Yet another turn for Dowd leads away from Pittsburgh politics

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The sun was setting when Patrick Dowd finally made it to Pittsburgh in May 1991. He had driven a rental car 600 miles from St. Louis after his acceptance at University of Pittsburgh, and, believing his Midwestern sense of navigation would serve him well, had decided to take back roads to Oakland.

Instead, he found himself lost in the tangle of steep streets that wind up and down the back end of Mount Washington. As his rental car tugged up another hill, he saw the sky above aglow.

At the summit, he experienced the excitement that newcomers often do, when the panorama of the city emerges. Awestruck, he asked a passer-by, "Is this Pittsburgh?"

At the time, Mr. Dowd was following a dream of studying under historian Fritz Ringer. He hoped to become a history professor. And originally, he thought that journey would take him farther east -- to Boston University -- until Ringer moved to University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Dowd's life, though, took a different path, leading him to public office, first as a member of the Pittsburgh board of education and then as a city councilman. His decade in public office ended on Wednesday, when he resigned to take a position with Allies for Children, a nonprofit that will work on advocacy around childhood development issues.

His journey into politics, much like that first road trip from St. Louis, was more serendipitous than deliberate. It was enjoyed without a road map, driven by passion more than by design.

"It was very different from anything I'd ever done before, and probably will ever do again," said Mr. Dowd, 45, of Highland Park. "I've been so very lucky. Everything that I thought I was going to do -- the things I've done are better."

As an elected official in Pittsburgh, Mr. Dowd was considered an anomaly. Before he became a councilman, he had never held a job on Grant Street.

In 1998, he was teaching at Winchester Thurston High School and still working on his dissertation when he showed some students in his homeroom an article about some local uncontested state House races.

"Well, you should run," he recalled a student telling him.

"I started laughing," he said. "I mean, I'm a leftward-leaning guy. I've got a ponytail."

But over the next few years, other students suggested it and the possibility -- he called it "the bug" -- became lodged in his brain.

"I was really frustrated with what was going on with the education system," he said. Now a father of five children and one stepchild, he was getting his first glimpse of the public education system in the late 1990s.

So in 2002, in an effort to "get this little bug out of my system," he ran against state Rep. Joseph Preston, who represented the East End, running on a campaign of reforming state funding for public education. When he was trounced, he believed he was done.

That fall, though, he read a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opinion piece on public education authored by the late Clarke Thomas, a Highland Park resident and former editorial writer and met with Thomas over coffee.

Out of that meeting, the two dreamed up a coalition that would make its agenda remaking the Board of Education, where infighting had recently led foundations to pull out money, by unseating board president Darlene Harris. Mr. Dowd was selected as its candidate.

He challenged a longtime board member who had the backing of the Democratic Party and prevailed by about 500 votes, shocking the board.

As a board member, he felt his hands were tied when it came to many aspects of a student's life that schools didn't touch.

"There were so many things that we had to deal with there that were out of our control but that were coming into our buildings every day. That really really started to bother us."

He didn't run for re-election on the school board in 2007, planning to retire from public office. But perhaps because he still had "the bug," he decided to challenge incumbent Leonard Bodack for the council seat.

In another upset, Mr. Dowd prevailed by a thin margin.

When he moved to Grant Street at the start of 2008, Mr. Dowd quickly emerged as a vocal and unapologetic critic of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration.

He said initial attempts to work with the administration showed him there would be little love and little cooperation between himself and Mr. Ravenstahl.

He decided to run for mayor in 2009, a campaign that mostly became a platform to hurl criticism at the mayor, openly accusing him of corruption and deceit. He was roundly defeated.

Mr. Ravenstahl did not respond to comment.

In council chambers, Mr. Dowd became famous for his long-winded tirades, a tact that alternatively annoyed and impressed council members.

The mayor's former spokeswoman, Joanna Doven, called Mr. Dowd both a passionate advocate and "a bulldog."

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she found his approach refreshing. He welcomed confrontation, she said.

Behind the scenes, though, Ms. Kail-Smith said he would often gather colleagues that were like-minded on a particular issue to negotiate compromises.

His proudest accomplishments were ones that required building bridges with unlikely allies.

As a board member of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, he helped bring in a private management firm that turned the troubled utility around -- and did so with the support of board member Scott Kunka, the city finance director whom he often berated in council chambers.

Councilman Bill Peduto, the Democratic nominee for mayor who will likely succeed Mr. Ravenstahl, butted heads with Mr. Dowd, who ultimately supported Mr. Peduto's run for mayor. Still, Mr. Dowd played a role in elevating the debate in council chambers.

"He was the challenger," he said. "He would challenged anyone -- whether they were allies of the mayor's or felt the administration was going in the wrong direction -- to be able to prove whatever legislative initiative going forward was good for Pittsburgh."

On Wednesday, sleeves rolled halfway up his arms, Mr. Dowd was seated in the cramped quarters of the Polish Hill Civic Association with about a dozen constituents for "Council to Go," a series of meetings held around the district. He had just 21 minutes remaining in his career as a councilman.

As the minutes wound down, he heard from residents and talked through problems with city contractors spraying pesticides on private property and about wariness around a new liquor license. In the grand scheme, these were small things, but his attention to detail endeared him to constituents.

"I thought that was a fitting way to close out my tenure on council," he said. "It's really what I think the job is about."

It was true that years of warring with the Ravenstahl administration had worn him down, but he said he took the post at Allies for Children because it was "a once in a lifetime opportunity," a chance for him to focus on his passion for helping kids.

That day, a deluge of storms had flooded the South Hills, but by early evening the sky had been set ablaze by the sun. From Polish Hill, there was a postcard's view of the city illuminated by a spectacular sunset.

With little ceremony -- and perhaps with a better sense of direction -- Mr. Dowd, no longer a councilman, waved and headed out.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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