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Leadership Series: Patrick Dowd, City Council

Patrick Dowd has been scaling a steep learning curve since taking the job of City Councilman for District 7 on January 7th.         

To familiarize himself with that most basic of municipal services, he  joined refuse collectors at 5:30 a.m. on a cold, sleety day.  “I’ve never met a happier group of city employees at that time of day, with a better sense of humor and a better knowledge of their operations,” he says.  “They were very professional and very funny.”  

Later, he visited the 911 emergency call center where, he said, he witnessed calming voices reassure feverish callers that first-responders were on the way.  
Despite the stereotypically bad rap on municipal employees, he says, there’s a solid core of city workers “doing tremendously good work every single day.”  Some like himself, he noted earlier in his term, have been doing it 30 days; others, 30 years.  

Afternoon sun streamed into the 40-year-old councilman’s  overheated City Hall office, still unadorned with political memorabilia, save for the worn-out pair of shoes hanging by the laces from a nail above his city-issued desk.  They’re the constant reminder of the stoop-to-stoop, porch-to-porch campaign he launched last year, literally on his shoestrings, to defeat an entrenched incumbent in the Lawrenceville to East Liberty council district.     

Seeds of Activism
Dowd’s political activism originates from the two most important roles in his life:  family man and educator.  He and his wife, Leslie, have been raising five children.  They both hold Ph.Ds in history from Pitt and taught history:  he at The Ellis School, a private academy for girls; she as a lecturer at their alma mater, Pitt.  He was elected to the Pittsburgh School board in 2003 which propelled him into the council district race four years later.  
The key to turning Pittsburgh around is public education, Dowd says.  Making the schools better keeps residents in the city, instead of having them flee to the suburbs.  That holds the real estate tax base, keeps jobs and businesses in the city, and may attract newcomers.  

The Dowds are good examples.  They remained in Highland Park as five kids came along.  Their oldest has now graduated from Allderdice High School, while the others are at Linden Elementary with two still at home.  They’re restoring an old home.  “I figure we’ve got 30 more years” before it’s all finished, he says.

Dowd builds his City Hall workday around his family.  They rise early; he’s in his downtown office around 7 a.m., where he reads and writes without much interruption for two hours.  Mid-morning usually involves some event, like a ribbon-cutting or government related meetings.  He responds to e-mails after lunch and sets aside a firm time in the afternoon to return telephone calls.  “I always have this question:  how many constituents have I talked to today,” he says.  “And I try to make sure before I leave that I’ve talked to some number of them in a day.”  

Right now the only place Dowd hangs his professional hat is in his fifth floor office in City Hall.  He has not set up a district office.  (His predecessor had one, in a building his family owned and collected city rent on, a potent campaign issue Dowd used to his advantage.)  Dowd and his staff are considering “council on your corner” locations where he can meet regularly with constituents in places they frequent, like farmers’ markets or coffee shops.  

“A district office doesn’t require much more than a cell phone and a laptop with wireless capability, and you don’t even need the laptop,” Dowd says.  “Instead of having people come to us, we’ll try to be out where they are.”  
He’s also kept his campaign workers out of City Hall, a refreshing gesture but an abrupt reversal of spoils-system fortune for the dedicated workers who put him there.  

“We agreed at the outset that the two people who ran my campaign would not come into the office,” he says.  “They were political people, not governmental people.  I really see that as an important divide.  There are two different skill sets.”  

In fact, he notes that one of his campaign aides still fields calls and e-mails on political matters from a job in the private sector.  “With (communications) technology, you can create that distinction but still keep people active and engaged.”  
As the Council representative on the Task Force on Integrating Cooperation, Dowd is focused on fiscal responsibility with taxpayer money. And he is a proponent of the City-County consolidation. "I believe we're eventually going to see a unified form of government and the question is, what's it going to look like? Should the city be folded in the County or the other way around?" he asks.
As chair of the Parks, Recreation and Youth Services committee, he’s responsible for the funds allocated to programs. The Public Works committee is responsible for funds allocated for park maintenance and improvements.  
When it comes to divvying up the money, “I’m trying to understand the relationship of the department of parks to the rest of the city government,” he says.  And in the newly-elected city council’s first big dust-up over money, Dowd says even some of his supporters say he may be on the wrong side of the controversy over the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s $100-million-pledge to city public schools under the Pittsburgh Promise.  As a school board member at the time, Dowd helped write the guidelines to implement the matching fund program.  UPMC required that its $100 million be matched by another $150 million from other sources.  

Dowd said UPMC was asking, “whether appropriately or inappropriately, that should, in the future, at some distant date there ever be a tax put on the non-profits, the money that they’re contributing to the Pittsburgh Promise be considered as an in-lieu-of-taxes payment.  That tax does not exist, so the argument they were asking for a tax credit is fallacious.  They were asking for a hypothetical tax credit.”  
He said the tempest was an embarrassment for the city and could have been handled more discreetly.  He said it was “unacceptable” for UPMC to get “beaten up by elected officials for giving $100 million and asking for some future understanding…about future taxes.”  
The Pittsburgh Promise, he says, is the “most innovative and exciting thing the city has seen in decades.
“And let me be perfectly clear; I’m the parent of five kids who stand to benefit from that.  That’s $200,000 to my family if we max out the system.  That’s good.”  (Dowd’s $200,000 calculation is based on the Promise grant to public education amounting to $10,000 per student for each year of college.)  
Thus, the interview ends almost where it began – education as the route to Pittsburgh’s salvation and rebirth.  
“This is as much about economic development as it is about kids’ education.  I want this to be the promised land for education.  If the city and the school system can get aligned in the mission of attracting people to the city, then we’re going to save this place.”

As he looks forward to hosting the first cityLIVE leadership salon, (Note: Sold out) on May 5th, Dowd notes the need to groom leaders for the future. "It's absolutely essential," he says. We have a tremendous opportunity," he says referring to the city-county merger on the table. "Pittsburgh's possibilities, to me, seem endless." In the Pennsylvania primary media blitz, Dowd met people from all over the country and he heard over and over again comments like this one: "Wow. What a great city!"

He couldn't agree more.

Gregg Ramshaw is a Pittsburgh writer and video producer.  For nearly 20 years, he was a managing producer of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

All photographs of Patrick Dowd, and his shoes, copyright Brian Cohen


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