Jake Wheatley sees himself as a “servant of people,” not a career politician.
“People will say, ‘We don't hear what you do,' but it's never been a reflection of me. I've never tried to toot my own horn, I've always tried to work behind the scenes,” said Wheatley, a Democratic state House member from the Hill District since 2003.
He would be on center stage if he wins a self-described long-shot campaign to be Pittsburgh mayor. The campaign requires him to expound daily on a political resumé that traces through City Council and the legislature.
Early on, he boosted his career by working with influential Democrats, including former City Councilman Sala Udin and Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia.
“The evidence of my success is how people have grown or developed around me,” Wheatley said. “People have said you really know when you're doing good based off the amount of people who are yelling at you. If you have more powerful people fighting against you, then you're doing something in office.”
Wheatley, 41, won five two-year terms in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives but earned the Allegheny County Democratic Committee's endorsement just twice — when he ran in 2002 to defeat seven-term incumbent Bill Robinson and when he ran unopposed last year.
Wheatley does not have the party's backing in the May 21 mayoral primary, but he received his first major endorsement April 20 from the Pittsburgh Black Political Convention, a group Udin organized. Wheatley received 52 percent of 215 votes cast among black voters at five city locations.
Ken Wolfe, a Democratic committeeman and Wheatley's former legislative aide, said Wheatley never spoke of wanting to be mayor, so he was surprised when his former boss jumped into the race after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl quit his campaign March 1. City Councilman Bill Peduto, 48 of Point Breeze; former Auditor General Jack Wagner, 65, of Beechview; and community activist A.J. Richardson, 36, of Sheraden also are running.
Wolfe, who promised early to back Peduto, said Wheatley works to reduce urban blight and remove barriers confronting businesses owned by minorities and women.
“That's his passion,” said Wolfe, 38, of Allentown.
Wheatley has lobbied to pass an amendment to the state's “adverse possession” law that would reduce from 21 years to 10 years the waiting period required for someone living in an abandoned home to claim ownership of it. The amendment passed the House in 2011 but stalled in the Senate.
Wheatley acknowledged that rallying votes in the House and the Senate and obtaining support from a governor, whether Democrat or Republican, is trying.
The mayor's office would give him a stronger voice, he said.
“You can drive your vision and not have to respond to other people's vision,” he said. “It's hard to get Harrisburg to coalesce around great ideas.”
‘A better perspective'
Brenda Frazier, 72, of Stanton Heights, a former county councilwoman, met Wheatley through Onyx Alliance, a defunct nonprofit that worked to persuade black professionals to live in Pittsburgh. Frazier's daughter Janine helped start it.
Wheatley — who was born in Detroit, attended high school in Minnesota and college in North Carolina — is the kind of educated, personable professional the group wanted here, Frazier said.
“Nothing against the other (candidates), I just feel that (Wheatley) could do a better job because he comes from a better perspective and isn't likely to forget about making diversity a priority,” Frazier said.
Wheatley credits his membership on the House Appropriations Committee for reminding him that government resources are finite. As mayor, he said, he would not raise taxes or expand the city's bureaucracy.
One creative way to find revenue through savings is energy performance contracting, he said. Pittsburgh could receive guaranteed savings on energy consumption by negotiating lower rates with energy providers eager to bargain with large municipal customers, he said. The money could go to the city's chronically underfunded pension accounts.
Paul Abernathy, director of faith-based nonprofit FOCUS Pittsburgh, said he has watched Wheatley try to chip away at high unemployment among minorities in the Hill, one of his district's most pressing problems.
“He has looked for opportunities to bring resources to the community,” said Abernathy, who won't say whom he supports for mayor. “He started conversations with us because we're directly engaged all the time with folks who need jobs.”
Abernathy noted that Wheatley guided a $20,000 grant to Riverside Sales Group LLC from the Greater Hill District Development Growth Fund, which was formed to manage $3 million donated by Rivers Casino to improve the Hill. The money will help Riverside Sales, owned by Alan Lincoln, former president of Sheridan Broadcasting Corp.'s radio division, establish six to 10 jobs in a document-scanning operation, Abernathy said.
“If we're going to grow this city, then we have to talk about how we improve the conditions of African-Americans and conditions of poor citizens,” Wheatley said.
Life under a spotlight
Wheatley acknowledges his personal mistakes.
In May, he apologized after police filed and later dropped charges of simple assault against him and fiancee Angela Mike when they quarreled over their son's day care.
In 1992, then 19, Wheatley pleaded guilty to assault and larceny but served no jail time.
The charges resulted from a fistfight in a mall parking lot near Pontiac, Mich. His criminal record was expunged. He has said the incident helped him choose more positive life goals.
In his spare time, Wheatley said, he enjoys long-distance running and spending time with his family.
He ran the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon in 4:44:41. Campaigning limits his ability to train this year, so he signed up to run the half-marathon on May 5 but is not sure whether he'll make it.
The week of Christmas is a particularly special time of year in the Wheatley household.
Wheatley was born on Dec. 23, a birthday he shares with his 16-month-old son. It is the day before his 8-year-old daughter's Christmas Eve birthday.
“We all kind of celebrate together,” he said.
Jeremy Boren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Residence: Hill District
Family: Daughter, 8, and son, 16 months
Education: Master's degree in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh; bachelor's degree in political science from North Carolina A&T State University; 1989 graduate of Osseo Senior High School in Minnesota
Political party: Democrat
Background: Pennsylvania House of Representatives member, 2003-present; former aide to ex-Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin and the City Clerk; Marine Corps veteran of Operation Desert Storm
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