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Bob O'Connor has a good word for everyone. But does he have what it takes to be mayor of Pittsburgh?

Sunday, April 29, 2001

It's 8:20 a.m. on a campaign day crowded with talk shows, door-knocking, fish fries and bingo halls, but Bob O'Connor has a constituent crisis on his hands. The 6-year-old girl in the back seat of his rusting Oldsmobile is distraught over the prospect of a summer without her favorite treat.

Today and next week the Sunday Magazine will profile the front runners in the race for mayor of Pittsburgh. Bob O'Connor, who lost by 8 percentage points in his 1997 bid for the office and Tom Murphy, the incumbent and fellow Democrat. Undoubtedly, this is a two-man race as we head toward the May 15 primary election. No Republican has been mayor of the city since before the Great Depression, and other Democrats on the ballot registered no more than 1 point each in the Post-Gazette's most recent Pennsylvania Poll.
Next Sunday: a profile of Mayor Tom Murphy.
(Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration)

"Please, Bobby, will we be able to go to Rita's like before?" pleads Adina Peller, a Squirrel Hill resident of O'Connor's City Council district. More important, she's one of two nieces he is chauffeuring in their long dark skirts to the Yeshiva Girls School of Pittsburgh, as he does to start his day twice a week.

The school's Orthodox rabbis had just declared Rita's Italian Ice in Squirrel Hill off limits, saying the Saturday hours of its new Jewish owners were in violation of religious law.

Here, in the plight of an imp less than 4 feet tall, were many of the threads tying together the persona of mayoral candidate Bob O'Connor: the neighborhood fix-it man; the Irish Catholic church-goer with his feet and heart deep in the Jewish community; the extended-family man with an affinity for children.

He thinks back to all the warm summer evenings walking his young relatives up Murray and Forbes avenues, where every second or third person hails him as a friend or presses him on some problem of their own. He uses his cell phone to leave a message for a rabbi to call him back about this latest complication.

"Don't worry, we'll go to Rita's -- we'll fix it," he reassures his nieces before pulling in front of the girls' school on Denniston Avenue. They force their uncle to accompany them to the door, and he agrees good-naturedly.

It is not in Bob O'Connor's nature, after all, to disagree with either little girls or rabbis. He doesn't quarrel with council colleagues or irate citizens. And he's rarely confrontational with the other short, white-haired, 56-year-old Irish-American politician whose job he covets. He criticizes some of Tom Murphy's priorities and choices, but not the man himself.

"Personally, I like him," O'Connor insists. "I like everybody."

And a lot of people like Bob O'Connor. Genial, good guy, schmoozer Bob. He'd do anything for you, and he'll volunteer it before you even have a chance to ask.

If the May 15 Democratic primary were about who would make the best neighbor, the race might have been over long ago. The potential snag to O'Connor's ascension beyond the council presidency is that not everyone who likes him is certain he's up to the task of running Pittsburgh.

O'Connor spent most of his youth in Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, caring more about sports and cars than grades or career direction. His uncle, Buddy O'Connor, was famous on the local auto-racing circuit, and Buddy's extended family followed him everywhere to root for him.

O'Connor graduated from Allderdice High School with around a C average and never attended college; instead, he headed into a steel mill job and eventually learned his business acumen working with restaurateur Lou Pappan.

"We spent all our time going to races, five nights a week around Pittsburgh," recalled O'Connor, a passionate racing fan ever since. He's been to nearly 20 Indy 500s.

His father, Bob, was a truck mechanic and World War II Marine veteran who suffered a devastating wound in the Pacific. He bore the shrapnel in his back until his death from a heart ailment in 1978.

More of the candidate's personality was probably derived from his mother, the former Mary Anne Dever, a devout woman who was meticulous but warm-hearted and enjoyed having neighborhood children gather in her home. She died in 1987.

In their later years, his parents had followed O'Connor's only sibling, younger brother Tim, out to live in Las Vegas, where he is a bar owner.

Tim actually seemed the more outgoing, ambitious O'Connor in the circle of brothers, cousins and friends who gathered at and near Magee Field, playing baseball and football and shooting pool.

"Of all the guys, I'd probably be the last one on the list" likely to have a bright political future, O'Connor says with a chuckle.

He had some academic problems in ninth grade at Central Catholic High School, where he recalls some particular difficulties with Latin. He transferred to public school at Allderdice, and graduated in 1962 with something around a C average. Like many acquaintances, he headed into a steel mill job, the same Jones & Laughlin plant on the South Side where Tom Murphy's father was a supervisor.

By high school graduation, he was also in the first and only serious romance of his life, with classmate Judy Levine. Her parents couldn't figure what she saw in this rather ordinary, quiet-at-the-time kid she started bringing around. They knew one thing they didn't like: He wasn't Jewish.

"We couldn't break it up. We tried like hell, but it didn't work," recalled O'Connor's father-in-law, Joe Klemp.

The intermarriage concerns of relatives led Bob and Judy to elope in 1964, with only his brother present for a ceremony in a Wheeling, W.Va., church with a minister they didn't know. There was no honeymoon, not even a shared apartment to which to return. Once their first of three children arrived just over a year later, his fathering helped transform his in-laws' views about him. Their conversion was complete long ago.

"He turned out to be the exact opposite of what we thought he'd be," Klemp says today, in retirement in Florida.

By his own account and others, O'Connor would be nowhere near his current position if not for a Greek immigrant who became a friend, business mentor and father figure, all at once.

The trunk of Bob O'Connor's old Oldsmobile is always filled with campaign signs and other items ready for him to deliver personally. Here, he prepares for a blustery afternoon knocking on doors in Lincoln Place with wife Judy and aide Billy Pietragallo. (John Beale, Post-Gazette photo)

After spending most of the 1960s doing shift work at J&L, seeing decent pay but little future for himself, the young man accepted an offer from his wife's relatives to help manage a Roy Rogers fast-food restaurant they had opened. They added several more of the franchises before selling them in 1972.

The new owner was Lou Pappan, a Beaver County businessman who already had a group of other restaurants in his name. He retained O'Connor as a manager, gave him more training and authority, sent him through the Dale Carnegie motivational course and ultimately made him an executive vice president, overseeing the expansion to 18 Roy Rogers locations.

Pappan said he saw his younger assistant as a kind-hearted, trustworthy manager from the outset of their 20-year working relationship, but O'Connor's longtime companions recognized Pappan's influence.

Dennis O'Connor of Baldwin Borough said his close cousin recognized more purpose and self-potential as he traveled extensively with Pappan, who in turn introduced him to other successful people.

"Ever since he met Pappan, he's been nonstop," his relative said. "When he was a kid, he was more of a regular guy."

O'Connor himself said that working behind a counter, meeting and greeting customers every day, revealed a more outgoing personality than he'd realized he possessed. He said Pappan taught him about managing people and the benefits of hard work.

Like his current staff on council, his former Roy Rogers workers say O'Connor earned their respect instead of demanded it. He encouraged rather than dictated to them, even if they were far younger.

O'Connor often touts his small-business background when campaigning today, and aides and friends credit him with fiscal sensibilities he obtained running the restaurants. O'Connor credits the satisfaction from charitable work he did late in his Roy Rogers career with prompting his entry into politics, where he could try to satisfy people's quality-of-life needs instead of just their hunger.

Bob and Judy O'Connor have lived since 1972 in the same modest Phillips Avenue home where she grew up, recently assessed at $93,900 by the county. By 1990, they had developed a huge extended family among relatives, lifelong acquaintances, neighbors, business contacts, the parents of kids O'Connor coached in Little League and others.

Although not voting age, shy 4-year-old Dennis Sculimbrene still gets attention from O'Connor, who was visiting Mifflin School in Lincoln Place on a candidates' night. Dennis' father, Mike, supports O'Connor for mayor. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Bob and Susan Rudzki were on their porch around the corner from the O'Connors when he strolled by as usual with a niece one evening, and mentioned a potential interest out of nowhere in running for council. Would they help? Sure, they said, smiling at one another as he walked away.

"We said, 'That would sure be a long shot,'" Bob Rudzki recalled.

But just as the Rudzkis joined, so did dozens of others who knew nothing about politics before knocking on doors, delivering literature and making and delivering signs around Squirrel Hill, Greenfield, Hazelwood and the rest of the fifth council district.

The incumbent Democrat, Michael Coyne, had vacated the seat, and O'Connor, with his buoyant, loyal army easily beat three better-known Democrats in the 1991 primary election. The next morning, he was at the busy intersection of Forward and Murray avenues, waving a sign with one word for passing motorists: "Thanks!"

O'Connor entered politics figuring he had common-sense abilities that were lacking in local government.

"He said there's no one on council who understands the working man who's paying the mortgage, trying to put his kids through school," the way he did, said Robin Bernstein, a former political consultant who ran that first campaign.

Such notions didn't necessarily impress council colleagues upon his arrival in 1992. Some thought he was in over his head intellectually and couldn't grasp policy issues. Some thought he laid on the emphasis about his business background too thickly, failing to understand the distinct complexities of government operations.

But O'Connor also assembled a sharp, hard-working staff that his peers have envied, with his two top aides, Doug Shields and Marlene Cassidy, sticking since his first day. He gave them the same mandate he carried for himself: return every phone call, including those made to their homes, and have someone present at every community meeting.

He established himself as a community mediator and consensus-builder, helping craft arrangements for the operations of the Schenley Park golf course, the expansion of Jewish schools and senior citizen housing in Squirrel Hill, and the development of housing planned for the Nine Mile Run area.

Officials in the administration of Mayor Sophie Masloff, who preceded Murphy, saw him as a hard-working, fair-minded councilman eager to learn government operations. Council colleagues began discerning "street smarts" that compensated for a lack of formal education. His yunzer accent and hearty "Hey! Whaddya doin'?" greetings help mask some canny instincts.

"Bob has a great ability to come in with low expectations [from others] and beat those expectations," said one council colleague with mixed feelings about him, who did not want to be identified. "I think Bob felt uncomfortable speaking publicly about policy issues at council meetings, yet behind the scenes was doing a lot of the political things to move up the ladder."

O'Connor's family and friends have always been struck by how seldom he shows anger or pessimism. When he thought he'd set himself up for the presidency of City Council during his first term in 1994, only to see it snatched away by an agreement between Councilman Jim Ferlo and newly elected Mayor Murphy, his wife and children took it harder than he did.

O'Connor goes out of his way trying to charm children, whether related to him or not. In his Squirrel Hill headquarters, he gives a lift to granddaughter Delaney Garth, 2, during a visit from his daughter, Heidi Garth, and wife, Judy. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

The O'Connors have a daughter, Heidi, 35, a Wilkinsburg housewife; a son, Terry, 31, about to be ordained as a Catholic priest May 26; and a son, Corey, 16, who attends Central Catholic.

The family members describe a father who appears inexhaustible in juggling family activities with government service, just as he did during his restaurant days. He used to arrive home from a long Roy Rogers day to accompany Terry nightly to Schenley Oval to bat him tennis balls, ultimately helping him make the Central and University of Pittsburgh tennis teams. O'Connor's favorite pastime now is golfing with Corey at Schenley Park.

Leaving the restaurant position for City Council entailed a pay cut of about half, he and Pappan say. O'Connor explained that's why he's still driving the Olds that Pappan gave him upon leaving, with 112,000 miles on it and duct tape holding together the front seat.

He showers attention now on the three young nieces and nephew who belong to his wife's sister and her Israeli-born husband, who became traditional Orthodox in adulthood, and on the three brown-skinned granddaughters of his daughter and her husband, who is black. The grandchildren's photo faces visitors sitting at his desk in the City Council Building.

So at any one time -- especially at an open party held annually on Christmas Eve -- the O'Connor household can be full of blacks, whites and mixed races; Catholics, Jews (Orthodox and others) and Protestants; Israelis, Greeks and other nationalities; and any remaining melting-pot mixture.

"You go to Bob's house, and it's like going to the United Nations, and he's the same to everybody," said David Dombrowiak, a former St. Francis Medical Center executive who befriended O'Connor after seeing his inspired volunteer work for the hospital's fund-raising board.

O'Connor and his supporters won't acknowledge that 1997 was too early for him to run for mayor.

But he surprised many political analysts, and perhaps himself, when his underfunded, unsophisticated campaign came within 8 percentage points in the Democratic primary of upsetting Murphy, who was the incumbent then also.

O'Connor denies that he's been thinking about a second bid ever since the loss, but he gained more momentum and visibility when other council members accepted him as a compromise candidate in 1998 to become council president. Ferlo backed him as his successor, and he's backing him for mayor.

Bob O'Connor's resume

The Post-Gazette asked both candidates to provide a resume that would fit on one piece of standard typing paper. Click to the unedited version provided by Bob O'Connor's campaign staff.


"I would not have supported or thought of Bob as a potential mayor 10 years ago. It just seemed like maybe he was passing through, but I misjudged him," Ferlo said. "I think he grew in that position and got to really like and care about people. I think he understands the potential to move things and people."

O'Connor has five paid staff members in this campaign instead of the one he had four years ago, plus he has higher-grade advertising and polling operations. He dedicates daily time to phone calls for fund-raising, which wasn't the case in 1997, because he figures to spend at least $1 million, about three times as much as last time.

Still, associates are fond of viewing him as "same old Bob," as likely to drop off lawn signs at someone's house as any staff aide. He goes through the day kissing dozens of women on the cheek, both those he knows and strangers, explaining out of their earshot that "for some of them, it might be the only affection they get all day."

While a more confident public speaker than he once was, he's known to mangle the English language at times while offering his message to groups that he wants government to serve them just as a good business would. He said his role model is former Mayor Dick Caliguiri, whom he befriended while coaching two Caliguiri sons in Little League. One of the sons, David, is now Murphy's campaign manager; he declined to offer personal sentiments for this story.

O'Connor's supporters say his personal skills, political instincts and listening abilities remind them of the late mayor, who also never attended college. The candidate tells groups he'd like to achieve the same balance of Downtown and neighborhood initiatives and improvements that Caliguiri achieved.

But some around the city, including those who like him as a councilman in his own neighborhood, question whether O'Connor has the vision of either a Caliguiri or Murphy to move the city forward.

They say they've seen him challenge Murphy's initiatives without offering any sense that he has a broad agenda of his own, or wonder if he can make tough decisions that risk alienating some people for the greater good. Some council peers wonder if he's too cozy with the public safety unions, whom a mayor might have to face down at contract time, and they've sensed him waffling on difficult issues like stadium financing.

"He has to stand for something beyond not being Tom Murphy, and it's not clear to me what that is," said Councilman Sala Udin, who views O'Connor as a shrewd pragmatist lacking in firm ideology to stand on.

Ferlo is in fact the only council colleague publicly supporting O'Connor in the primary. The others generally say they like his collegial style but can't back him for mayor, either because they question his broad capabilities or they have to support Murphy as the Democratic committee-endorsed candidate.

"I want somebody to be mayor who I believe would be best for the job, not somebody that I can schmooze with over coffee," said Councilman Dan Cohen, who nonetheless commends O'Connor's hard work for his neighborhoods and constituents. "Could Bob grow in the job? Certainly. But people have to judge him on what we've seen so far."

O'Connor's campaign pronouncements generally revolve around what he calls "quality of life" themes -- supporting small businesses, providing more neighborhood beat cops and championing causes such as public school funding and children's health care. The platform goes beyond the issues a mayor can control, but he asserts he'd be a spirited booster for such causes and make the city feel as if "it's getting a new coach."

O'Connor doesn't read books and doesn't use a computer to search for information on his own. He said he makes judgments based on individual issues that arise, and doesn't pretend to have all the answers beforehand. He reviews facts from research-gathering aides and solicits advice from astute individuals who may have more expertise on each subject than him.

"Bob isn't an intellectual. He doesn't sit there and think about issues. He likes to build consensus," said Bernstein, the consultant who ran campaigns for both O'Connor and Murphy and declines to name her favorite.

Others who know both candidates say O'Connor might not be as book-smart or as well-spoken as Murphy, but his open style, if he could sustain it in the mayor's office, would be refreshing to the numerous public and private officials with dealings on Grant Street. The average person might feel someone at the top is paying closer attention to his or her concerns as well.

And if nothing else, everyone agrees that Bob O'Connor is sure one nice guy. The extent to which that matters to voters may become apparent on May 15.

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