In his campaign for mayor, Dok Harris preaches job creation, smarter taxes


Doc Harris explains his crime platform to a business owner in Troy Hill.(Photo/Webster)

Franco ‘Dok’ Harris’s campaign office looks like the dorm room of a frazzled law student who’s spent weeks cramming for a final exam.

Campaign papers are strewn across his desk and litter the floor of the dimly lit room, and odd objects — like an empty cardboard guitar box — lean against the wood-paneled walls. The door itself, conveniently off its hinges, sits against the doorjamb.

In the final, exhausting week of his campaign for mayor, Harris has just returned from shooting a campaign commercial in East Liberty, and his buoyant demeanor doesn’t match his surroundings.

After laughing at how his constant schedule of field work has made office cleanliness a last priority, this Northside native son (he lived in the Mexican War Streets until he was 14) settles into his swivel chair.

“I’ve been trying to separate myself from my dorky reputation, and then I go and rent what used to be a game store,” Harris chuckles, referring to his Oakland campaign headquarter’s former life as Phantom of the Attic, a purveyor of Dungeons & Dragons and card games like Magic: the Gathering.

At 30, Harris has already established himself as much more than a dork, with a list of notable accomplishments — after majoring in politics at Princeton, he helped develop two financial products for Capital One in Washington, D.C.; later, in the process of earning a dual law and business degree from Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, he joined a medical startup company that won two prestigious business awards for their computerized brain pressure device; and Carnegie Mellon named him Entrepreneur of the Year in 2006, in addition to a similar award he received from Pitt.

When he talks about his accomplishments, Harris frames them in what they would signify for his administration if he is elected mayor on Nov. 3.

Chiefly, Harris believes business acumen is his best asset for the city. His ideas for a new Office of Small Business and a “smart tax” system would streamline the process of starting businesses and creating jobs. And it’s this focus on jumpstarting and attracting business to Pittsburgh that is at the heart of nearly every other pillar of his campaign.

Business is the answer

Standing in front of his rival’s poster, Dok Harris speaks to his campaign volunteers about improving business districts. (Photo/Webster)

“The sole way you’re going to solve pension and budget [problems] long-term,” Harris says, “is by building up population” — and by building population, he means job creation.

The Office of Small Business would fulfill this need by outfitting three to four public business professionals who would seek and vet business plans and then put the entrepreneurs in touch with free attorneys, consultants and bankers.

“The office will try to get new businesses to move into areas that need the services,” Harris says, pointing out that Northview Heights doesn’t even have an onsite daycare for the many children that live there. “The resources are here, it’s just having somebody to walk you through it.”

Alongside this office, Harris wants to create a Pittsburgh Promise of sorts for startup companies. By organizing a public-private venture capital partnership, he hopes to build an annual pool of $10 million to help launch a series of startups in the city.

Harris admits that the city could only afford to give about $200,000 to the partnership each year but says the money will return to city coffers once a small percentage of the startups become successful. Harris believes the taxes made over time from the successful businesses will more than pay for the city’s gift of early capital.

“If we keep doing the process over and over again, and we become a city that is good for entrepreneurship, then companies will move here,” Harris says.

Additionally, Harris’s Office of Small Business would give young startups low or no cost rent in abandoned city-owned buildings. If a startup fixed up the building and kept the doors open for five years, Harris’s administration would essentially give the building to the business if certain requirements like prevailing wages were met.

In this way, Harris would spread out the locations of new businesses; raise more property taxes by privatizing the abandoned buildings and rebuild struggling business districts.

Fighting crime through relationships and business

Rebuilding these business districts is also one of Harris’s key weapons in reducing crime.

“Say you [rebuild] a thriving business district, suddenly you have people whose eyes are on the streets to see what happening because it doesn’t hit them just at home, it hits them in the pocketbook when customers are too scared to come out because of crime,” he says. “People who own business are a little more vigilant in reporting crime.”

He also wants to see police officers get out of their cars and stroll around neighborhoods and business districts to cultivate trust between the police and residents.

On this point, Harris is adamant that city administrators “don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” Some folks in anti-violence groups have been doing this work for years know the troublemakers in each neighborhood, Harris says. He adds, if the police and administrators build better relationships with these individuals in the first place, they’ll get the tips they need to prevent crime before it starts.

Another means of reducing crime is Harris’s plan to give businesses small tax credits for hiring people within a certain radius of its location. If more people are living near where they work, that foot traffic will make committing crime and getting away with it all the more difficult.

Keeping up with the suburbs

The one issue where Harris remains vague is his “smart tax” system. He suggests the obvious, that Act 47 has the ability to strangle any new tax system. But he says that as mayor he would push for a gradual increase in the commuter tax.

Harris thinks the current rate of 20 cents a day for commuters working in the city should increase closer to $1 over time, and that reducing corporate and property taxes in the long-term would also be among his plans.

Because reducing property taxes to suburban levels would be a budgetary impossibility in the near future, he says that offering world-class city services to residents becomes extremely important. Making sure that Public Works responds quickly to residents’ complaints is one of way of staying competitive with lower taxes outside city limits.

Harris thinks that steady development will increase population and, hence, taxes. One way to feed this development, that he favors, is to direct pilot funds — which nonprofits give the city in lieu of taxes — to neighborhood development, rather than using them in the general budget.

“If we’re taking these payments in lieu of taxes, and if your [nonprofit is] based in the Northside,” Harris says with emphasis, “the development money will help spur businesses on the Northside.”

The business of stealing votes

Dok’s father, Steelers Hall-of-Famer Franco Harris, asks registered voter Bill Hancsak to support his son on Nov. 3. (Photo/Webster)

The next day, Harris and his team of campaign volunteers, along with his father and namesake Franco Harris, canvass door-to-door in Troy Hill, asking for votes and explaining the candidate’s platform.
Using voter rolls from the Obama campaign and, the campaign singles out voters who had become newly active in recent elections.

Harris’s young field director, Matt Stegman, talks about how difficult it is to get some folks active in the election.

“With the turnout somewhere between 30 to 35 percent for mayoral elections here,” you have to change the minds of Ravenstahl supporters, Stegman says.

“This is the lion’s den,” Harris chuckles, admitting that Troy Hill is one of the neighborhoods where Mayor Ravenstahl receives plenty of support.

After Harris knocks on Eva Nicotra’s door on Lowrie Street and talks with the retiree “who has voted in every election since Roosevelt,” she admits afterward that she feels pretty confident about the candidate.

“We’re a little community and I think we need more help with the young folks or someplace fun for them to go, so they don’t get into mischief.”

Nicotra isn’t unusual. The most common complaint that residents cite is crime.

Bill Hancsak was surprised to see Franco Harris extending his hand as he walked up Ley Street.

“My main thing is they got to clean up these streets,” Hancsak says. “I had my 42 inch plasma TV stolen out of my house a few weeks ago, and I have two young kids.”

Hancsak, originally from Mckeesport, wants more police patrols to stop open drug dealing.

On another street, Dok Harris says he knows how important police patrols are to residents, but that candidate Acklin’s concept of hiring 200 more police officers in unfeasible, since it would cost the city $20 million that it doesn’t have. Instead, he favors hiring 80 officers over the next several years.

“We can’t afford 200 officers, so we need to get [current officers] out of their cars, working with anti-violence groups and bringing [the community] to the table” Harris says.

After two hours of speaking with residents, Harris walks back toward his car, surrounded by campaign workers, friends from law school and community volunteers.

One volunteer, referring to Ravenstahl, says he doesn’t know why anyone would still want to vote for a dumb candidate.

“Luke’s a smart guy,” Harris shoots back without skipping a beat. “He’s just surrounding himself with the wrong people.”

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