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Matthew Burger: A voice at the table

PUMP and other young professional groups in Pittsburgh are starting to flex their political muscle

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

There used to be a common complaint in this region: The opinions of the younger generation were absent from the decision-making process. Many Pittsburghers in their 20s and 30s felt that their voices simply didn't count -- that they lacked access to the region's power brokers in Washington, Harrisburg or Grant Street.

   Matthew Burger, a lawyer with Buchanan Ingersoll, is vice president of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (www.pump.org). 

These critics have largely fallen silent in recent years, for an important reason -- Pittsburgh's younger-generation leaders are standing up and being counted. This group, underrepresented for so long in the region's political landscape, is beginning to mobilize and organize itself politically. They are educating themselves on political issues, and staking out positions on initiatives that enhance the vitality and quality of life of this region.

These efforts have been led by the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. It was formed six years ago as a result of an opinion piece that appeared on this very page -- "Someplace Shrinking: Without a Critical Mass of People in Their 30s, Pittsburgh Is Sunk" by Michelle Fanzo (Sept. 13, 1995). PUMP has grown to more than 700 members, an estimated 90 percent of whom voted in the last election. Over the past few years, PUMP has promoted issues ranging from local transportation initiatives, to Downtown development, and most recently reform in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. And we are starting to be heard.

On Sept. 17 and 18, a busload of PUMP members took two days off work and traveled to the nation's capital for a series of meetings with federal legislators. Billed as the "Wide Road to Washington" (the trip followed PUMP's "High Road to Harrisburg" meeting with state legislators two years ago), PUMP joined former Pittsburghers living in Washington to promote a number of public transportation projects under consideration for this region. PUMP's agenda included supporting recommendations from the recent Airport Multimodal Corridor Study, and grass-roots lobbying on behalf of the North Shore Light Rail Transit Expansion/Connector and Maglev. PUMP's lobbying efforts were the product of the group's ImPAct Convention in Pittsburgh last summer, when a poll of 1,000 young Pennsylvanians identified public transit as one of their most important issues in assessing a region's quality of life.

The doors of Congress were wide open for PUMP. With a schedule that seasoned D.C. politicos might find daunting, the group met with legislative directors for Reps. John Murtha, John Peterson, Bud Shuster, William Coyne, Phil English, Melissa Hart and Frank Mascara, as well as staff directors for the House and Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Mike Doyle even attended these meetings in person. PUMP engaged in frank discussions with these legislators regarding the prospects for these transportation plans, the lawmakers whose support is critical to achieve necessary appropriation levels, and ways in which PUMP might further promote these initiatives. More than one lawmaker noted the refreshing prospect of PUMP members traveling to Washington, at their own expense, motivated simply by a desire to improve the quality of life in their home districts.

I have sometimes heard Pittsburgh's young leaders express their view that the region's "power brokers" are unsympathetic to the voices of this population. If you believe this, you've never met Elsie Hillman. Elsie not only provided support and funding for PUMP's "High Road to Harrisburg" in 2000 and ImPAct Convention in 2001, but she volunteered to host a luncheon with Sen. Arlen Specter and Reps. James Greenwood, Coyne and Hart for PUMP's "Wide Road" group.

While much has been said about the importance of "bridge building" between Pittsburgh's younger generation and its decision-makers, Elsie Hillman not only talks the talk, she walks the walk. Point in fact, she drove to Washington to attend the luncheon.

As the saying goes, "Who dares nothing need hope for nothing," PUMP and other young professional groups are starting to flex their political muscle and dare to enter new precincts, organizing and mobilizing on behalf of initiatives that we believe advance our collective hopes for a vibrant and attractive region.

I invite this next generation of Pittsburgh's leaders to join these efforts and use their voices to shape the future of Western Pennsylvania. I also ask this region's decision-makers to continue the "bridge building" nobly advanced by Elsie Hillman.

Seek young professionals for your boards. Invite them to participate in your studies and focus groups. Their insights may surprise you, and may lead to Pittsburgh becoming known not as a city that is difficult to break into, but a city of "bridge builders" where the partnership between young professionals and established leaders is a critical component to shaping this city's future.

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