Mark DeSantis is not your usual Pittsburgh mayoral candidate, that's for sure.
Strolling in alone (what? no handlers looking over our shoulders?) to the Coffee Tree Roasters on Walnut Street a little after 6pm, clad in sandals, shorts, and a pullover shirt, he looked more like a college professor relaxing on summer break than a guy who might be running for mayor of the city of Pittsburgh. He snagged an iced chai, we shook hands, he sat down, and we talked.
Since the primary election results have not yet been made official, he said he couldn't go into any specifics on the race or the workings of his campaign staff, which hasn't been formed yet.
That's fine - I started with the basics. Given the wide array of Republican archetypes, I asked, where does he place himself within the spectrum of Republican politics? I didn't even get to the end of the question when he answered, "Moderate Republican." It's different things on a national scale than it is on a local scale, he said, and while he didn't really touch on things national, he then went on to define the phrase by uttering for the first of many times of the hour, what looks to be the theme of his campaign - he said he's looking for local government that's efficient, effective and transparent. He returned to those three words (in that order) at least a half dozen times throughout the hour.
The core of his campaign (if there is to be a campaign, that is) is to fix city government and make it efficient, effective and transparent (see? what did I tell you?). It's the three legged table upon which everything else rests. And without any one of them, any plan would fail. He said that if Pittsburgh had those three things at the center of it's current city government already, he wouldn't be running.
When pushed on for details, though, he said I'd just have to wait until the campaign.
We went into some issues. The city is in dire financial straights, he said. We're $2.5 billion in debt with a looming pension crisis yet to occur. When asked why the problem seemingly hasn't been addressed more by the public, he said the reason is that it hasn't really affected us yet.
The only way he's seeing it's affecting city government is by the amount the city has to pay for the debt - it's eating into the city's discretionary spending. It's shrinking and will continue to skrink as the years progress.
And it's going to take years, he said, to fix.
The city is going to have to go back to it's roots, back to basics. What are the core beliefs of good government? He pointed to the city charter written in the early 70s and was very passionate about addressing the duties of the city and its citizenry in both being responsible for good government. The city has to provide for the people and the people have to be involved in the process. He said he's a believer in public service and that government has a positive role to play in people's lives. To get at where he's coming from, go take a look at page 5 of the City Charter.
He said he wants to run a campaign unlike any seen in a long time, adding, though, the politicalspeak about how it'll be "less a campaign than a conversation about who we are and what we believe." Throughout the hour, he was speaking in the language of a political populist.
I imagine it's a solution to his one obvious obstacle in running for political office as a Republican in Pittsburgh: Republicans are probably as rare as Browns fans here. By appealing to everyone in the city to get involved in the affairs of the city, I am guessing he's looking to attempt to overcome the overwhelmingly unlevel playing field of local politics.
He was adamant about getting everyone, regardless of background or sexual orientation, involved in the process. It's absolutely necessary. No citizen should be excluded from the benefits of being a part of a vibrant city but on the other hand a poorly functioning city will eventually drag down every part of that city, though some parts will suffer sooner than others.
His putative campaign will be facing many obstacles - not the least being that he's an Republican in a very blue city of a slightly less blue state. But quoting Teddy Roosevelt, he outlined how he'll deal with things, "Use what you have, where you are, when you have it."
Not your average Pittsburgh mayoral candidate, indeed.