Robert “Daniel” Lavelle never planned on becoming a politician.
In fact, after graduating from Kent State University with a degree in Pan-African Studies a decade ago, Lavelle was headed for a graduate degree in Florida and counting on a future career in academia.
What kept Lavelle in Pittsburgh was a phone call he received asking if he was interested in a staff position that had opened up in then-District 6 Councilman Sala Udin’s office.
Lavelle, 32, thought the job was worth putting graduate school on hold. Little did he know that he was actually studying for his future job.
Now set to take over District 6 from fellow Hill District resident Tonya Payne on Jan. 3, Lavelle is cognizant of the fact that representing District 6 is an exercise in balance: giving the politically important Hill District and adjacent neighborhoods on the East End the attention they deserve without sacrificing the district’s many smaller Northside neighborhoods.
“I don’t feel representing the two is any different,” said Lavelle in his relaxed tone as he reclined in a chair at Amani Coffeehouse. “I plan on being equally engaged in all parts of the district. To the extent possible, I try not to make a distinction. I know historically there’s been a distinction, and there’s been a strong gripe from Northside residents over the years that the Hill District had more representation than they did.”
Coming from a long line of Hill District leaders — his father Robert M. Lavelle was president of Dwelling House Savings & Loan until its sudden demise earlier this year — knows he has a lot to prove to Northside residents. But he is adamant that his new district’s East End and Northside sectors have more in common than most voters think.
“When we campaigned…the reality that I saw was that a lot of the larger issues were the larger issues no matter where I was within the district, whether it was employment issues, whether it was economic development, housing…these were all the resounding issues no matter where I was,” Lavelle said.
As a first matter of business, Lavelle plans on meeting with neighborhood groups in the first few months to listen to their own vision for their neighborhoods and develop timelines and priorities.
Lavelle wants to focus on what he calls “low-hanging fruit” in first few months. “We’ll say ‘these are larger issues that we campaigned on, but what specifically are your issues, and where do those come together.’”
And the councilman-elect believes that his prior experience in the Northside serving both Sala Udin and later State Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-19), has shown him that the the electorate across the Allegheny River needs direct contact. This is one issue where Lavelle loses his soft-spoken voice and becomes more passionate.
“A lot of city residents are intimidated to come Downtown to the City-County Building. Because of that, unfortunately, information they need often comes late,” Lavelle said. “I think some people assume that a councilperson knows everything and always knows the issues, which isn’t always the case, because it’s a process…There needs to be constant communication between [constituents and representatives] and having a presence, a physical presence, at a minimum once a month, would be a great start towards that.”
To ensure this communication, Lavelle plans on introducing a mobile office, similar to what Councilman Patrick Dowd offers to his District 7 constituents on the East End. “Once a month we may have to put it in the War Streets, then another month, Manchester, then up on Perry Hilltop,” Lavelle said.
Concerning organizations he’s eager to partner with, Lavelle named the Pittsburgh Project — “I think they’ve really been a change agency in that community — and Manchester Citizens Corporation as two he already knows well.
Lavelle said he hopes to build a stronger relationship with the Northside Leadership Conference, who he said he has only dealt with on “smaller projects that they’ve championed like the Western Avenue redevelopment and the Duquesne Light situation.”
Lavelle said he knew many Northside United members, but stopped short of championing their stand against North Shore developers.
“I need to see more specifics as it relates to their push for the CBA [a.k.a. community benefits agreement]. Generally speaking, I am a supporter of CBAs. I do believe that any time you have a significant amount of tax dollars going into a project, that project should be beneficial to the residents, to the taxpayers…. so philosophically we’re in agreement there, but the devil’s in the details.”
Aside from learning from neighborhood groups, Lavelle said he will try to teach as well.
“Something I really learned from Rep. Wheatley’s office was the importance of helping organizations build capacity…so they can do more and are not always reliant on the smaller grant they can get from the city, from the state, from federal dollars, but helping organizations build capacity so they become less reliant on government and are more self-sufficient.”
City Councilors know that constituents expect a great deal from them. What’s unusual about Daniel Lavelle is how much he expects from his constituents.
“They have to be a participant, they have to call the office, don’t assume that our office knows everything that is going on,” Lavelle stammered. “Other parts of the city that I’ve seen get things done have a good partnership with their elected representatives. So they’ve elected me to do the job, but they have to use me as well.”