Power Shift
Dozens of the Pittsburgh-area’s top institutions are going through leadership changes. The turnover could echo for decades.

More than any of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s other fresh-faced leaders, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey embodies the cold fact that after any uplifting election victory comes the slow-motion frustration of trying to steer a government. 

In his first four weeks in office, fresh off an exhilarating upset win that was seen as a capstone for the local progressive movement, Gainey found himself riding snow plows amid relentless winter storms, rushing to the site of a collapsed bridge and trying to simultaneously build rapport with his police department while moving to fire several officers involved in the 2021 death of Jim Rogers.

“I was told by the insiders that there’d be a six-month honeymoon. We never got that,” Gainey said in an October interview. 

Things haven’t gotten easier. Homicides have risen; Gainey’s contract offer to the police union was rejected; and there are no public signs that his talks with UPMC and Highmark are leading to increased benefits for the city. 

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s first year in office saw him work to address the ongoing tragedy of gun violence, even as he reacquainted himself with the mayor’s suite of offices in the City-County Building. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

This package was produced in partnership with Pittsburgh Magazine, which has been covering the city and western Pennsylvania since 1969.

Gainey is the most visible member of a new, emerging slate of regional leaders, touching all areas of local government. In 2021, Pittsburgh replaced its mayor, and the county’s massive Department of Human Services got a new director for the first time in decades. In 2022, voters chose a successor for a 14-term congressman, and the region’s largest school district got a new superintendent. In 2023, Allegheny County will elect a new county executive for the first time in 12 years.

In the region’s ultra-fragmented system, government runs on relationships: Mayors and superintendents as well as police chiefs, congressional representatives and county executives, department directors and nonprofit leaders. With the new crop of leaders, the way they work together could determine how the region moves forward.

‘Uncharted waters’

Between the mayor’s office, county executive’s office and the 12th District congressional seat, a combined 48 years of experience will turn into three by the time the new county executive is sworn in. 

“I think it’s uncharted waters,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, now the elder statesman of local elected officials in his 12th year in office. He will head for the exit after 2023 due to a term limit. “Change isn’t necessarily bad. It just depends on the people that get in there.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s Allegheny County Courthouse offices on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s Allegheny County Courthouse offices on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The cause of the remarkable convergence of succession in local government may be best explained as a combination of coincidence and changing political tides. 

Congressman Mike Doyle and Human Services Director Marc Cherna both retired after decades of service at normal retirement ages. It happened to be around the same time that Fitzgerald’s term limit shifts him out of office and controversy led to Anthony Hamlet’s resignation as superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS]. 

The region’s evolving politics were at play in Gainey’s ascension. His win furthered momentum for the region’s progressive bloc, which picked up steam during the Trump era and especially amid 2020’s racial justice protests. Summer Lee emerged from a competitive open primary for Congress in 2022, edging out a more moderate Democrat.  

Following Doyle

If you ask old hands like Fitzgerald or outgoing Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb, Doyle will be a tough act to follow. They credit the congressman, first elected in 1994, with being a lynchpin in the local leadership scene, leveraging access to top officials in Washington and bringing major resources back to his district.

Fitzgerald said Doyle “has the kind of credibility that very few people in Washington have,” noting his relationships with Democratic titans Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. 

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“The D.C. piece is what concerns me,” said Lamb, who’s campaigning to replace Fitzgerald, when asked about the change gripping the region. “Now you don’t have a Mike Doyle to go down there” to claim chunks of major infrastructure and other funding coming up.” 

Rep. Lee’s ability to forge connections in Washington and in the district could have a big impact on federal funding for local projects. It’s too soon to say how Lee is faring in this regard, but she said in an interview she sees the importance of coordinating with the city and county to have “strong proposals ready” to compete for the historic amount of federal funds being released under the Biden administration. 

Lee’s campaign was run, and won, on bold policy statements on wealth inequality, environmental justice, gun control and more, but legislative impact may be hard to come by. Congress largely runs on seniority, and Lee will come in with none. 

“We lose influence because we have a seniority system,” Lee acknowledged. “It’s going to be a lot to learn. … It’s just important [to be] open-minded about learning and humble enough to see the lessons that are going to come.”

Chasing Cherna

Erin Dalton took over one of the most enterprising and relationship-focused roles in the region, directing the county’s Department of Human Services [DHS].

Erin Dalton. (Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock/Pittsburgh
Allegheny County Department of Human Services Director Erin Dalton. (Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock/Pittsburgh Magazine)

In 2021, she replaced Cherna, who had led the department since 1997. DHS is a behemoth that spends more than $1 billion annually, responsible for providing critical social services to the county’s 1.2 million residents.

She’s new to the top post, but has been at DHS for 15 years, and she credits that experience with easing her transition and giving her knowledge of the vast bureaucracy.

The department’s model is to partner with numerous social service providers in the community rather than doing everything in house. “People are more likely to take help from neighbors,” she said. 

She sees the large amount of leadership change going on among those partners as an opportunity for human services agencies to rethink their missions and realign to meet new needs. “It’s easier for someone coming in to kind of do that than maybe someone who’s been there for a long time. I see that as opportunity, and it doesn’t feel to me like, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing? We don’t know who these people are, it’s unstable and crashing.’”

Like Gainey, though, she faces growing crises that are felt in every corner of the nation. By some measures, the need for services addressing hunger, mental illness and homelessness has increased. The department’s Office of Children, Youth and Families, meanwhile, is short about 100 caseworkers.

What will actually change?

Perhaps no relationship is more transformed than that between Pittsburgh’s mayor and school superintendent.

Former Mayor Bill Peduto and former Superintendent Hamlet butted heads over finances and union negotiations. The district’s solicitor told PublicSource last year that Peduto’s administration was “openly hostile” to the district.

Their successors appear to be on a much different path. Gainey’s daughter went to PPS Obama 6-12 when the new superintendent, Wayne Walters, was principal there.

“I knew him as Mr. Gainey, the parent of one of my students, who was always deeply involved,” Walters said. “Us having that relationship between parent and principal, I think, supported a more robust relationship and one that we can have some out-of-the-door authentic conversations about how we want to work together and really improve our city and our school district.”

City of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey listens to his staff in his City-County Building offices, Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
City of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey listens to his staff in his City-County Building offices, Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The new mayor-superintendent dynamic may not fix the district’s budget concerns or reverse pandemic learning loss, but it has already yielded modest policy results. Gainey’s 2023 budget increases funding for internships in the mayor’s office for city school students more than five-fold. 

But despite the warm relationship between the two leaders, a longstanding dispute over earned income tax revenue endures. 

The leadership ranks are stocked with new personalities. By itself, that won’t change the way our region functions.

“I always say, for all the talk of change, things always seem to stay the same,” Lamb said. “We gave things different names but, to the end user, it was pretty much the same.”

Gainey ran his 2021 campaign centered on change and acknowledged slow progress through his first year. “I understand the city being impatient about some of the issues that we have to deal with,” he said. 

“I tell people all the time that it takes 20 years to transform something, to develop something,” he said. “Our job is to plant the seed of change.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...