Bill de Blasio became Mayor of NYC and within literally moments, people were tapping him as a VP candidate down the road. He’s a new kind of liberal! It’s going to be a progressive revolution! All this makes sense — de Blasio is the Mayor of a city with about 8.4 million people, which means it would be the 12th-largest state in the Union if it ever became, well, a state. There are only a couple of cities from which a Mayor could aspire to the White House or the VP slot, and NYC would be chief among them.
While there are a lot of good things about de Blasio, another Mayor named Bill — Bill Peduto, about eight hours to the west in Pittsburgh, PA — should be getting some ink too.
Pittsburgh is an interesting city. I’ve been there twice, for my aunt’s wedding and my aunt’s funeral (which, thankfully, were about 22 or so years apart, as opposed to say, one day or something). It’s complicated to navigate, especially sans GPS (my parents struggled with this, as well as grief, on the latter visit) and it’s been hit hard by industry fleeing the town/area. In the 1950s, the population of Pittsburgh was about 600K. Now it’s about a little over 300K.
But, there are opportunities: you have major research universities right there, so a start-up culture could flourish. Because the grow-quickly-around-intelligence-and-economic-centers-but-oh-God-here-comes-gentrification model has been seen in places like San Francisco and Boston, Pittsburgh could theoretically re-energize in such a way that they could avoid those pitfalls.
Enter Peduto, who had run for Mayor previously. One of the first things he did in office was crowd-source the town for suggestions on how to make it better. Over 1,100 people participated. He called it the city’s “blueprint” moving forward. His first day was jam-packed, and it was highlighted by firing three politically-connected employees in an effort to (a) send a message and (b) streamline departments. Check out how Day 1 on the job of re-invigorating Pittsburgh commenced:
The day started with an internal staff meeting at 8:45 a.m. and a meeting with Mr. Peduto’s Cabinet members at 10 a.m. in which chief of staff Kevin Acklin, a notorious workhorse who arrived at city hall at 5 a.m., laid the ground rules. Staff meetings will be daily, and anyone who arrives late will not be allowed in. Men will wear jackets and ties. (Mr. Peduto attended the chief’s meeting.)
“I also told them thousands of people would love to work for this administration,” he said. “Don’t take it for granted.”
Peduto’s got strong family ties and used to be an intern for Bob Dole, keeps a picture of the Tiananmen Square protestor on his office wall, and ran on the idea of “The Next Pittsburgh.” The big concept here is that Pittsburgh can become the “first progressive administration for a Rust Belt city in America.” Having only been there twice, I don’t know a ton about the place, but you can tell that it’s very spirited. These people love their Steelers, their families, their Burgh, their local bar, and their neighborhood. That’s something you see a lot in the Rust Belt (or at least I have), but it doesn’t always transfer (read: never transfers) to “progressive” politics.
Peduto’s got plans to change that: he’s talking about GPS on snowplows, pedestrian way-finders, and of course, the omnipresent Big Data. He brought in a former engineering consultant, Debra Lam, to help run some of these measures:
Lam describes her portfolio as living at the intersections of “technology, sustainability and performance improvement.” What does that mean? “Trying to use data and technology to improve our decision-making process, to improve our governance and policy, to improve our budgeting, to increase efficiencies on where we spend and how we spend,” she says. Her focus, at least at first, isn’t on the “very fancy or very sexy gadget or silver bullet technological solution.” It’s on “understanding the process.” In a sign of her consultant past peeking through, Lam says her team is working on a “gap analysis” of where the city is now and where it wants to go.
Moving from the first to the second, Lam says, will require “pulling together threads,” as in figuring out how to weave together various city functions and even outside contributors that will improve life in Pittsburgh. One emblematic project is 311. The non-emergency service pioneered in New York City is up and running in Pittsburgh but, as Lam sees it, “is not optimal,” particularly when it comes to the systems now in place to gather calls, organize responses, let residents know about outcomes, and then analyze those records to learn about different parts of the city. To that end, her team includes a new data analytics manager who was formerly a Code for America fellow working with Louisville. “This is a really rich source of data,” Lam says of 311 calls and responses, but one that has largely gone unused.
One challenge when talking about “innovation” and “performance” in a city like Pittsburgh, however, is that it can ring hollow when there are inequities staring you in the face. While Google has an engineering office in the city, drawing from Carnegie Mellon and other local engineering programs, “there’s a whole segment of the population that’s not Google,” Lam says. To her, one of her juiciest opportunities in her new post is to enable and amplify the work of her colleagues on the seven-member Executive Team that Peduto has assembled, which includes a chief urban affairs officer and a chief education & neighborhood reinvestment officer. “Innovation hubs are very sexy,” Lam says, and she’s a fan of the pointed focus on increasing the tech footprint in Pittsburgh. “But they don’t address some really critical issues.”
Here’s Peduto’s inaugural speech to the city. If you make it into a word cloud, the big ones that pop are “Pittsburgh,” “city,” “make,” “new,” and “beyond.” This is a straight-up progressive guy trying to take a once capital-of-industry and rebuild it in a new image. In small example, only a handful of cities in America do the whole buses vs. bikes vs. pedestrians thing well; Pittsburgh has a plan that’s in line with some of the best concepts around the world. Harvard’s on board with Pittsburgh as a future hub of America. And maybe best of all? When Peduto met President Obama, he was rocking a Wholey’s hat.
Point is, progressive Mayors are everywhere in some ways — the future of American cities is unclear in many ways, and the next great hubs aren’t necessarily determined yet (SF/NYC/LA/etc. are very costly places to live, so in 20 years, can start-up types thrive there?) — but Peduto could be the real deal for Pittsburgh. Cue the renaissance of the Rust Belt music now.