Sunday, April 22, 2007

Riding bus keeps Swartz campaign moving

Riding bus keeps Swartz campaign moving Rick Swartz, the executive director of the Bloomfield Garfield Corp., is running a quiet campaign against Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato. With only four weeks to go, he tries to talk to voters during most evenings. Here he rides a Port Authority bus to talk to voters about the proposed transit cuts.


Anonymous said...

By Ann Belser
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rick Swartz does not talk like your average politician.

"It would be a truly stunning event if I actually won," he said about his race for the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County Chief Executive.

Mr. Swartz, 54, of Friendship, isn't in the race because he thinks he can knock incumbent Dan Onorato out of office. Instead, he said, he feels it is important to raise issues and stir debate in the community about what he thinks is needed to make Allegheny County a better place.

One way to do that, as he did this week, is to take the bus, or five buses to be exact, riding through the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, talking about his campaign with the riders, and handing out his literature.

He hasn't learned the time-tested technique of handing out brochures while introducing himself by name. Instead, Mr. Swartz, in handing out his fliers says, "There's an election on May 15. I hope you vote." That leaves potential voters to look down at the picture, look up at him and say "Are you Rick Swartz?"

"I don't have any stand-ins. I have to do it myself," Mr. Swartz told Heather Campbell, 37, of Shadyside, as they rode on the 71C.

"We'd rather have you than the stand-ins," she said as she held his yellow campaign card in her hand.

For the last 25 years, Mr. Swartz, by his own accounting, has lead a predicable life centered on his family and his community. He's been the executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. since 1981, working with members of the community to redevelop Penn Avenue.

Born in Pittsburgh, he grew up in Liberty Township, outside of Youngstown, Ohio, and returned to the city to earn a bachelor's degree in writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974. He also has 60 credits toward a dual masters in social work and public administration from the University of Pittsburgh, but he never finished the degree. Instead, he went to work in McKeesport to create housing for poor people from 1979 until he started with the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.

His wife, Laura Swiss, can remember her reaction when he told her he wanted to run for chief executive of Allegheny County: "I was kind of shocked," she said.

She is supporting his efforts because she agrees with him that democracies work best when there is the friction that comes with a campaign.

But asked what would happen if her husband pulls off an upset, there was a long pause before she said, "I guess we would find a baby sitter."

He has been fitting his campaigning in around his work and his family. He has not taken any time off for the campaign after assuring the community development corporation's board of directors that his work would not be affected.

He still takes his two young children to school in the mornings. That has left him evenings to get out to events where he can hand out literature, and to start riding Allegheny County Port Authority buses. He said he has found those trips so enlightening that, if he is elected, he will continue to ride the buses to get the views of people.

"It's not a whole lot different from what I do in my job," he said on a 71C from Downtown to Oakland. "We do a lot of door to door and leafletting. Engaging people is really hard."

He was late jumping into the campaign because he wasn't sure he would be a candidate after Mr. Onorato challenged the signatures on his nominating petitions.

The effort to stay in the race caused his campaign volunteers to run around the county asking for affidavits from people to prove they had signed his petitions. Mr. Onorato dropped the challenge just before it was to be heard in court because the Swartz campaign had proved it had enough signatures to keep him on the ballot.

He also delayed his fund raising until the petition challenge was resolved.

As much as he wants to ride the bus, he may want to consider getting a pass. "This is getting expensive," he said in Squirrel Hill as he reached into his pocket to pull out another $2.25 to ride the 64A from the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues to East Liberty and then transfer to an 86A back toward Downtown.

He talked to other riders along the way about the buses and how Allegheny County should increase its funding from $25 million a year. He discussed why he thinks the base year assessment system is a bad idea for poor communities because, as property values sink, those property owners are paying more than their share of county taxes. He also said he wants to engage people more in the decision-making of county government.

He believes the process of government should be more open, and he recently complained that the effort to keep the Pittsburgh Penguins was resolved in secret in a New Jersey hotel, referring to last-minute negotiations with the team and government officials.

But the issue he is riding the hardest, literally and figuratively, is the buses. He wants to see a tax on gasoline and he wants the county to push to build light rail, not just to the North Side, but east and west and farther north.

He said light rail is environmentally friendly and costs less in manpower to operate than a bus system.

On the 69U from Oakland to Squirrel Hill he talked about light rail with Sandra Zimmerman, 51, of Park Place, who said she takes the bus because she dislikes having to find a place to park.

Mr. Swartz said if the county starts to invest in light rail, it won't happen overnight, but in 15 years, there would be a system worth riding.

His whole campaign is about presenting alternative visions of the future and spurring discussion about county government.

"If I can raise my profile enough in the next four weeks to show that people can have an alternative to Dan Onorato, I think there's a chance," he said.

Then he hopped on the next bus.

(Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699. )

Mark Rauterkus said...

A man after my own heart:

He still takes his two young children to school in the mornings.
And, who pickes them up?