A Jew runs for city council

A Jew runs for city council

Abby Wisse Schachter
Abby Wisse Schachter

“If I’m successful, half of city council will be under 35,” says Dan Gilman, who last month declared that he’ll run for the District 8 city council seat of his current boss Bill Peduto.

But though his youth may be noteworthy, the fact that he’d be the only elected Jew in city government makes Gilman’s run even more unusual.

“My Judaism impacts every decision I make,” Gilman says. “I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home with strong Jewish values.” And as chief of staff to Peduto for the past eight years, he says his interactions with the Jewish community are almost daily.”

One of the areas in which Gilman’s Jewish roots and his outlook for the city are particularly in synch is when he talks about what the city needs to do to grow and thrive: economic development. “How you attract and retain young Jews is a big part of my job and it would be nice to continue that in new leadership role” on city council.”

But making significant efforts to keep native Pittsburghers here or enticing young people who come here to study to stay beyond graduation isn’t limited to Jews, says Gilman, because the city needs to keep the talent that our top-of-the-line colleges and universities — the two most important of which Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt are in Gilman’s district — are already attracting.

Along with providing better services for Pittsburgh residents, Gilman sees economic development as the key to the city’s future. The retail and restaurant sectors are already there, he says, but what about a new video game company for iPhone apps? There’s just about no support for such small startups coming from city government Gilman complains. “We need to refocus that,” he explains. “We [already] support real estate development,” but not business development.

We need a “department of innovation” explains Gilman, though he is quick to clarify that he doesn’t mean increasing the size of the current city government. The mayor’s office or the Urban Redevelopment Authority would be perfectly adequate existing offices through which to prioritize assistance to small, startup businesses. Gilman’s concern is that innovators and entrepreneurs can’t call city government to find out about help, government programs or real estate opportunities. And the District 8 native and CMU grad believes that this is a lost opportunity for the city to attract and retain talent.

Gilman recently had an experience that reinforced this view of how to improve Pittsburgh and that was attending his first naturalization ceremony.

“[The] ceremony was amazing … [because] looking around the room [what I saw were] very highly educated professionals,” the majority of whom come from Asia and are looking to make a better life for themselves and their families here. “To see those people becoming American citizens,” was very powerful, Gilman says.

More broadly, he sees a larger immigrant population as a plus for Pittsburgh. “Our district grew and the reason is [mainly the] immigrant population.” Gilman also looks forward to working with the Hispanic chamber of commerce to get them involved in Pittsburgh promise and to support more immigration.

Whether residents are newly arrived, born-and-bred natives or somewhere in between, Gilman also recognizes that the city is failing to deliver the most basic services with efficiency and ease. “We need to make government more effective,” he says. Building inspectors don’t have email, for example. “You should be able to email your building inspector your plans. You shouldn’t have to catch them in their office,” Gilman complains. “You can’t apply for a block party by email or pay online and public works trucks don’t have GPS,” Gilman continues.

Essentially, “we have 1980s policies in a 21st-century city,” explains Gilman. And that goes for many city regulations as well. Gilman agrees with his boss Peduto who has recently taken up the fight against the current rules governing food trucks. The current regulations for all intents and purposes prohibit food trucks from operating in the city and there’s just no reason for that, Gilman avers.

“[In] cities of our size, like Portland and Providence … you see support for walkable communities, food trucks and other regulatory and economic innovations.” That’s not what’s happening here in Pittsburgh, according to Gilman. Pittsburgh has received a lot of attention nationally and Gilman thinks that is well deserved, but the picture he would draw of city government is much less rosy and one he wants to change. “Best analogy [I can think of] is Pittsburgh as a boat moving along well,” with “local government … the anchor dragging along the bottom.”

(Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, is at work on her first book. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter.)