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Mark DePasquale joins crowded field of candidates for Pittsburgh city controller

90.5 WESA

Don’t look now, but there’s a fourth hopeful seeking to be Pittsburgh’s next city controller — a candidate with a long history in government and a familiar family name.

Mark DePasquale is one of a handful of candidates seeking to replace outgoing controller Michael Lamb, who decided not to run for re-election this year. And he stresses a collaborative approach that focuses not just on dollars and cents but on building connections.

“I don’t call the controller a watchdog,” DePasquale said. “I call him a fiscal guardian, and a light post to transparency. You do not have to attack. You need to guide.”

DePasquale said he’s worked in the controller’s office before, as an auditor, and that he’s held posts in the private sector as well, largely in the hospitality industry. in recent years, he has worked on programming for seniors at the city, where he now works as a project manager.

That background, he said, gives him a “very well-rounded set of experiences that I think sets me apart.”

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Among other things, he touted his advocacy to end what has been called the “Social Security offset” — a reduction in retirement benefits for non-union city workers once they are eligible for Social Security.

“It was an egregious penalty placed on workers because of mismanagement” and the city’s previous economic hardships, said DePasquale, who serves on the city’s pension board. The city reversed the policy in late 2021, and DePasquale hailed his work alongside other city officials toward that end as “one of my best accomplishments in my life.”

But he warns that the budget shortfalls that drove such policies in the first place may not be as distant as some residents may hope.

Echoing other city officials, DePasquale cautions that the city faces some bumps in the years ahead. Federal coronavirus aid money has helped mask those problems, but COVID will have a lasting impact, he said. For one thing, he warns, “The Downtown real estate market is never coming back” as the business hub it once was. “The revenues we were depending on aren’t coming back — parking, real estate, people shopping.”

Addressing such problems, he said, requires a proactive approach: “a solid plan to have additional revenue coming in when revenues aren’t coming back as they were prior to COVID.” Part of that plan would focus on improving efficiency: DePasquale bemoans the money spent on new digs for some city departments who once occupied a now-vacant annex on Ross Street, for example. But he said he’d also use his voice to call for broader shifts, like doing more to welcome Spanish-speaking immigrants and convert Downtown to a more residential community.

“The position that nobody really takes advantage of is that the controller is the second-highest election official in the city,” he said. “I would like to use that bully pulpit to … try to solve many of the problems that are facing us.”

Take, for example, a frequent concern during Lamb’s tenure in office: the fact that some of the city’s biggest employers are tax-exempt nonprofits like UPMC.

“I believe the approach to the nonprofits has been wrong, wrong, wrong,” DePasquale said. While other city officials have taken a confrontational tack, he said, “These people have power, these people have money. When you threaten them, they just say, ‘Well, wait 'til he’s out of office.’” DePasquale said his approach would be to offer naming rights deals and other partnerships in city facilities like senior centers.

“Give them something that they can touch, feel, smell, and see,” he said. “And do it diplomatically with class.”

DePasquale also said the plight of city schools was a key concern. “I talk to citizens all the time and they’re frustrated,” he said. “Where is our money going? Our kids aren’t getting educated.”

During his time in office, Lamb often voiced concerns about the district, but said the controller’s ability to provide oversight to the schools was limited.

DePasquale disagrees — “I just can’t believe that an elected official does not have the power to make a difference.” But he acknowledges it would take time to figure out how best to proceed. “I would take my time and work. I would build allies and relationships. … Then we will move forward and start to try to solve the problems.”

DePasquale is the fourth candidate to express interest in the seat. The others include former acting county controller Tracy Royston, current deputy controller Rachel Heisler, and school board member Kevin Carter.

This is DePasquale’s first run for elected office (not including a Democratic Party committee post) but he has a political pedigree that few office-seekers could match: He’s the son of a former city council member, Eugene “Jeep” DePasquale, and the uncle of former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (who is currently mulling a run for attorney general).

Still, he said that he’d be more than content to serve as controller: “I’m not going to be there to run for higher office. I want my city to prosper and grow, and I just want to be a part of that.”

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.