Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – By Timothy McNulty
Jake Wheatley Jr. bowed his head at the altar while hundreds of congregants at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer stood and bowed too, their right palms stretched toward him.
The mayoral candidate and Democratic state representative is, at 6 foot 2 and 240 pounds, a large presence wherever he goes, but last Sunday, Pastor William H. Curtis reached for something bigger.
“God, every time somebody attempts to make history it comes with corresponding sacrifices,” said Rev. Curtis, the leader of one of Pittsburgh’s largest churches. “I pray for the man, that you use this as an opportunity to shape him and to help us engage a conversation in this city we could not have if we didn’t have an African-American running. … And I pray that you help him to know the race is not given to the swift, neither the battle to the strong, but to Jake Wheatley who endures to the end.”
An hour later, eating blackened chicken in a packed, post-church soul food restaurant on the North Side, Mr. Wheatley was unfazed when asked what it was like to have the hopes of so many on his shoulders.
“It’s the same responsibility I had when I swore to uphold the Constitution as a Marine or as a state representative when I swore to uphold the state constitution. I have a unique responsibility of carrying torches that go far beyond myself,” he said.
He also concedes to be a man with flaws, who has “a real personality conflict around taking orders,” though he argues that is a positive.
“I’m one of those people who if somebody tells me I can’t do something or won’t do something, I’m a challenger of that,” he said.
Mr. Wheatley, 41, has much in common with the other major candidates seeking the Democratic endorsement for mayor in the May 21 primary election. Like Bill Peduto, he did time on Grant Street as a city council aide. He shares Marine Corps service and years walking the sublime Moravian tiles of the Capitol with former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who also served as a state senator. Another black man, community activist A.J. Richardson, is a Democratic candidate.
The Hill District man is unique in being the most prominent African-American candidate to run for mayor in a quarter-century, in a city that is 26 percent black, while also seeking to position himself as something more than that.
“The various communities in this city — be they black communities or be they white communities — they’re afflicted with the same kind of challenge, that government hasn’t met their full service and obligation to them,” Mr. Wheatley said. “When they understand the true essence of this election isn’t about any one of these candidates, it’s more about them — how they want their government to run, how they want their government to reflect on them — then they will determine who best fits that.”
He is running on policies similar to those he has pushed in a decade in Harrisburg, centering on early childhood education and closing academic achievement gaps for students from low-income families; restructuring public transit; and spurring job creation by boosting small businesses, especially those run by minorities, women and veterans.
State Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is a mentor to the younger representative, who still serves on the panel. He called Mr. Wheatley “an incubator of ideas” and a hard worker who has the budgetary skill to be mayor in Pittsburgh, which is still under state fiscal oversight.
“I don’t think anybody running [for mayor] has that extensive of an education on finances. We have a $27 billion state budget,” Mr. Evans said. “If you’re learning on a farm team, the Legislature is a good place to learn about governing.”
Mr. Wheatley says he tries to model himself after the late K. Leroy Irvis, who held what is now the Hill District’s 19th District seat for 30 years. He speaks about the former House speaker often, including at the opening of a bipartisan symposium on fostering legislative communication two years ago in Harrisburg, which impressed Rick Stafford, who is another Irvis acolyte and the former CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
Mr. Wheatley “has got what I’d call leadership qualities,” said Mr. Stafford, who teaches public policy at the Carnegie Mellon’s H. John Heinz III College. (He is acquainted with all the major Democratic mayoral candidates and staying neutral in the race.)
Mr. Wheatley sees his candidacy as a replay of his underdog bid to join the state House in the 2002 primary, when he defeated then 19th District incumbent Bill Robinson just five years after arriving in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Wheatley had followed his college girlfriend (Marimba Milliones, daughter of late city councilman Jake) to the city in 1997, working in temp jobs and tutoring pre-apprentice trainees in a Hill District space that is today his campaign office. He got a job with the city clerk’s office and with then-Hill District Councilman Sala Udin, working for him for 18 months before becoming a training and education associate for the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. There he focused on ways to keep promising African-American college students from leaving Pittsburgh.
Sen. Leonard Bodack, D-Lawrenceville, announced his retirement in 2002 and Mr. Robinson was mentioned as a possible replacement. Then two other things happened: Mr. Wheatley was moved when he heard Rev. Curtis preach that January that the city’s young people had “to stop waiting to be tapped and told you’re next;” at the same time his Coro students were pestering him on what he was doing to make the city better.
So he ran, and he beat Mr. Robinson by 10 percentage points.
“That’s why I keep saying to people it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish,” he said of the mayoral race. “We’ve had similar examples of doing things people thought were the impossible thing. People told me when I joined the Marine Corps I was undisciplined and I wouldn’t make it through. I made it through.”
One of those people was his mother.
Mr. Wheatley was born in Detroit, the baby of a family with three older sisters. His parents divorced and he shuttled from Pontiac, Mich., to Minnesota back to Michigan and then back to suburban Minneapolis, where he graduated from the largely white Osseo High School in 1989. He then entered St. Cloud State in the northern part of the state. “It was pretty much Nordic,” he said, laughing. “I was not ready.”
He went home, telling his mother school was on vacation. While there he saw a TV commercial for the Marines and joined up, though his mother at first wouldn’t let the 17-year-old do so. “Boy, you can’t even listen to me,” she told her embarrassed son, whose recruiter listened in the family living room. She later relented and within three weeks he was at boot camp in San Diego. A field radio operator (“basically a glorified grunt,” he said), he did two tours in the Persian Gulf War, one on the ground in Kuwait for six months and another for 11 months on a ship in the Mediterranean.
Under the GI Bill, he received his bachelor’s degree in political science from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1997 and later a master’s in public administration from Pitt in 2000.
Along the way he got into legal trouble. At age 20 Mr. Wheatley pleaded guilty to felony larceny and misdemeanor assault charges after a fight in Michigan and served two years probation. In college in North Carolina he faced charges of assault and disorderly conduct in 1995 and 1996, according to the Associated Press, though they were dropped. Last year he and his fiancee Angela Mike were charged with assault after an argument in their Iowa Street home, though those charges were dropped, too. The couple is still together.
“It’s an unfortunate thing; it was a mistake. I never tried to hold myself up as perfect,” he said last week. “There’s only one being — and we learned about him today in our churches — who was perfect.”
Over the next four weeks, his key challenge will be making all the city’s Democratic voters take his campaign as seriously as those of the Peduto and Wagner teams.
“When we get in front of them, they will like what we say and they will want us as leaders,” Mr. Wheatley said. “All we’re asking for is a fair chance to not be driven out by who has most money and who is perceived to be the leaders. If perceptions were reality, we wouldn’t have President Obama and we wouldn’t have Sophie Masloff and we wouldn’t have Jake Wheatley in 2002.”