Campaign 2007: GOP mayoral candidate DeSantis talks business
Republican contender sees Pittsburgh's problems in terms of finance, economics
October 14, 2007 8:00 AM
John Heller / Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis speaks at an Oct. 11 candidates forum.
By Timothy McNulty Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mark F. DeSantis, Ph.D., has an impressive resume dotted with work in Washington, D.C., and Europe and powerful friends across the globe. Yet when the Downtown Republican talks about "measuring" Pittsburgh's economy, his pronunciation stamps him indelibly as a local boy.
"You MAY-sher a city by whether or not it has a thriving economy, not how many construction projects are under way," he says at a Hill District news conference. "By every MAY-sher of our economy the past 10 years we have been failing, and failing miserably."
Mr. DeSantis, 48, a high-tech businessman and consultant, came back to Western Pennsylvania 10 years ago after a dozen years in Washington, where he was a lobbyist and staffer for the Bush I White House and late Sen. H. John Heinz III.
In campaign speeches, the man raised in Mercer County says he wants to make a difference in the city where he was born .
Mr. DeSantis went to Washington in 1984, when he was 25. "To be very honest with you, when I first got to Washington I had one ambition and that was to get power or get near it," he says in a Rotary Club speech.
"I was attracted by the glamour and the bright lights. When [Sen. Heinz] passed away that ambition melted away. When I looked around, I saw other people there who were there for an entirely different reason that I didn't understand and didn't know at the time, but I do now. They were there for public service and their fellow citizens.
"I want to be mayor of Pittsburgh … not because I think it will be fun and not because I want to hang out with celebrities, but because I want to solve these problems and I want to lead Pittsburgh into the future."
That all depends, in large measure, if city voters welcome him as more of a returning hero or a carpetbagger, and a Republican one at that.
At nearly every campaign stop, Mr. DeSantis has to address the elephant in the room: No Republican has been elected mayor since 1933.
His answer is to go back to the spring 2005 primary. After three years of battles, led partially by a row office reform group he founded in 2002, 73 percent of Allegheny County voters agreed to consolidate six elected county row offices into three appointed positions.
"I believe I can win [the mayor's race]. With the row office thing, people said, 'What are you, nuts?' … I never let that stuff get in the way of me trying to do something," he says.
But the reform group Mr. DeSantis led -- called Citizens for Democratic Reform -- failed in its 2003 petition drive to get a row office question on county ballots. Only after a Democrat beat his candidate, Jim Roddey, in the 2003 county executive race did reform gain real traction.
"Row office reform came about more because of [Dan] Onorato than anything those guys did," another reform supporter, county Prothonotary and Democrat Michael Lamb, said. Still, Mr. Lamb concedes, "While they were not successful, they kept the debate going."
Business school approach
When it comes to talking about city finances, Mr. DeSantis admits to sounding "like Darth Vader."
At a reception at a private club in Fox Chapel -- Mr. DeSantis regularly reaches out to suburban Republican friends for financial and policy support -- he talks at length about the city's crippling debt, its half-full pension plan and other financial woes.
He calls for cutting taxes on startup businesses, with a special focus on minority firms, to jump-start the local economy. He promises to shake up the Urban Redevelopment Authority and streamline business permitting and fees.
And then, as he often does, the South Side tech firm president puts running the city into business terms.
"This is the most responsible job in local government. You perform or you do not. This is not a development program, this is not a training program, this is not a resume builder. This is a real job where people's lives are affected by the quality of this CEO," he tells the receptive Fox Chapel crowd.
Rust Belt upbringing
The DeSantis family settled in Sharpsville, outside Sharon, Mercer County, about 100 years ago. Mark's grandfather, Paul DeSantis, followed other families there from his village in Italy, after arriving in Pittsburgh via Ellis Island. He ran a pizza shop and later a beer distributorship.
Mr. DeSantis' father, also named Paul, served in the Navy in World War II and later went to dental school at the University of Pittsburgh. While he was at Pitt, his wife, Beverly, gave birth to Mark, in 1959, before the family moved back to the Sharpsville area when he was 4.
Growing up, Mr. DeSantis had direct exposure to a regular part of 1970s Western Pennsylvania life -- the crumbling Rust Belt economy.
"Sharon was the quintessential mill town. As you're growing up there, you're watching the town shrink and die," said Leo Smigel, a friend from Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage. "I think that's pretty formative for all those people from those small towns -- they sort of gravitate toward Pittsburgh."
But the first stop for the young Mr. DeSantis -- now a freshly minted Republican in a family of Democrats -- was Washington.
Mr. DeSantis voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and supported former Sen. Rick Santorum in his failed re-election bid last year.
But his early life in Washington was marked by work with GOP moderates.
In 1984 -- a year after getting his MBA at University of Dayton -- Mr. DeSantis began working phone banks for the Republican National Committee and then he joined former Gov. Tom Ridge's second run for Congress. "I became a Republican really when I met Tom Ridge," he says.
He worked briefly for Ohio Republican Rep. Mike DeWine, now a senator; ran an unsuccessful congressional campaign in Maine in 1986; worked as a Justice Department budget analyst in 1987; and spent a year with management consultants Booz Allen Hamilton.
In early 1989, he heard of a job opening in the Senate office of another moderate, Western Pennsylvania native John Heinz, tracking bills affecting the state.
"As a goof, I said I'm going to talk to this guy and see what happens," Mr. DeSantis recalls. "I felt so at ease. He was so welcoming. We talked about Pittsburgh, my background, my interests. … Bang, they offered me a job within a week."
He was 29.
Sparked by the competitive, ambitious atmosphere in Washington, Mr. DeSantis got his second master's degree in 1988 then started working on his doctorate in public policy while working for Mr. Heinz from 1989 to 1991.
"Mark has always been extraordinarily focused on his work and achieving his objectives," said Barbara Zylinski, who met him while working for Rep. Tom Foglietta, D-Philadelphia.
"It was ridiculous actually, how focused he was. … While he was fun, his time was really focused on achieving," she says.
Mr. Heinz' unexpected death in a helicopter crash in April 1991 caused Mr. DeSantis to examine his own life and consider leaving Washington to become a professor.
Instead, in the fall of 1991 he got a job in the George H. W. Bush White House, working in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, focusing on emerging high-tech issues. A year later he was out of a job when Mr. Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.
In 1993, he finished his doctoral dissertation, then went on to become a lobbyist for Texas Instruments on high-tech issues. He shuttled between Washington and Brussels, working on international trade issues, then four years later took a buyout after a leadership change at the company.
"I thought if I didn't leave now, I'd never leave. So my ambition was to not only leave D.C., but to start over at 36, 37 years old. I wanted to be an entrepreneur for some reason. … I ended up saying, 'I'm going to Pittsburgh.' "
His Washington friends were shocked.
"To a lot of us, we were like, are you crazy? Why give up all this stuff you've done here [in Washington] to go back to Pittsburgh?" says Ms. Zylinski, an old flame, now a counter-terrorism technology expert based in Turkey.
Mr. DeSantis has never been married. He has few hobbies, pouring most of his time into work -- to the detriment, perhaps, of a traditional family life.
"What do I do for laughs? I work for laughs," Mr. DeSantis says during an interview at his South Side office. "I'm very focused on what I do. On one level, if I have any regrets, I probably should have been more conscious of my personal life and dedicated more of my life to thinking about having a family. Everybody has those regrets on some level I suppose."
Two life-changing things happened to Mark DeSantis after coming to Pittsburgh in 1997. He started consulting for the former Downtown online auctioneer FreeMarkets Inc. -- which went public in 1999 -- and supporting Republican county executive candidate Jim Roddey in his successful election run that year.
After the campaign, Mr. Roddey tapped Mr. DeSantis to head his economic development transition team, dubbed the New Idea Factory. Former FreeMarkets president Dave McCormick -- now Treasury Department undersecretary for international affairs in Washington -- worked with him on that initiative and the Roddey campaign, coming away impressed.
"He always had a political bug. He has a sincere, true commitment to Pittsburgh," Mr. McCormick says.
"Here's a guy who made a choice -- living in Washington, successful, and doing real well -- to come back to Pittsburgh. He has stayed and really invested his time and energy, and has really internalized the need for Pittsburgh to continue to evolve and reform."
In the intervening years he has focused largely on business. He heads Mobile Fusion, a startup firm developing a robotic ball equipped with cameras and sensors for use by law enforcement and the military.
He also sits on the boards of four other tech firms -- Apangea, Wherever TV, Cepstral and Geospatial Systems Corp. -- and says he has been on 15 or 16 startup boards over the years. He estimated his income last year at $225,000.
Ten years after returning to Pittsburgh, Mr. DeSantis is picking a high-wire way to introduce himself to the city, stepping outside his tight, tech-world network. On the campaign trail, suspicions abound that he is using the mayor's race to gain exposure for other campaigns (such as county executive), or as a stalking horse to help other Republican candidates make headway in a Democratic city.
He denies them all, saying his focus is only on the special, two-year term through 2009.
"My ambition is to be nothing else but the mayor. … If all they give me is two years, I'll take two years, and I'll make more changes in two years than they've seen in the last 15," he says.
Some Pittsburghers take longer to warm up to someone new.
"He's actually not from here. He's from Mercer County or something, not Pittsburgh, and he's going to tell us what we need?" says Richard Robinson, 57, after meeting Mr. DeSantis at a Hill District rally. "At least the guy in office now was born and raised here. I think [Mr. DeSantis] has a hidden agenda, myself."
At a press conference in crime-torn Perry South, another man pressed him on the same subject, after Mr. DeSantis said he lived at the Pennsylvanian, in the converted train station Downtown.
"You lived Downtown for 10 years?" asks Walt Davis, 40. "You don't know about Pittsburgh. That's not Pittsburgh."
The vote tallies Nov. 6 will show whether Pittsburghers welcome Mr. DeSantis or treat him as a stranger. Is 10 years in town long enough to become one of them?
The rubber stamp of a local kid -- though not necessarily a Pittsburgh one -- is already on Mr. DeSantis in the way he says that word, MAY-sher. According to Pitt linguist Scott Kiesling, the pronunciation is quite common around Western Pennsylvania, the Appalachians and other parts of the country -- with one notable gap.
For whatever reason, the linguist noted, it is not pronounced that way in the local dialect known as Pittsburghese.