Goodbye to a Good Guy

Editor’s Note: Bob O’Connor, the 58th mayor of Pittsburgh, PA, died of brain cancer this past Friday, September 1, at the age of 61.

In the fall of 1994, I drove my tiny Toyota Tercel into downtown Pittsburgh for a meeting with a member of Pittsburgh City Council. As I looked for a place to park, I was appalled to learn that, thanks to city government, I could not park at a meter on a city street without a roll of quarters. So, I cranked every quarter I had into a meter, feeding the beast and buying me about a half-hour, and took my chances.

I had recently graduated with a master’s degree from American University in Washington, DC, had gotten married a year earlier, and was currently working in the nation’s capital for a so-called “Beltway Bandit,” a consulting firm that lived off contracts from the Department of Defense. I hated the job and the rat race, and I missed Pittsburgh, which I left in 1991 after getting a bachelor’s degree from Pitt.

I had written letters to a number of influential Pittsburghers, most of whom I didn’t know—I was networking. In each letter, I expressed my desire to return to “the region” (the buzzword) and start a career. One of those who responded was Pittsburgh City Councilman Bob O’Connor.

I liked O’Connor. Republicans like myself hoped he was a closet Republican who had registered as a Democrat only to get elected in the City of Pittsburgh—a reality that requires some explanation to those unfamiliar with politics in Pittsburgh:

Democrats have run the City of Pittsburgh for about as long as the Bolsheviks had control of the Soviet Union, and with only slightly less destructive results. Certainly, Vladimir Lenin would have envied the ability of the Allegheny County Democratic Party to consistently convince a sea of unsuspecting citizens to reelect Democrats as they recklessly expanded government and bankrupted the city generation after generation.

Each Pittsburgh mayor merely looks for new ways to spend taxpayer dollars, and none of them dare to deal with the systemic problems: the public-sector unions that ensure the city’s insolvency, the obscene number of firemen and fire stations, the desperate need to privatize trash collection. The culprits are obvious, but those that run the city are beholden to these constituencies for their power; it is truly an unholy alliance. For a think-tank like Jake Haulk’s Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, there is a constant stream of business.

Nonetheless, somehow, Pittsburgh has survived and remained a wonderful, absolutely unique place, in spite of its public servants. People who have never visited simply can’t comprehend how and why Pittsburgh is such a great city. It’s too hard to explain to outsiders. You need to live there for a period to understand.

And Bob O’Connor understood as well as anyone.

He shook my hand, welcomed me into his office, and we talked for over an hour: about the city, about the Pirates, about Roberto Clemente, about building a baseball-only ballpark, and about Washington, DC. On the latter, he said he had just visited someone at Georgetown University (his son, I believe) and noted that when he waved or said hello to passers-by, they ignored him. “It’s not that way in Pittsburgh!” he told me, correctly. I later learned that Bob O’Connor did this everywhere he went—in Squirrel Hill, in Oakland, in Downtown. When he did, people waved and returned the hello.

In the course of our conversation, it became clear why he was giving his time to a 27-year-old looking for his place in the world: he told me that Pittsburgh had to stop hemorrhaging its young professionals. “We need people like you to return to this area, not leave it,” he said, a true spokesman.

This friendly, cheerful councilman was spending time with this young man in his 20s because he really cared about people and really cared about Pittsburgh—which is why he so badly wanted to be mayor. It would take another decade, but he eventually made it.

There was nothing profound about our meeting, other than that he probably had the conversation hundreds of times with other young people like myself.

I never spoke to him again. I didn’t need to. I had seen enough, and had seen something that eventually all of Pittsburgh saw when its citizens elected him mayor.

When they did, they fulfilled Councilman O’Connor’s dream. Yes, it was cut short, but he was able to enjoy it for at least a brief time, largely a honeymoon period, before any major resentment or criticism—it must have been the best time of his life.

This was a good guy, a nice guy. And though I probably would’ve eventually disagreed with much if not most of what Mayor Bob O’Connor ultimately would have done—or, more importantly, what he likely would not have done—I regret that Pittsburgh has surely lost one of the best ambassadors it may have ever had on Grant Street.