Obituary: Mark Zabierek / Consultant changed local politics, campaigns

Dec. 24, 1954 - June 8, 2013

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Mark Zabierek, a well-connected local political consultant who faced legal troubles near the end of his career, died of heart failure Saturday night following a sudden diagnosis of liver cancer earlier that evening. He was 58 and lived in Elliott.

Entering politics in Pittsburgh as an aide to former mayors Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff in the 1980s, Mr. Zabierek grew into a veteran Harrisburg insider and lobbyist whom friends and colleagues described as gregarious and effective in the work he did on behalf of causes that were important to him. He dealt with a scandal in his later years after facing charges of forging ballot signatures during the unsuccessful 2007 re-election campaign of Rep. Michael Diven.

"He was not somebody who sought to be a popular Democratic consultant," said Jon Delano, money and politics editor at KDKA-TV. "Rather, he wanted to be an effective one for the causes he believed in."

Mr. Zabierek pleaded guilty in March 2008 to using several names, found on outdated Republican voter registration cards, of voters who were deceased or who had moved from the addresses listed on the nominating petitions. Mr. Zabierek was sentenced to two years probation and fined $10,000. Since then, Mr. Zabierek ran a social media and Web content consulting company yet remained involved in local politics, said his son Matt, 19, who attends the University of Connecticut.

Growing up near Boston, Mr. Zabierek did some political work in the area after graduating from Brandeis University in 1977. His career in Pittsburgh began when he moved to the city to work in Mr. Caliguiri's office.

David Caliguiri, the son of the former mayor, was a teenager when Mr. Zabierek worked for his father late in his administration. Mr. Caliguiri said Mr. Zabierek was always kind to his family and was a key member of the mayor's young, energetic staff.

"You could tell they all enjoyed working together, and Mark just fit right in there with the best of them," Mr. Caliguiri said.

Mr. Zabierek worked closely with Michael Dawida, a former state representative and senator as well as an Allegheny County commissioner, after leaving the mayor's office. Mr. Dawida, who is now the executive director of Scenic Pittsburgh, said Mr. Zabierek was central to his upset Senate victory over a 20-year incumbent in 1988.

Mr. Dawida called Mr. Zabierek a "masterful tactician" who was ahead of his time in recognizing that instead of making promises, a candidate should explain how he had kept his promises in the past.

Mr. Zabierek insisted that the campaign needed to reach out to every voter personally, Mr. Dawida said -- an idea reflected in the general approach Mr. Zabierek took to his work of keeping people and community at the center of politics.

Former Allegheny County executive Jim Roddey said Mr. Zabierek was a "consummate professional" when he later served as a Harrisburg lobbyist for the county.

"He always did exactly what he said he would do," Mr. Roddey said. "Not everybody in politics does that."

Mike O'Connell, a political consultant, was a partner of Mr. Zabierek's in the mid-1990s in the effort to bring education reform to Pennsylvania, as both were working for REACH, an organization that has advocated for a statewide school choice bill. Though they came short of their goal, Mr. Dawida said Mr. Zabierek had "deep insights into what animated the political process," and always saw their work as important because of what it could do for students, Mr. O'Connell said.

"Without criticizing anybody -- lobbyists, lawyers and anybody who advocates for a living -- yes, you zealously defend the interests of your clients. Some of them are important, some of them are not," Mr. O'Connell said. "This was deeply important to him."

Political consultant William Green, who got to know Mr. Zabierek in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they analyzed political races on election nights for WPXI, said he never heard anybody utter an unkind word about Mr. Zabierek. He noted that one of Mr. Zabierek's primary strengths was simply how many people he knew.

His son said his father always loved making connections, whether in politics, at Northway Christian Community Church, where he was an active member, or by fundraising for the Salvation Army.

Matt said his closest bond with his father was through sports, noting that his father never became overly invested in rivalries -- with his own allegiances somewhat divided between Pittsburgh and Boston -- but instead simply loved the game.

Mr. O'Connell said Mr. Zabierek was proudest when his son's football team won the state championship.

"That was clearly as good as it got -- not because they won the championship, but because he had a son who applied himself so diligently to something," Mr. O'Connell said.

Mr. Dawida said the relationships Mr. Zabierek had with his children were "probably the most important part of his life." Matt said of his father, "He wasn't perfect, but he touched so many lives."

In addition to Matt, Mr. Zabierek is survived by two daughters, Alexandra of Cambridge, Mass., and Gabrielle of New York City; his brothers, John of Philadelphia, Peter of Montreal and Paul of San Francisco; and his mother, Marilyn Doyle of Philadelphia.

obituaries

Gavan Gideon: ggideon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4910.


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