Monday, August 10, 2009

Interview: Dok Harris, Part I

I asked the first-time political candidate and son of a Steelers legend what is his favorite restaurant.

"Oh, that's a great question," he replied. "Actually, I've really been enjoying Toast! lately. Have you heard of Toast?"

I had not yet heard of Toast, so he told me how it has been open in Bloomfield for about eight months or so (where the old something-else used to be), how "the concept is wonderful", and that one can purchase an entree and a glass of wine for $20.

Noticing his interviewer scribbling with great intent, Harris asked in which part of town I reside. I live in the Spring Garden / East Allegheny area, so he pointed me in the direction of Toula's on Federal St. -- a "great dive" that offers a deal for two hot dogs and two milkshakes for $8.60. He also recommended DeLuca's in the Strip District for breakfast.

"I'm a little bit of a foodie", he said.

Asked to identify a favorite neighborhood, Harris first suggested Lawrenceville. He said he likes the development there, but also that it has "a cool edge."

The Mexican War Streets on the North Side also got high marks, particularly for diversity. "Black, White, Black, White, Latino ... not so many Asians back then," he recalled from growing up in that neighborhood. "Doctors, lawyers..."

For favorite music, Harris answered classic rock, yet Paul Oakenfold occupied his iPod at that very moment. He drives a Ford Escape Hybrid, and his previous vehicle was a BMW X5.

His favorite authors are Jonathan Franzen, Christopher Buckley and David Sedaris. He declined to offer any favorite television shows, revealing he just cancelled his cable TV service.


Dok Harris has already criticized city government's pay-to-play culture during this mayoral campaign, so I inquired into his own campaign contribution guidelines. Harris says he is using regulations in place for federal elections as a model: caps of $2,400 for the primary and $2,400 for the general election per person. A couple may therefore contribute up to $9,600 to Harris for the year.

I asked whether -- having not actually conducted a primary election campaign -- accepting two cycles worth of donations is at all inconsistent with the spirit of reform. He replied that "not a ton of people" contributed during both cycles -- it looks as though about five donors have done so -- and pointed out that "a lot of that money was spent before May 19th".

The only thing that leaped off his campaign disclosure forms to me was how many of them thus far have Sewickley addresses.

"Am I some kind of carpet-bagger who really hasn't lived here?" Harris asked for me. "My parents live in Sewickley. A lot of family friends live out there." After attending Princeton for his undergraduate degree and weathering a stint in Washington DC, he moved back to Pittsburgh in 2004 to pursue his JD / MBA, which he earned last year.

Also, "They [the Sewicklians et al] are starting to realize good government is something we need to do on the local level."

"I haven't yet taken any PAC money" Harris points out, though he says that will probably change.


Politically, Harris begins his story like so: "Having met Al Gore, I was not impressed. Plus, we were coming off the Clinton era."

Harris describes himself as having been a "registered conservative" at that time, mostly due to having been part of economics classes at Princeton, and inhaling that oxygen. He today refers to himself as a "fiscal conservative", which he defines basically as "let's live within our means". He draws a distinction between that and "economic conservatism," which he says preaches that "people shouldn't have a safety net, people should help themselves."

"When you talk to [State Sen.] Jane Orie [R-McCandless], she wants to cut things like Headstart," he explained.

As for personal turning points, "what really got me was Sept. 12th, 2001," he said. For example, he wonders at a 1964 speech given by Ronald Reagan to the Republican National Convention, decrying the Democrats of the time for seeking to conduct wiretaps on citizens without a judicial warrant.


Dok Harris worked for a startup company called Neurolife, LLC -- they developed some sort of product or procedure for collapsed veins in the eye, among other things. He left Neurolife after about five months. Later, he filed a couple of patents for financial services products which "didn't get traction."

During law school*, he also worked as a legal and financial counsellor as part of several programs -- mortgage issues, how to start a business and the like. He said the experience taught him "how to properly tell your client no."

Also, he says he learned that "home ownership in Pittsburgh is very, very complicated." A lot of individuals have owned property or lived in houses for a very long time -- maybe they don't have a deed, or they built their house themselves and there is still no deed.

Assisting stakeholders with problems like these is one thing Harris says he wants to accomplish as Mayor: making Pittsburgh a "City of Yes".

"You have an idea? Great. Let's find a location," Harris says, "and get the votes on City Council."


  1. *-CORRECTION: I got the time line a little confused. The financial counseling was done during his time spent in D.C., and his legal assistance as he was being a law student in Pittsburgh, or something approximately like that. His bio is up on his site.

  2. I don't expect Harris to get much PAC money. I'd be shocked otherwise.

    The anti L.R. PACs are reeling from the dip in the economy.

  3. So, was he a registered "conservative" or a registered Republican? If he voted for George W. Bush in 2000, then I am voting for Acklin now.

    The only thing keeping me undecided was Dok's seemingly liberal credentials, but if both of our challengers to LR used to be Republicans, then I am going with Acklin because he has way more public policy experience and has way more experience working in the community.

  4. Moments ago this comment read in part, "He voted for Bush in 2000 for reasons described in the post, sorry if that was not clear."

    MORE CORRECTION: No! No, he did not. Harris sat out the presidential election of 2000 altogether, he says.

    The impression I have is that he was an R back then, or at least he was at some point 8+ years ago, but "registered conservative" appeared in my notes and that seemed noteworthy enough to reproduce.

    I assume Acklin has a bit more "policy experience" since he ran for County Council in the past. I'm not sure who has "more experience working in the community" if you compare Acklin's Renew Pittsburgh vs. Harris's counseling and perhaps other efforts. I remember on the way back from the public safety forum during the primary in which Harris took part, I asked someone in a headdress about this exact topic, and she noted approvingly that Harris "has been visible in the community".