We Interviewed Dan Gilman on His New Position as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff

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Dan Gilman

Dan Gilman

Dan Gilman

Sam Bisno and Daevan Mangalmurti

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Last month, Dan Gilman left his position on City Council to become the Chief of Staff for Mayor Peduto. We talked with him about his role, his vision for Pittsburgh, and his perception of today’s political atmosphere.

Sam Bisno: For anyone who is unaware, what exactly are your duties as Mayor Peduto’s Chief of Staff?

Dan Gilman: Pretty much everything. It’s my job to implement the Mayor’s vision for Pittsburgh – a legislative agenda, a statewide and national policy agenda, and most importantly, running the city day to day. Through directors of different departments and chiefs of bureaus, the city has just over 3,000 city employees who all report up through a structure to my office to the Mayor, so that’s everything from snow removals and potholes to police fire and paramedics to zoning parks and recreation and other public works functions. It’s a lot that goes into running a city on a daily basis.

Daevan Mangalmurti: You’ve had a pretty interesting career. You began as Mayor Peduto’s Chief of Staff back when he was a councilman. Then you were elected to a seat yourself, and now you’re once again the Mayor’s Chief of Staff. How did you end up on this path?

DG: My path through this entire career is a nontraditional one, which I think is actually kind of the more usual path for somebody. I never thought I would run for office. I never dreamed of a career in government. But what I did have was a passion for leadership, for volunteerism, for organizing, and that includes being on student council as a kid and things like that. And then when I went to college I ended up in student government, and through that I interned on Capitol Hill one summer and found I really enjoyed D.C. but couldn’t stand the bureaucracy and the failures of government. I saw the opportunity of what government could do, but saw partisanship at its worst. I came back, and through kind of an accidental meeting met then-first-year City Councilman Bill Peduto, and he offered me an internship between my junior and senior year of college. I did that, and I found that local government was where innovation was occurring, local government was where the most basic government functions still worked and worked for the people. You could, as an intern in City Hall, get a pothole filled or get a stop sign put back up or a baseball field prepared for a little league game, which was more than I was seeing done in D.C. And so when I graduated from college, I had a job offer from Bill Peduto and I had a job offer from Bill Clinton, and I made the decision that I really wanted to be in Pittsburgh. I wanted to be in local government and see what would happen. And I did that with a plan to do it for a few years and to go to law school or maybe into the nonprofit world or the state department. I had any number of options, but it was never a career; it was never to run for office. But I really fell in love with City Hall. I believe strongly in Bill Peduto’s vision and I believe strongly in what good, optimized government can do for the people. You kind of blink and ten years later you’re still there, and now it’s fourteen years, and I still love coming to work every day.test

SB: You said that you consider your job to be carrying out Mayor Peduto’s vision for the city. What do you consider your top priority in terms of what you hope to achieve as Mayor Peduto’s Chief of Staff?

DG: It’s hard to narrow it down to one, but if I try to encapsulate everything, it’s making Pittsburgh a world-class city for the twenty-first century while staying true to our core beliefs, our core values, and our core identity. That means looking at everything from smart transportation to equitable development to childhood health to equitable green space, and doing it all in a way that we grow and we become the model, but we don’t lose what makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh – we don’t lose the identity of our neighborhoods, we don’t lose our historic architecture, we don’t lose our civic pride. I like that if you get dropped in Pittsburgh you know you’re in Pittsburgh. It feels different than Columbus or Indianapolis or Phoenix or Orlando. I don’t want to lose that, but I also want to grow. I don’t want to stand still and let time pass us by.

DM: What do you see as Pittsburgh’s strengths as a city right now?

DG: Pittsburgh really has two key strengths. One is the quality of life. While we, of course, have challenges that we are all aware of in tackling, we remain an incredibly affordable city to live in compared to other major American cities. We have and bikeable neighborhoods. We have strong business districts. We have an amazing park system, and arts and culture. We have three professional sports teams. It is a city that people want to live in, and you combine that with the talent – what’s being graduated from our universities on an annual basis – and that’s the magic combination for success.

DM: What do you see as Pittsburgh’s weaknesses as a major city?

DG: We still remain incredibly segregated. Pittsburgh is a city where our neighborhoods are in some ways our greatest strength and our greatest weakness, and we’ve had incredible racial segregation in this city. It is a huge weakness and a huge challenge we have to overcome. We also remain a city that is very much split economically. While we are continually ranked as most liveable and one of the best cities to move to, I still have one out of every four residents who are struggling to pay rent or struggling to put food on the table for their families, struggling to make a mortgage payment on their home. We don’t want to be a city of the “haves” and the “have-nots”. That’s a core challenge to our identity and where we go. And then the last is structural. The Pennsylvania structure of government for cities is failed. Our tax policy from Harrisburg is failed; our representation from gerrymandering in Harrisburg is failed; our rights as a local government to govern our citizens is failed. We must structurally change that to succeed.

SB: You touched on this just a moment ago, but more specifically, as I’m sure you’re aware, a few months ago Anthony Bourdain taped an episode of his show, Parts Unknown, here, and he talked a lot about how Pittsburgh is focusing too much on developing high-paying careers for young middle-class professionals in the industries of technology and entertainment, and at the same time Pittsburgh is squeezing out working-class, often times black residents. Some are calling it the “Googleization” of Pittsburgh. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, is it something that needs to be stopped, or is it just being misdirected?

DG: I don’t agree with his assessment, but I agree that there is a serious core problem that needs to be addressed. I don’t think he highlighted challenges that aren’t real or stories that aren’t real, but I think he missed some of the core reasons why, and I think he failed to highlight a lot of the efforts to address it. When you look at what we’ve done on the Learn and Earn Summer to give thousands of young people summer jobs, our free childhood bank accounts for any child, free summer lunch programs, free dinners in our senior and rec centers, free access to swimming pools, our partnership with public schools to teach all second and third graders how to swim, our Rec2Tech program where we’re turning our recreation centers into tech training centers for kids, our My Brothers Keeper initiative, our finding homes for over 500 homeless veterans, there’s a lot being done to address these issues, and in fact it takes a lot more of our time, a lot more of our attention, a lot more of our finances than the development. That may be happening through the private sector, but the notion that it’s getting the attention and the focus and the others not I think is inaccurate. That being said, only time will tell if we succeed, and I think that is the question- can Pittsburgh through all of the programs that we are implementing do enough to overcome the challenges this country faces as we’ve squeezed out the middle class and we’ve disinvested from urban communities and we’ve disinvested from public transit and we’ve disinvested from infrastructure? Can we address it? And in Pittsburgh, we’re looking to overcome decades of failed urban policy, decades of a lack of investment. When you look at Councilman Reverend Burgess’s district, which Obama is in – and he represents neighborhoods like Homewood, East Liberty, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington, East Hills, Garfield – he lost almost 25% of his population between the year 200 and 2010. That predates any technology boom. That predates Google and Uber. That was the African American community moving from the city, whether it be the suburbs or other cities, because of a complete failure of city government to invest in those neighborhoods and invest in the people in those neighborhoods. So our real displacement happened from a lack of investment, a lack of concern, and institutionalized racism for years more than it is from the activity today.

DM: Going off of attracting more investment to the city, there’s definitely been some attention to Amazon possibly choosing Pittsburgh as the locale for its new headquarters. Do you think that this could actually become a reality?

DG: I do. I’ll never say that it’s likely, but I think we have as good of a shot as any city. I think there’s probably seven or eight cities that could say the same thing, but I think we’re right there with any other city in the running. I don’t have any insight. They don’t communicate much with us, so I have no idea where that will go, but I do think that it is a real possibility, and really for the reasons that I listed before. When you look at the talent, when you look at the quality of life, when you look at the smart urban planning and progressive policies on equality, on transportation, on green space, those are the core values that Amazon and companies like Amazon are looking for. 

SB: Recently – in the past few years, but really in the past few months – the “Me Too” movement has revealed a very concerning trend, and countless male elected officials have been forced to resign after women have come forward revealing their pasts of sexual harassment and assault. As a male public official yourself, what’s your take on this?

DG: Shame on all of us for not speaking out sooner and not being more aware in taking this strong movement to take action. It is remarkable to hear the stories of so many strong women who have been leaders, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or around the country, in Hollywood or on Wall Street, and what’s been happening. We’ve known secretly that it’s been happening and haven’t had the guts to stand up and talk about it, and by “we” I mean men in the community, not women when I talk about having guts. And shame on us. Kudos to the women who have stood up and led this effort, and I can only hope that it’s something we take to heart and implement real change out of. At the city level, we’re looking at changing our sexual harassment training, our sexual harassment policy, and making sure that there’s ongoing training, not just some basic training on your first day at orientation. It shouldn’t have taken this movement to do that, but I’m glad that we’re responding.

DM: Obama is the only inner-city school in Pennsylvania that participates in the YMCA’s Youth and Government program, and each Spring we take over the State Capitol building for the weekend and hold a model legislature. As someone with considerable political experience, do you have any advice for us politically minded youth?

DG: First of all, that’s an interesting fact. That’s great. I knew Obama did the program; I did not know that they were the only school that did. I have a couple pieces of advice. Number one, if you’re looking for a career let me give you this advice, and that is: just get in the door and be a part of the effort. My first experience with anything to do with politics was in 1999 working for the Al Gore for President campaign, and my job was basically to run around and deliver and pick up mail. But it was a great experience and it led to more. There’s no task too small, and you’re always an important piece of the larger puzzle. I would also say that you’ve got to be able to focus on crawling and running the marathon at the same time. You look at my day today, and I am dealing hands-on with complaints about snow removal while also having conversations about multi-million dollar projects and workforce development initiatives. You’ve got to be able to do both. You can’t focus on one thing at a time. And then lastly I would say to never lose the identity of who you are and why you got into it. As I’ve said a couple of times in the interview, government can work, and it can work for the people in a good way as long as you stay true to who you are and why you wanted to do this. Whatever those reasons are, whatever the issues are that you’re passionate about, don’t let that get taken away by frustration, by bureaucracy, by a lack of partisanship or civic dialogue. Stay true.

SB: You mentioned your process. You got interested in politics in high school and then on into college you had an internship. What do you think that the single most important thing that you did in high school was that you feel has really stuck with you up until today?

DG: I actually would say that the most important thing I did, looking back on it, was to be taught how to be critically problem solve and think. You don’t always get trained for the situation you’re in. There’s not a college class or a high school class you can take that teaches you everything you are going to do. If you can critically problem solve and think through a problem strategically, you can figure most things out. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve taken. In terms of like an actual experience or action, I actually think it was my work sophomore of junior year of high school – I can’t keep them straight anymore – working in a bagel shop behind the counter. That customer service experience – getting up early in the morning, putting in eight hard hours of service work – really strengthened who I was and strengthened my character. 

SB: Well, that’s all we have. Thank you so much for taking the time.

DM: Thank you.

DG: Thanks, guys. If I can ever do anything, just let me know.

SB: Absolutely. Thank you.

DG: Alright. Talk to you soon.

We’d like to express our gratitude to Mr. Gilman for taking the time out of his busy schedule to give us a call. We look forward to seeing the changes he brings to our city during his tenure as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff.

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