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Daniel Gilman '00: Finding a Passion for Politics in Pittsburgh

In the summer of 2002 Daniel Gilman '00 climbed the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, walked through its gigantic bronze doors and felt as though he had stepped on to the set of the hit TV drama The West Wing.

After passing through security and getting his government ID, the 20-year-old redhead's sense of exhilaration and awe only deepened. The historic hallways were buzzing with members of Congress, staffers and guards. Camera crews and reporters stalked their prey. Loud bells sounded throughout the Capitol complex, alerting representatives when it was time for a floor vote.

As Gilman walked into the office of Mike Doyle, the longtime Pittsburgh congressman who'd be his boss for his internship, it hit him. This will be my office for the whole summer.

Gilman, who was about to be a junior at Carnegie Mellon University, quickly fell in love with the heady excitement of Washington and greatly admired Doyle. But as the summer progressed and he helped the congressman work on amendments for Medicare reform, Gilman became disillusioned with the intense partisanship he witnessed.

It was frustrating for him to watch how often party politics thwarted the lawmaking process. "Everything you did for the boss would be defeated along a party-line vote," he said. "I left intrigued by Washington, but completely turned off by the realities of government."

Fast forward one year. Gilman walked down the hall of the City-County Building in Pittsburgh and entered the office of then-City Councilman Bill Peduto. It was the start of another summer internship – and an opportunity that would transform his life.

There was no exciting TV show about national politics playing in his mind this time. But as Gilman manned the phones and began hearing requests from Peduto's constituents for things like new stop signs and complaints about construction dust, he had a sudden realization.

"My first day as an intern in City Hall, I got more done than a whole summer in Washington," he said.

Gilman's love for politics at the sidewalk-and-street level has only strengthened during the past 11 years. Most of that time he spent working as a staffer and then chief of staff for Councilman Peduto, who became mayor of Pittsburgh in 2013.

But for the last year and a half, Gilman has become a public servant himself. The boyish-looking 32-year-old now represents Peduto's former council district, District 8, which includes Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, half of Oakland and half of Point Breeze.

Gilman has become an important part of the youth movement on City Council that, along with Mayor Peduto, is transforming Pittsburgh from a city known for its industrial past into a high-tech, youth-oriented, livable city heralded for its great future. But he didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a politician. As he says, his political career is a result of "a series of accidental stumbling."

He got his first taste of politics while at Shady Side Academy, where he attended high school after moving to Pittsburgh from Dallas. In 1999, the summer between his junior and senior years, he volunteered to work in Al Gore's presidential campaign. Though he performed mundane office chores, such as making copies and answering phones, he loved having a behind-the- scenes glimpse of a presidential contest.

During his senior year at Shady Side he became a voting student representative on the Admissions Committee, a coveted honor for a few top students. He quickly became one of the go-to students for Katie (Hoopes) Mihm '83, who had just been named the Senior School director of admission. "Dan did a remarkable 10 recruiting tours that year, double that of most students, and fully engaged in the admissions file-reading process and deliberations... And he did all of this with a smile on his face. I am glad he was in my foxhole during my first year in admissions."

After graduating from SSA in 2000, Gilman crossed town to attend Carnegie Mellon University, where he majored in ethics, history and public policy. His well-rounded education at Shady Side prepared him for the rigorous course work, he said. Shady Side also had taught him something else that would become invaluable for his future career in politics – the ability to write well and think critically.

Gilman was active in CMU's student government all four years, first as a member of the student senate and finally as president of the student body his senior year. During his junior year, as student government vice president, he lobbied to

retain the 28x Airport Flyer, the Port Authority bus that went from Oakland to the airport. When Gilman met with then- Councilman Peduto to tell him how vital the public transit service was for college students, Peduto was so impressed by the young man that he asked him to be a summer intern.

Gilman loved that internship, especially the simple satisfaction of fixing a pothole or trimming a tree for someone in the district. But he believes that three-month stint might have been the end of his relationship with politics had it not been for an illness Gilman contracted during his senior year at CMU.

As graduation approached, he emailed Peduto's office asking if he could meet with the councilman for career advice. But the night before the meeting, he got violently ill from the Norovirus infection that had hit the campus. At 4 a.m., Gilman dragged himself out of bed, crawled to the phone and left a message asking Peduto's office to reschedule the meeting.

Meanwhile, as Gilman recovered, Peduto's chief of staff, Chris Coleman, a Navy reservist, was called up to Afghanistan suddenly. Peduto lamented to Coleman that he didn't know how they would be able to find a replacement quickly.

"Are you kidding?" Coleman said. "That Dan Gilman is one of the one percent."

"What is the one percent?" Peduto asked.

"One of the one percent of the smartest people on Earth," Coleman replied. "You should hire him."

So just one day after his college graduation, Gilman became a staffer for a Pittsburgh city councilman, working with people often decades older. He took the job over another tempting offer, a staff position for the Clinton Foundation in New York. "What 21-year-old Democrat wouldn't want to say he worked for Bill Clinton?" Gilman said. Plus, he said, just like the Congressional internship with Mike Doyle, the Clinton Foundation job would look impressive on his resumé.

But Gilman passed up New York and the Clintons. He knew his heart was in Pittsburgh, helping the city and neighborhoods he loved. Early on, Gilman complained that he was not getting enough responsibility in the councilman's office. Peduto told his young and enthusiastic staffer to be patient. Greater responsibility would come with time, he promised. Did it ever.

Within a few years, Gilman rose to become Peduto's chief of staff. "By year five, the majority of the workload and responsibility of the office came directly from him," Peduto said. "There was never a time when a project was half done. He didn't have a time clock. He had my back 110 percent of the time, both in my professional life and my personal life.

"I wouldn't be where I am today without Dan Gilman," Peduto said. "I got very lucky in life to have someone like that working side-by-side with me. Besides his help with my career, I am blessed because I met a true mensch."

Gilman figured if he worked for Peduto for a few years it would be a nice career move on his way to law school. But he never made it to the LSAT test. Instead he stayed with the councilman for nine and half years. When Peduto decided to run for mayor in 2013, Gilman came to another career crossroad. Should he run for City Council in the District 8 seat vacated by Peduto, or should he become a lobbyist in Washington, a job offer that would pay almost twice as much?

The choice turned out to be an easy one. Gilman decided to stay in Pittsburgh and become a public servant. "If I didn't run, I could picture myself being 45 years old, with a child on my lap, watching the election returns on CNN and regretting my decision not to take my shot. I would have regretted it my whole life."

On election night, Nov. 5, 2013, an elated Peduto, who won the mayor's office in a landslide, watched as Gilman took over his District 8 council seat. "I have never been so proud as when he won the election on the same night I won," Peduto said. Gilman celebrated at his own victory party and then went to Peduto's celebration. The photo in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next morning showed the two winners hugging on stage.

As a rookie councilman, Gilman did not sit on his laurels. He's worked to help modernize City Hall with 21st Century technology. "City Hall was stuck in the 1980s," he said. "Our building inspectors didn't have emails or cell phones. Trucks didn't have GPS." He's also interested in stopping "the brain drain in Pittsburgh and growing startup companies. I love that part of my job."

To address the 50 percent of the workforce that is female, he introduced legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against women due to pregnancy and required accommodations for mothers who are breastfeeding. Mayor Peduto said Gilman's contribution goes beyond just getting legislation passed, however.

"I think he has the potential to be one of the greatest councilmen of all times," Peduto said. "He is someone who brings people together. If a bill is in trouble, he will text me late at night. He'll tell me the issues with a councilman and what it will take to resolve it."

Community activists also praise Councilman Gilman. "He meets with community leaders at least twice a week," said Richard Rattner '80, president of the Shadyside Chamber of Commerce. "Dan is real hands-on. He isn't from the old school of Pittsburgh politics."

Gilman, who recently married and bought a house, keeps a full schedule, often working nights and weekends. On a recent day, his back-to-back calendar included meetings with an engineering firm doing construction, a City Council meeting, a meeting on Pittsburgh Fashion Week, a phone call with the sheet metal union on fire safety, a press conference for security guards demanding better wages, an anniversary party for robotic baby gear maker 4Moms, and on and on. He also churns out a steady stream of updates of what he's doing during the day on Twitter and Facebook.

"I don't know when he sleeps," said friend Alex Moser '90, who served on the SSA Alumni Council with Gilman for several years. "It is exhausting just following him on Twitter and Facebook. I need to take a nap after reading his Twitter feed. He is very worldly and highly intelligent. We are very lucky to have him in Pittsburgh."

As Mayor Peduto's protégé, Gilman received the real-world equivalent of Ph.D. in politics – but not old-school politics. "I learned what it means to stand up for your values in the face of controversy and adversity. In politics, you are stuck in the weird position where you have friends on both sides of an issue. But if you stick with what you believe; if you are consistent and honest and can look someone in the eyes; they may disagree with you and they may be upset, but in the end they will respect you. I think what kills so many politicians is this never-ending desire to please everyone. You end up becoming a flip-flopper."

Gilman has recently applied the lesson of sticking to your principles to his support for the new bike lanes the city has put in Downtown. When he gets yelled at by a major donor or a friend of the family who says the bike lanes are dumb, he doesn't just sheepishly say, "I know. I know." Instead he tells them exactly what he believes – that bike lanes are vital to attracting and retaining high-tech companies and making the city attractive to young people.

Though Gilman loves his job, sometimes he bristles at the bad reputation of politicians. "I do hear it all the time – politicians are corrupt and government is such a waste – and I take personal offense." He knows dozens of public servants like him who are honest and earning much less in government than they could in business, plus they're putting in more hours.

"The bad politicians give the industry a bad name," he says. "Talk radio and blogs and 24/7 news has turned things ugly."

In politics, it's almost impossible to calculate your next career move. But Gilman does entertain one thought in the back of his mind, and it has to do with local politics. "I think being mayor of Pittsburgh is the greatest job in America. If that opportunity ever presented itself, it would be a dream come true."

by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography by Maria Palermo
Published in the Summer 2015 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine