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Newsmaker Michael Diven: Tenacity pays off for rising politician

Monday, November 13, 2000

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

During primary-election season four years ago, Pittsburgh city Councilman Gene Ricciardi spotted a tall young man going door to door on the South Side. It was Michael Diven campaigning for a state House seat in the 22nd District, which he couldn't win.

Michael Diven won election as a state representative on his second try. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

"I was driving down Muriel Street, and I saw him knocking on doors," said Ricciardi, who didn't know Diven then. "At that time I was supporting the incumbent, state Rep. Frank Gigliotti, so when he got to my door I let him know that. What so impressed me was that even though he knew my position, he was very tenacious. He wanted to talk issues. He knew the South Side wouldn't go for him, but he just worked it really hard."

Diven lost that 1996 primary, but the 26-year-old Brookline Democrat made a serious attempt at taking down House veteran Gigliotti, who had been a force in South Hills politics for years.

Last week Diven won the 22nd District seat in an easy victory over his Republican opponent. Gigliotti withdrew from the race in February after he was indicted for extorting bribes. He later pleaded guilty, resigned his seat and now is serving 46 months in prison.

It marked Diven's second victory after an incumbent hit the self-destruct button. He became a Pittsburgh councilman three years ago when his predecessor, Joe Cusick, resigned after a losing battle with alcohol and drugs.

That made Diven look like a guy who's either pretty lucky, pretty opportunistic, or both.

But his first stand against Gigliotti, and his first run for City Council -- when he was a senior at Duquesne University and he lost to Cusick -- indicate that he's willing to take on ridiculously tough races.

Diven was born into a place infused with politics. In the South Hills, politics runs in families, and political families dominate the neighborhoods. The Gigliottis and the Wagners duked it out for control for years, and Diven's father was a constable and county worker, as well as a local legend.

Joey Diven was the guy who would swipe a bus and give old ladies a ride to their doorstep, or take on the entire Pitt football team, or get himself declared the greatest street fighter who ever lived by Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated. He brought up his sons, Joey and Mike, playing "one-punch" -- one brother would stand still for the other's best punch, and return it if he were still standing.

Michael went to East Carolina University on a football scholarship, playing three years as a center before returning to Pittsburgh when his father lost part of a leg to diabetes. He finished his studies at Duquesne University, majoring in history and philosophy.

Though family and old-style politics are part of Diven's heritage, he knows it's a two-edged sword. When brother Joey got a new sidewalk courtesy of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Michael's name was in the news article about it, too.

Along with the goodwill and access from his family name come requests for favors, squabbling and certain expectations.

"My cousin [Amy Montgomery of Brookline] is running for my council seat. I have to support my chief of staff [Jim Motznik]. Jimmy has earned my support. It's a tough position," Diven said.

Diven doesn't have much of his big-fisted father's flamboyance. He still has huge shoulders, but he has taken off both the bulk of a football player and the girth that accumulated over the first couple of years in office. He's a lean 6-foot-4 with close-cropped brown hair going gray at the temples. In conversation, he's soft-spoken and focused.

 
    MICHAEL DIVEN

Date of Birth: March 27, 1970

Place of Birth: Pittsburgh

Lives in: Brookline

In the news: Diven will leave Pittsburgh City Council for the state House of Representatives. He replaces Frank Gigliotti, who resigned his seat in the 22nd District after pleading guilty to extortion, mail fraud and soliciting bribes.

Quote: "Losing my first two elections prepared me for being in an elected position. When you wake up Wednesday morning and people don't want to talk to you, it keeps you humble. I don't consider myself important, but I consider the job I do important."

Education: Graduated from Brashear High School and Duquesne University.

Family: Single

 
 

"He doesn't let anything bother him," Motznik said. "I do the screaming and hollering. He keeps a calm demeanor. He thinks about things before he reacts. I've never seen him lose it. Never."

Diven said he was influenced by another side to his father, who died in 1997.

"There was the tough-guy image. But the other one was a person who'd go out of his way to help people for no reason. He wouldn't hesitate to step in and help people. People always ask, 'You any relation to Joey?' And when I say yeah, they are always so warm and welcoming. It's a tremendous legacy. I always thought it would be great to offer the same legacy to my children," he said.

So when he went to vote during his senior year and saw then-Councilman Jack Wagner passing out literature for his mayoral bid, Diven thought about the vacant seat and the possibility of running.

"I went home the next day and brought it up to my father. He said, 'Why not? Give it a shot.' When I told my mom what I was thinking about, she started to laugh uncontrollably." (He and his mother go back and forth in good-natured dispute over versions of this anecdote and others, like how he lost weight because she said he was fat -- or was it heavy? -- and how she yelled out a correction to his grammar during a speech at a political event.)

Diven persisted in the campaign with the staunch support of both parents. After he lost the race and finished school, he went to work for Tom Foerster, serving as staff assistant to the longtime Allegheny County commissioner from 1993 to 1996. He learned the art of constituent services firsthand, and gained experience and connections working with the man who was the dominant force in county politics.

When Foerster lost to Republicans Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer, Diven decided to take on Gigliotti in the 22nd District, which includes most of the Pittsburgh neighborhoods south of the Monongahela River.

"He [Gigliotti] spent $100,000. He had the mayor of the city of Pittsburgh knocking on doors for him. He had [newly elected county Commissioner] Mike Dawida speaking for him," Diven said.

So what was Diven thinking?

"I thought we could win and I thought I could do the job," he said.

Two adult versions of "one-punch" prepared him for the races to come and the jobs that followed, he said. He won the council seat the following year. Diven's willingness to take on Gigliotti -- known as powerful and vindictive -- seems to have resonated in the community.

Motznik was a former Gigliotti supporter who had become disillusioned with him. When he heard someone was challenging him, he called Diven and volunteered his services.

"After meeting him for the first time, I thought he was capable," Motznik said. "He was young, we had the same opinions of politics, he had an interest in the community and wanted to make changes. We both didn't like how the district was being represented."

On City Council, Diven has kept a low profile: No major initiatives, no floods of press releases, few big speeches, no memorable clashes.

"Sometimes he gets criticized for being too quiet," Motznik said. "Some voters want to hear that he's fighting for them. He's out fighting, but he doesn't talk about it."

The accomplishments Diven points to are mostly securing money for neighborhoods in his council district, which have lagged behind many other parts of the city in development and infrastructure improvements. That was the major issue people raised when he was campaigning, he said, and that's what he focused on. He cites a major improvement project for Brookline Boulevard, improvements to a dangerous intersection of Becks Run Road, and working on creating a community center for his district.

"He has really been able to quietly get money for his district," Ricciardi said. "When he first came on council everyone was losing their budgetary items. We were all ranting and raving and screaming and doing our best to get funding. When I looked over the final budget he was the only successful person in keeping money."

Joe Viehbeck, a political consultant who has helped run successful campaigns for both Mayor Tom Murphy and Diven, said Diven is well-suited to the job he's taking.

"He works very hard at bringing people together. He's not a confrontational person. He loves to talk and analyze and discuss. I think the state Legislature is a great forum for someone like Mike."



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