr. Morehouse's newly polished and fully certified political vision, Mr. Kerry might never have neared a nomination.

"When he came on with me, things were pretty tough," Mr. Kerry said on the phone recently about those days. "He helped pull the team together in a very, very effective way. We made him traveling chief of staff, and stuff was always coming up, but he was always calm."

Calm is one thing, but Mr. Morehouse's gut was never too far from Pauline Park. All these years later, he still wasn't about to give ground, and certainly not to the kind of political mania that typically marks presidential politics.

One day on the campaign trail in Washington state, Mr. Morehouse was riding in a car with Mr. Kerry when some supporters of Mr. Bush held signs saying, "Kerry is a traitor." Decorated in Vietnam, Mr. Kerry was nothing short of crestfallen. He could not reconcile intellectually that even people who opposed his candidacy could say that about him, particularly in support of Mr. Bush, who hadn't served. When the motorcade reached its destination, Gen. Wesley Clark, who was to introduce Mr. Kerry, came up to Mr. Morehouse and said, "I'm going to take some shots at Bush over this war-service issue."

"The policy side of me said, 'No, it's not the message,' " Mr. Morehouse said. "Clark had talking points about education policy. But I heard myself saying, 'Be my guest, general.' "

Gen. Clark's remarks were barely out of his mouth when Mr. Morehouse's BlackBerry started buzzing on his hip like a swarm of wasps.

"What's he doing?" campaign headquarters wanted to know. "Stop him!"

Mr. Morehouse didn't.

"Because Kerry needed it," Mr. Morehouse told them. "Sometimes, even in politics, you have to react like a human."

No wonder that, years later, Mr. Kerry would say, "David really understands how things work in public life and in life itself."


Pittsburgh's pull

When Mr. Kerry lost, Mr. Morehouse didn't know where public life or life itself would take him. He and Vanessa, whom he met on the campaign trail and married in 1996, surveyed the options and potential landing spots for what would become a family of five, ostensibly supported by Mr. Morehouse's consulting business, which didn't quite exist yet.

When Mr. Burkle, the longtime Democratic power broker and, since 1999, part owner of the Penguins, convinced the hockey club's management that Mr. Morehouse's people skills and political experience would be perfect for a franchise with a looming arena issue, one of the most brilliant personnel moves in Pittsburgh sports history was consummated.

"He came on as a consultant and when his deal was done, we just couldn't afford to lose him," said Mr. Lemieux. "He was a great talent and a Pittsburgh guy, and he really understood the marketing and the branding, and he created a lot of relationships that have just worked out tremendously for the Penguins and the community.

"He changed the way we approach each and every sponsor. We try to create a relationship with them before we ask anything of them," Mr. Lemieux said. "He was the perfect guy for us. He was in politics his whole career, and he understood politicians and the way they think, which I wasn't able to do."

Mr. Morehouse first calculated the level of government support for public funding of a new arena -- absolute zero.

"We knew we couldn't survive without an arena," he said. "So we had to make a choice. Do we just fold up when the lease runs out and move, or do we fight for a new arena? We decided to fight, so we needed a strategy, and the strategy was to use our strength, which was public support, in a way to shift the opinion of the elected leaders. The Penguins had been interviewing a number of gaming companies. Then Isle of Capri said they'd pay for the whole arena, and that's when we started our campaign.

"We didn't do an inside politics campaign. We did a public campaign. We made sure it didn't have any qualifiers. Isle of Capri wasn't going to use a percentage of the receipts for the arena, wasn't going to contribute annually to the arena. They were going to pay for the whole arena," he said. "It was a clean argument. It was easy to sell; it made perfect sense."

Then, of course, Isle of Capri failed to get the casino license, which shuffled the deck and changed the game, but not fundamentally. The notion of casino funding stayed on the table, even as ominous political realities returned inevitably to the process. Floated publicly were possibilities called the Kansas City Penguins, the Las Vegas Penguins and like-minded threats from National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman.

But before long, at an undisclosed location sometimes called New Jersey, Mr. Morehouse met with Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, County Executive Dan Onorato, Mr. Bettman, Mr. Burkle, Mr. Lemieux, Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg, and Ken Sawyer, the man Morehouse replaces as CEO, and, in his words "hammered out a deal."

The remaining persuasion was equally intricate, as Mr. Morehouse still had to lobby the residents and leadership of the Hill District on the community benefits of the Penguins' new palace.

"It was one of those agreements that was politically challenging and very complex," said Evan Frazier, then the president of Hill House Association and now a community affairs executive for Highmark. "Difficult as it was, I never lost respect for David Morehouse or questioned that he wanted to contribute to the growth of the Hill District. If I'd felt differently, I would not have helped recruit him to the Hill House board."

Had Mr. Kerry won in 2004, Mr. Morehouse would have been in the White House, perhaps as deputy chief of staff, but he wouldn't have been available to the Penguins. So what part of everything that's happened since would have happened without David Morehouse?

Some of it?

None of it?

Certainly not all of it. Not even close.

Forbes magazine named the Penguins the fastest-growing brand in the NHL last year. The Penguins led all U.S.-based NHL teams with record-setting local television ratings. The Penguins led all U.S.-based teams in website hits for the regular season and led the NHL in merchandise sales.

"The challenge is sustainability," Mr. Morehouse said. "There have only been a couple of teams in the history of sports that have sustained a championship caliber organization. One just happens to be in town. Just look across the river at the Steelers, and you see a sports franchise that is run the way it's supposed to be run. That challenge is to have another one.

"It's much easier being a team with potential. Now it's more difficult. And it's not just about hockey; it's about development. We can transform this city. I never thought I'd come back to Pittsburgh, but it always had a pull on me."

When they write the civic history of this era, it'll be interesting to see whether Pittsburgh was pulling Mr. Morehouse or if Mr. Morehouse was pulling Pittsburgh.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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