"You know, it seems like a lot of people really don't like Luke," says his opponent, Mark DeSantis, as we first sit down.
"I don't agree with that. I'm really not sure where it's coming from."
Twenty minutes later...
"You were appointed!"
We had brought up the letter he received from Ravenstahl, which suggested that his mayoral responsibilities would make scheduling debates difficult. (Trib)
"That's troubling. It looks like he's providing an out."
DeSantis moves to the edge of his seat. "We're all busy. I'm busy; I'm the head of a company, I sit on all these boards."
"But especially if you're appointed to an office, you have a moral obligation to prove to people why you should be there. We should be debating the issues thoroughly ... frequently ... it's a primary responsibility!"
We bring up some inconsistency in his attitude toward the Mayor, and he laughs out loud, grinning sheepishly.
"What I look at in city government -- it's supposed to deliver some stuff: quality infrastructure, fiscal responsibility, a thriving economy, and public safety."
Mark DeSantis is not wild about our performance by any of those standards, but he says our paramount concern right now must be fiscal responsibility.
"The data is out there, and we're a freaking disaster."
Whereas the county is managing to fund 100% of its pension liability, and most American cities are funding between 85 and 90%, we are lagging a bit behind.
"Forty percent is a joke."
How did it happen?
He shrugs. "Somebody raided the pension fund."
As to the city budget, he compares us to someone who makes $30 thousand a year, who has accumulated $1.5 million in credit card debt.
Out of a $430 million budget, $90 million goes to pay our long-term debt -- which is just paying the minimum balance.
Other cities may not have Pittsburgh's beauty, he says, or Pittsburgh's cultural assets, but they are making do with what they have -- while we ourselves are grossly under-performing.
So what will this mean? What is the municipal equivalent of getting harassed by collection agencies, wrecking our credit rating, and going into foreclosure?
"That's the great unknown," DeSantis admits. "That has only happened a few times in American history. Smart lawyers disagree."
He said that although New York went into bankruptcy around the mid-70's, they were New York -- nobody was about to let the nation's biggest city fall into ruin. By contrast, people could decide to make an example out of Pittsburgh.
He suggests that the pension fund could disappear; no pensions, no health care, no workers compensation. Insurance costs could skyrocket to prohibitive levels. All the union contracts could be made null and void; a bankruptcy judge would basically take control.
To say nothing of the reputation of the city.
"Avoiding bankruptcy is the overriding concern. That doesn't mean you can't do anything. Your moral obligation as a mayor is to get more from less."
That's where his plans to "right-size" city government come in. It happens all the time in the private sector, he says: there is always a way to do more with less.
Yes, but he's a Republican. When he talks like this, it is easy for people to imagine that services are going to suffer, or be eliminated.
"As far as the fears people have, I don't know how to address those," he admits. "It's not about competing philosophies of government. It's about survival first."
DeSantis touts consolidation as a way to maintain high levels of service, while saving cash. He says we have been far too slow to adopt cooperative strategies.
"Look at 911 services. It took years to combine that. That's a joke! There's no reason it should take that long."
"Do what Wal-Mart does -- when you buy things in larger quantity, you save money. I don't mean you should be dabbling in it -- it should be done on a massive scale."
His interest in consolidating services and joint-purchasing reminds us a lot of Michael Lamb.
He's a fan of Lamb. He threw a fund-raiser for Lamb in 2005, when he ran for mayor; he also "might have given him a check" this year in his bid for Controller.
At another point in the conversation, he also spoke highly of "Pedoots." In fact, it was only after Bill Peduto withdrew from the mayoral primary, that DeSantis says he "stopped talking like Hamlet," and decided to go full steam ahead with his own mayoral run.
We ask what he would do about our failing neighborhoods.
He describes an article he read about the drug trade. They asked a dealer how he knew where to set up shop, and he answered, "I can see a neighborhood in decline. That's where I go."
"The city is disintegrating. Sidewalks are crumbling. Lots are abandoned."
So it's just a matter of fixing infrastructure?
"We are living in a divided city," he allows. "A quarter is African-American, and they are not doing well," he says, referencing a recently released University of Pittsburgh study from its Center on Race and Social Problems. (Ervin Dyer, P-G; Bill Zlatos, Trib)
"I'll speak openly: I can't remedy this. These are deep problems. What I can do is start a frank and open dialogue."
He cautions that security cameras are just a tool, not a solution. He says it will take "very, very close collaboration" with the community to start turning things around, and he is just beginning to reach out to community leaders.
We ask about the Penguins arena and the Hill District, and the possibility of securing a community benefits agreement.
"It's unclear to me how that arena is going to play out -- this goes into transparency," he says.
"Why don't we know? If you're using public money to do it -- why aren't public officials giving us all the details?"
He actually starts to get as worked up about this, as he did on the subject of debates.
"It's not the Penguins obligation. Our public officials should be making it unambiguously clear, and not in some speculative, off-the-cuff fashion. It's a mentality that I don't get."
"Common sense is not a radical concept," he explains, in an exasperated tone. "I'll tell you right now, I don't have any 'new' ideas."
"I just have ideas that have worked in countless other cities, for decades."
We notice that Mark DeSantis already has the new iPhone. We ask how he likes it.
"I feel empowered," he deadpans dryly.
He feels a little guilty that he didn't have to stand in line. He just walked into a store on Saturday, and walked out with it.
"I have a theory about technology," he offers. "We are at a point where we are adapting to technology, faster than technology is adapting to us."
Is that a good thing?
"No!" he cries. He cites text-messaging while driving as an example, and also our fixation on checking our e-mail, the news, and the blogs every five minutes.
Nevertheless, and despite the sometimes heated emotions of the blurghosphere, he tells us that that, in the end, is a good thing.
"People are now able to speak the unspeakable ... talk about what's underground. That's essential," he maintains. "People are angry because of what could be."