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Gainey starts naming cabinet — Jake Pawlak as deputy mayor, Jake Wheatley as chief of staff

Ed Gainey's inauguration as mayor of Pittsburgh on Jan. 3, 2022.
Ariel Worthy
90.5 WESA
Ed Gainey's inauguration as mayor of Pittsburgh on Jan. 3, 2022.

A day after being sworn in, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has rolled out the first of the nominations for his cabinet, naming Jake Pawlak as his choice to be the director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget and his deputy mayor.

Gainey also announced former State Representative Jake Wheatley as chief of staff. Felicity Williams of the Hill CDC has been named assistant chief of staff. And Lisa Frank, executive vice president for strategic campaigns at SEIU, has been appointed chief operating and administrative officer.

Wheatley will begin his position on February 1, the statement said.

The choice of Williams, an attorney who played an active role in community development efforts in the Hill District, is another case of Gainey installing women of color in positions of leadership. Frank's previous role with SEIU Healthcare, meaning, reflects ongoing ties between Gainey and the union, which spent six-digit sums supporting his election last spring, and which has been in a pitched battle with healthcare giant UPMC. Gainey campaigned on pledges to support the union's cause, and on stepping up efforts to obtain more financial support from a nonprofit that is the region's largest employer.

On Pawlak, Gainey said the position needs "someone with experience, vision and strong commitment to public service."

"Jake has had a distinguished career and brings the right expertise to help my Administration meet its long-term goals,” Gainey said in a statement.

Pawlak’s appointment requires confirmation by City Council. It is on the agenda for council’s first meeting of the New Year on Wednesday.

Pawlak also will be designated as deputy mayor, which is not a standalone job but a function that may be delegated to a top member of the administration. Under the city’s home rule charter, a deputy mayor serves in the mayor’s stead “during the mayor’s absence or temporary disability.” A deputy mayor receives no additional compensation.

“I love this city. Without this city I would not be who I am today,” Gainey said in an address. “We will work to make Pittsburgh the Pittsburgh you voted for.”

The Office of Management and Budget, though not as visible as some other city departments, touches on every aspect of city operations. In addition to providing budgeting expertise, it handles procurement while overseeing planning and operations in departments across city government.

Pawlak is well-versed in city government operations, having served with both the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority as a government affairs manager during the administration of former Mayor Bill Peduto. Prior to that, he was a chief of staff to former state Senator Matt Smith.

He’s long been expected to have a role in the Gainey administration: He has been the director of Gainey’s transition team and has frequently been at Gainey's side since the new mayor won the Democratic primary last year. He is esteemed by several members of council, most of whom supported Bill Peduto’s re-election last year and some of whom have privately said that his presence on Gainey’s team would bolster their confidence in the new mayor.

But the precise nature of Pawlak’s role has not been clear until this week: There had been speculation that he would serve as Gainey’s chief of staff. That role is slated for Wheatley, who has been Gainey’s colleague in the state House and who has also long been expected to have a place on the new mayor’s team.

Pawlak’s recent work in local government will be an asset to the new administration: Gainey has worked in city government for former Mayors Luke Ravenstahl and Tom Murphy, but he has been in Harrisburg for nearly a decade. Wheatley served as a city council aide at one time, but he has been in the state House for nearly 20 years.

“The experience I bring to the table for the mayor and his team is a background in the day-to-day operations of city government, from my time working in the development and planning side when I was in the URA, and the time I worked at PWSA, where I worked closely with DPW and other operating departments,” Pawlak told WESA. “It became clear to us during the transition process that my strength was in handling those day-to-day duties, as complementing Rep. Wheatley’s strengths.”

Being named as deputy mayor, meanwhile, “is meant to signify that my responsibilities will be broader than day-to-day leadership of OBM, to include having a central role in the administration writ large," said Pawlak. "It’s the combination of those titles that signifies broader work.”

Pawlak’s appointment is also an early sign of how Gainey will structure his administration. Mayors choose different approaches to parcel out responsibilities on their leadership teams, and not all of them attach importance to the deputy mayor designation. Pawlak’s appointment echoes the decision by former Mayor Murphy to name Public Safety Director Sal Sirabella as deputy mayor — even as Murphy’s executive secretary, Tom Cox, played a more publicly visible role on development and other initiatives.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.