The Race for Mayor: Bob O'Connor hoping third time's the charm
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With his mane of white hair, Bob O'Connor looks like a stand-in for Ted Knight. But he works a room like Knight's "Caddyshack" co-star, Rodney Dangerfield.
This is the first of three profiles of the major candidates for the Democratic mayoral nomination May 17.
Democratic mayoral candidate Bob O'Connor talks with Marie Steiner, left, and Marian Pieh during a bingo game Monday at the West End Senior Citizen Center during a campaign stop.
Click photo for larger image.
The rooms are small -- the aging church basements and senior citizen centers where the Pittsburgh mayor's race is usually won -- but O'Connor, a seasoned pro, works them hard. Instead of tugging his tie like Dangerfield, O'Connor pulls a black comb out of his right back pocket and smooths his hair into place. Then he's on.
At a Good Friday fish fry in Morningside, O'Connor bumps into a heavy young boy leaving the gym. "Hey, big guy, wanna arm wrestle?" O'Connor says. The kid laughs shyly.
"You want some fish with that ketchup?" he says to an older woman at St. Matthew's Church in Lawrenceville before hugging her.
He poses for a photographer, standing behind three women playing bingo in the West End. "If you get discovered by Hollywood, I get 10 percent," O'Connor tells the cooing ladies.
O'Connor, 60, will sweet-talk other women, kiss and hug them and shake hands with the few men. He is comfortable and liked. Many people there already have the seven-day "Bob O'Connor for Mayor" plastic pill holders his campaign custom-made for senior voters.
As he often does, O'Connor will go into the center's kitchen to talk to the cooks. Later, he takes off his suit jacket and calls the numbers on the first bingo game: it's a $20 bonus game that he is paying for.
Later, of course, he kisses and squeezes the woman who wins.
"They used to kiss babies. Now they kiss the old adults," says Bill Campbell, 82.
'I can motivate people'
This is Bob O'Connor's third run for the Democratic nomination for mayor. When he ran unsuccessfully in 1997 and 2001, his theme was simple: Incumbent Tom Murphy was doing a poor job, especially in economic development, and O'Connor, a former restaurant executive with good business sense, would do a better job.
To some extent, the message is the same this time. O'Connor lost the 2001 primary by 699 votes, or fewer than 1 percent of the total, and he has used the city's slip into near-bankruptcy and junk bond status in 2003 and 2004 as an "I told you so" backdrop to his campaign.
"I knew then what you know now," O'Connor often says.
That is easy for him to say, but it is impossible to know whether O'Connor could have dodged the bullets of the past few dismal years if he had won that 2001 race. The crippling debt, high-cost union contracts, loophole-ridden business taxes and dwindling population still would have been there when he took office in 2002.
But O'Connor's main campaign plank is not that his business acumen will improve the city's financial health. It is that his ability to motivate people will simply make the city better.
O'Connor says he can improve and inspire the management of the city's work force, bandage relationships with state lawmakers and forge the best development deals just through the force of his personality.
"That's what will make me a good mayor. I can motivate people," O'Connor says during a car ride into Downtown last week. "People are looking for a leader. They want to follow."
O'Connor regularly tailors his conversations or arguments to his listeners. When he is telling you about his management style, he will ask where you work -- say, a widget factory -- and will then tell you how his management style will not only help sell widgets, but also Pittsburgh.
He uses other analogies. As mayor, O'Connor says, he can be like the city's new coach, or dad.
"Right now, we're an 0 and 10 team. I'm going to be the coach who's going to come in and change things," he says. "I'm not saying it's going to be 10 and 0, but maybe 4 and 6. Or 5 and 5. I'm going to turn this thing around."
O'Connor says his leadership experience separates him from the other two main Democratic mayoral candidates in the May 17 primary: Michael Lamb, 42, and William Peduto, 40.
"If you had a major problem in your life right now -- say it's financial, say you're buying a house and don't know whether you can afford it -- would you ask your younger brother or your dad?" O'Connor says.
"If things were booming or great in this town, I wouldn't have even run [for mayor]," he continues, speaking to a reporter in a recent interview. "But this is a time that you need experienced, smart leadership. Put the word 'smart' in there, too, because it takes a smart man, when he has cancer, to call in the doctor."
Working in restaurants
O'Connor's grandfather Dennis arrived in Greenfield from Ireland in 1919. Three of his five sons were enthralled by cars and auto racing: Buddy raced cars, Pat owned a garage and so did Bob Sr. Young Bob, born Dec. 9, 1944, also loved cars. After graduating from Allderdice High School in 1962, he spent his $4,500 in savings for a new Corvette convertible.
In many ways, he had a typical Pittsburgh life. When he was growing up, the burning light from the Hazelwood coke ovens lit up the side of his family's hillside home in Greenfield. When high school was over, he followed generations of others down the hill and into the Jones & Laughlin steel mill across the Monongahela River.
O'Connor married his high school sweetheart, Judy Levine, in 1964. The pair eloped to West Virginia for the ceremony, uncertain how their families would take to the Roman Catholic-Jewish union. By the late 1960s, those worries were past, and O'Connor went to work for Judy's uncles in the fast-food restaurant business.
In 1972, they sold their Roy Rogers hamburger franchises to Beaver County businessman Lou Pappan. Pappan took a shine to O'Connor, a restaurant manager, and put him through Dale Carnegie motivational classes, ultimately promoting him to an executive vice president of his company.
O'Connor stayed in the job until joining City Council in 1992. The Roy Rogers franchises eventually disappeared from Pittsburgh, after Hardee's bought the rival restaurant's name, and the Pappans began investing in Wendy's franchises.
O'Connor is now working for the Pappans again. He left City Council in early 2003 to run Gov. Ed Rendell's southwest Pennsylvania office, then left that job in December 2004 to run for mayor. Because that put him out of work for at least a year while he was still putting a kid through college -- son Corey, his third and youngest child, is a junior at Duquesne University -- the Pappans hired him back as a consultant on their Wendy's franchises. O'Connor would not divulge his pay but said it is less than the $100,000 salary he made with the state.
"They're like family to me," O'Connor says of Lou Pappan and his two sons, who run their restaurant and real estate businesses. "They ask me what I think of this or that. They help me get by and pay the bills."
Working with legislators
Besides his references to his restaurant career, O'Connor often tells voters that the other job that has honed him for the mayor's seat is the two years he spent under Rendell.
Unlike Murphy, who has had a notoriously bad relationship with many state legislators, O'Connor says he has made friends on both sides of the aisle in Harrisburg. He says he also can build coalitions with other local officials in the 16 counties he represented as Rendell's man in the southwest.
Many local and state government officials O'Connor worked with the past two years say the former councilman is skilled at glad-handing and ingratiating at the front of the room, and at the little-seen wheeling and dealing at the back.
They say O'Connor did not set state policy on matters -- that is driven by Rendell's staff in Harrisburg -- but was skilled at describing Rendell's policies and working on projects he favored.
Washington County Commissioner Bracken Burns, a Democrat, worked with O'Connor on plans for the Victory Center mall in South Strabane and expanding Starpointe Industrial Park. Once the Rendell administration approved a project, he says, "Bob would come back to us, hold our feet to fire and make sure projects were ready to go. The governor wants to see progress and wants it done yesterday."
Beaver County Commissioner Charlie Camp, a Republican, says O'Connor visited him several times on various projects that were green-lighted by Rendell.
O'Connor "was pretty Johnny-on-the-spot. But it's still up to the big guy to translate dollars into a check," Camp says.
State Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, says she met with O'Connor on several redevelopment projects such as the Strand Theater in Zelienople and the Tech 21 project in Marshall, and enjoyed working with him, as she did with Lamb and Peduto on other efforts.
When it came to working on the Pittsburgh budget package the state approved in November, O'Connor was not involved, says Orie, a primary architect of the bailout plan. Again, the governor had his own staff in Harrisburg to handle those talks.
O'Connor agrees that he "seldom went to Harrisburg. There wasn't a need to. I wasn't at that level." Still, he thinks he can relate to state legislators better than Murphy did.
"I don't know how many legislators there are, but every one of them, if they called me, I tried to either help or have a working relationship. I'm not saying I did something for every one of them -- they're the guys with the power up there, or the ladies -- but I think I personally have a good relationship with everyone."
State Rep. Tom Stevenson, R-Mt. Lebanon, remembers first talking to O'Connor in 1998-99 during debates on state financing for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia stadiums.
O'Connor battered Murphy with the stadium issue, even though he quietly supported the public financing of the facilities, and gave Stevenson, who didn't know how to vote on the matter, unsolicited political advice.
"I was impressed with his ability to understand the issues and at same time tell me, look, my way is a minority way and it is not going to happen, and maybe I should change tactics. It was interesting; he didn't have to tell me that," says Stevenson, who ultimately voted in favor of the stadium bill.
"I'd absolutely have no problem if he is elected mayor calling him and talking to him, as opposed to Mayor Murphy. You couldn't get through to the guy. It was his way or no way."
Is he tough enough?
There are few doubts if O'Connor has an easy way with people, but some wonder if that is enough to enforce the spending cuts and fiscal responsibility Pittsburgh needs to regain its financial footing.
"The next mayor, to really make a difference, has to do more than ooze charm and inoffensiveness," says Jake Haulk, the president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. "You have to be a hard charger and recommend things that are not politically popular. I don't know if Bob can do that. I don't think it's in his character."
Cliff Shannon, executive director of the SMC Business Councils, praises O'Connor for his work with the small business group. But unless O'Connor, as mayor, comes up with specific plans to fix Pittsburgh's fiscal crisis, cut taxes and improve the business climate, Shannon said, firms will continue to leave.
"With the city's financial collapse, it's been impressed on a lot of people that this is a zero-sum game. You do what you can to solve the problems or you shirk that responsibility and businesses leave. You solve that riddle or reap the whirlwind," Shannon says.
Ask O'Connor if it is enough to be a nice guy and he bristles. It is not about being nice, he says, but about managing. At the motivational classes they called it "inspect, not expect:" Good managers do not just expect their workers to make good widgets, they inspect how their work is performed.
That means "ensuring the streets are paved right, they're clean, the employees are motivated. That's what a good CEO does, OK? Overseeing the employee part," O'Connor says.
According to this theory, it will then be employees, from Public Works laborers to the fiscal officials wrestling with the city budget, who do the hard work of solving the city's woes, with the mayor's helping hand. It is the mayor's job to get results out of them, even if the mayor himself does not operate the street-paving trucks, put out fires or balance the city's books.
"You know what the definition of a manager is? Getting the job done through people. Look it up in the dictionary," O'Connor says. "I'll be the conductor of this orchestra. I'll bet you the conductor doesn't know how to play the violin."
First Published April 17, 2005 12:00 am