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'Aggressive player' Acklin to become mayor-elect Peduto's top aide

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Kevin Acklin, soon-to-be chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto at his home in Squirrel Hill.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Kevin Acklin, soon-to-be chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto, with his wife, Erica, and children (from left) George, 8, Caroline, 2, and Teddy, 7 at their home in Squirrel Hill.

Kevin Acklin led his team in penalty minutes during four years on the varsity ice hockey team at Central Catholic High School.

“I was an aggressive player,” he says two decades later.

Mayor-elect Bill Peduto, who spent two years playing hockey for Carnegie Mellon University, says that aggressive streak is an asset for his second-in-command.

“You want to have someone who's not afraid to go into the corners,” he said.

Acklin, a Harvard University graduate with a law degree from Georgetown University and years of corporate law behind him, is about to start his “dream job” as the incoming mayor's chief of staff.

Peduto, 49, a Democrat, says he picked Acklin because of his integrity, intelligence and leadership. Acklin, 37, says he's leaving a high-paying law career to give back to the city he loves alongside a politician he believes in.

They set the bar high, calling for a culture change in city government.

“Bill was elected to take advantage of this opportunity to bring this city to its full potential,” Acklin said. “He was elected to, in effect, have city government catch up to what's happening all around us.”

As chief of staff, Acklin will manage the executive team and oversee economic development initiatives. His first responsibilities are leading the transition team and early retirement discussions, the latter of which has stalled in the face of state oversight laws preventing pension enhancements.

The fifth floor of the City-County Building will be a marked change from the 30th floor of PPG Place, where he worked as a lawyer for Saul Ewing, as will his salary cut to $107,000. But Acklin says he's fueled by the desire to make a difference.

“For me,” Acklin said, “it's the opportunity to wake up every day and go in to help change neighborhoods and people's lives.”

He enters the public sector after two past attempts to do so as an elected official. Once a Republican, Acklin ran for Allegheny County Council in 2007 and for mayor in 2009 as an independent candidate.

Acklin has since changed his affiliation to Democrat, partially in response to what he saw as the Republican brand's becoming “more religious” and his stance on social issues such as same-sex marriage. He has made campaign contributions to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, though in recent years he has supported up-and-coming Democrats such as County Controller Chelsa Wagner, Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

“I think the Democratic party has really broadened a little bit as the Republicans have gone right,” he said.

Acklin said he and Peduto share a vision for the city that involves giving Pittsburgh a global presence and revitalizing its neighborhoods.

“There's no blatant political agenda,” he said. “(Peduto) just wants to do the right thing.”

The chief of staff should have “a renaissance streak” and negotiating savvy to enforce the mayor's agenda, said Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. The role is often unsung, typically bringing more blame than praise.

“You're the alter ego of the elected official,” Coleman said. “You have to really believe that person is someone who can do something worthwhile.”

Peduto's administration will kick off with a restructuring of the mayor's office to include new job titles and a new hiring process. Acklin said the goal is to professionalize city government, but it means significant increases in his simultaneous responsibilities as chief of staff and chief development officer. He'll head up an executive team with no previous city experience.

“The biggest challenge will be getting in there and getting up to speed,” he said.

Acklin spent his childhood in Oakland and later moved to Banksville with an Irish Catholic family not unfamiliar with the workings of the city's political machine. His grandfather was a fire battalion chief who once ran for state Senate as a Democrat. His uncle was a fire captain. His stepfather is a 40-year veteran of the Public Works Department, and his mother is a nurse at UPMC.

Coming from three generations of city workers, Acklin is critical of the insider nature of city politics. He remembers dinner conversations about Pittsburgh's political machine, in which promotions went to those who made campaign donations and held signs at rallies before those who were apolitical.

“There's more of those kind of people in city government than there are brothers and sisters of ward chairmen,” he said.

He lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife, Erica, and their children, George, 8; Teddy, 7; and Caroline, 2. His family's support, Acklin said, is instrumental for this job transition, and he acknowledges their lifestyles are bound to change.

“I have friends who have gone on to hedge funds, and they're making millions of dollars, but I never measured myself for that,” Acklin said. “With three young kids, the legacy I want to leave them with is less financial and more about what you can do.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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