Our Pittsburgher of the Year: Rich Fitzgerald

Coming into the home stretch of his three terms as Allegheny County Executive, this quintessential native son is aiming to reshape the region for the next generation.

221117 Pghmag Richfitzgerald 53290r2

In the heart of Bloomfield, as a drum roll cuts through the crisp evening air, people dressed as giant puppets line up for the annual Halloween parade. The towering bird, sun and dog costumes are so vibrant they look like they stepped off a Mardi Gras float.

Behind them stands a red-headed man in a nondescript blue suit.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald hasn’t loosened his tie or changed out of his tasseled loafers into athletic shoes, and as he begins marching down crowded Liberty Avenue he takes his candy-tossing duties very seriously.

He lobs lollipops and fun-size chocolate bars toward the kids on the sidelines. “You’ve gotta catch ’em,” he shouts to the scrambling witches, skeletons and superheroes.

After making sure not to miss a group of toddlers standing on the sidewalk behind some bigger kids, Fitzgerald compliments a mother on her devil costume. She ribs him, “You look just like Rich Fitzgerald!”

221114 Pghmag Richfitzgerald Poy Dsc 0090r

Midway through the parade route, Fitzgerald looks into his bag and realizes he’s almost out of candy. “I should have allotted better,” he says, sounding genuinely disappointed in himself. He walks over to his wife, Cathy, who’s dressed in a crowd-pleasing jellyfish costume, to help restock supplies, and he resumes his duties.

Fitzgerald is 12 hours into his workday, a whiplash-inducing schedule of eight stops including visits to a senior health fair in McKeesport, a somber Tree of Life memorial in Squirrel Hill and a hip robotics industry party in a Strip District brewpub.

Going, going, going — Fitzgerald, 63, is squeezing every moment out of his final year as county executive. For 11 years, he has worked long and hard to reshape the region and champion Allegheny County, which is why Rich Fitzgerald has been named Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2022 Pittsburgher of the Year.

‘He’s Everywhere’

Despite the daily travails, responsibilities and political spats that come with holding public office, Fitzgerald, a Democrat, clearly loves his job and is proud of his record.

His supporters praise his role in attracting robotics, advanced manufacturing and other jobs to the area, reviving and diversifying the economy and stemming population loss. He also hasn’t raised taxes or instituted budgetary layoffs, all while improving the county’s credit rating. His harshest critics in his own party decry his support of natural gas fracking; a few people even made their displeasure known by throwing dirty diapers on his front lawn.

Looking back over his tenure, Fitzgerald says his best day was Aug. 12, 2021, when population figures were released showing Allegheny County’s population had grown by 2.2% — a turnaround that came after decades of consistent losses. It was a full-circle, personally satisfying moment for a man who used to bring his kids on the campaign trail as a way to show his deep commitment to bringing new and better jobs to the county for the next generation.

The worst day of his time in office is obvious and impossible to forget: Oct. 27, 2018. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting, a horrifying tragedy that occurred one block from his Squirrel Hill house.

For nearly three years, Fitzgerald has had to deal with public health problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, overseeing the County Health Department as it tightened and loosened health restrictions on restaurants and gatherings. Plus, he had to stand up to election deniers during the counting of mail-in ballots in the 2020 presidential election.

Despite the long hours that come with his job, Fitzgerald might have been tempted to run for a fourth term — if the law didn’t prevent it. His successor, whoever it is, will have some big tasseled loafers to fill.

“The next county executive will never, ever go as many places as Rich goes in a given day. He’s a hard worker who goes to all these events and really listens and solves problems,” says State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline. “I mean, he’s everywhere.”

221114 Pghmag Richfitzgerald Poy Dsc 0131r

Looks Like Jeff Daniels, Works Like a Yinzer

It’s midday, seven hours until the Halloween parade in Bloomfield, and Fitzgerald is eating his regular brown bag lunch — two oranges and an apple — at a conference table in the Allegheny County Courthouse.

“There is no leisurely lunch,” says his chief of staff Jennifer Liptak, watching him gulp down the fruit. “He’s on, on, on.”

The next stop is the Tree of Life commemoration service at Schenley Park. There he will hug his neighbors — some of them survivors and relatives of shooting victims — before going on the stage and giving a short prayer.

Before his security detail whisks him off in a black SUV, he and Liptak discuss the news of the day. They start with the good stuff — the state Legislature passed a law that would allow the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads with or without a driver.

But the day’s headlines are also about the closing of Argo AI, the self-driving car company in the Strip District. All morning long in media interviews, Fitzgerald has been casting it as disappointing but not devastating. “We have over 100 companies in about a 10-block area between the Strip District and Lawrenceville, and I think they’re going to continue to grow,” he says, putting a positive spin as he bounces from one TV reporter to the next. He also will share that sentiment later at a meeting of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network.

On camera, with his pale eyes and wry half smile, Fitzgerald bears an uncanny resemblance to Jeff Daniels. Images of him meeting the actor when he was in town for the TV series “American Rust” briefly went viral. But as soon as Fitzgerald starts to speak, his Pittsburgh accent gives the “yinzer” Jeff Daniels away.

On the job, too, Fitzgerald is more Pittsburgh than Hollywood. In his unassuming way, he’s out every day selling people on his vision of Allegheny County, making connections with community leaders and politicians at all levels. He leaves Liptak and other staff to execute many of the details and the budget of a county government with 20 departments and 4,500 employees.

“She runs the county,” Fitzgerald has said of Liptak, who worked her way up from an $8.75-an-hour county typist to becoming the county exec’s right-hand person.

Liptak is one of many female staffers working in Fitzgerald’s courthouse offices. “We joke that the token man in the office is Rich Fitzgerald,” she says. But, she emphasizes, he picks the best person for the job, regardless of gender.

He also hired many female department heads, including Katharine Eagan Kelleman, CEO of Pittsburgh Regional Transit, and Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

Img 1883


Running a Tight Ship

Fitzgerald has always been surrounded by strong women. He’s the father of eight children — six of them girls. All of them are independent and highly accomplished, including Jocelyn, a surgeon at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, and Caroline, CEO of her own sports marketing firm.

Though he never planned on becoming a politician, Fitzgerald always did plan on having a big family. In the late 1970s, as a mechanical engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University, he met the woman who would become his wife on a blind date.

Set up by friends, he went to disco night on the Gateway Clipper with Cathy Tomasovic, a first-year pharmacy student at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Someday, I am going to have 10 children,” were the first words out of Fitzgerald’s mouth, Cathy recalled. (Fitzgerald laughed at that story, calling it an “urban myth.”)

While that opening line might make some women want to jump off the boat, Cathy, who is lively and funny, wanted a big family too. She felt an instant connection to Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald, who grew up in Friendship (on the same street as the legendary former Mayor David Lawrence) and then Churchill, drove a Yellow Cab to help pay for his CMU tuition. When he used the company taxi in his off hours to pick up Cathy for dates, she would hide by lying flat on the back seat.

Fitzgerald felt a little insecure around the brainy engineering students at CMU. But he could sell things — a skill he learned from his father, who sold plumbing supplies. After graduating from CMU in 1981, he couldn’t find a job locally; he took a sales position with NALCO Chemical Company in Illinois.

Missing Pittsburgh, he returned and started his own business that sold water treatment services and equipment.

The Fitzgeralds ran a tight ship at home. Rich made his kids work during the summer in high school and contribute half of their earnings to a college fund — even if it was only $20 a week, says his son Tanner, a CPA who owns bars in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville.

Cathy, a part-time pharmacist, once barged in on her daughter’s basketball practice to take her home for disobeying a family rule. Rich coached youth football and baseball, and he was no pushover, either. If a kid didn’t show up ready to play, he would bench them.

“He once pulled me out of a game,” says Tanner. “I think it was tougher on the other kids because they weren’t used to him yelling. He was a tough coach, but fair.” He also would be the first to praise a good play, Tanner says.

As Fitzgerald built his business, he was always there for his kids, says Erin, his daughter and vice president of a Philadelphia ad agency. “He was always at the Little League games, the piano recitals, the school musicals. But even more than the big events, he was always there to play catch or shoot hoops with us in the backyard or help with our math homework.”

221114 Pghmag Richfitzgerald Poy Dsc 9876r

‘A Pragmatic Progressive’

Fitzgerald’s introduction to the world of politics came when his children were at Liberty Elementary School in Shadyside. The school needed a new playground; Fitzgerald worked with city officials on the project. A few years later, he and some neighbors banded together to make their street one-way to prevent speeding drivers from using it as a cut-through to Beechwood Boulevard via Hastings Street.

In 2000, he won a seat on the newly formed Allegheny County Council and became county executive, a full-time job, in 2012.

Fontana, who served on the first county council with Fitzgerald, says that his views have moderated over the years. “I always kid him that he was the liberal from Squirrel Hill. I think Rich has drifted more to the middle on fiscal issues.”

The harshest criticism of Fitzgerald has come from progressives in his own party over the issue of fracking, which he says has been crucial for creating jobs in the region and keeping Pittsburgh International Airport afloat with millions of dollars in gas royalties.

“Would you have allowed the airport to go bankrupt?” he asks. “Because if we don’t have natural gas revenue, we can’t run the airport.” (The airport is now undergoing a $1.5 billion terminal modernization project and has increased the number of direct flights out of Pittsburgh).

Fitzgerald vetoed a bill to ban fracking in county parks, but the county council met in a special session to override his veto, thereby preventing the drilling for shale gas.

Bethany Hallam, a county council member-at-large and his most vocal critic, says, “I wonder if Rich Fitzgerald’s plan when he leaves office is to go work for the fracked gas industry. The research shows that fracking is harmful to our air and our water.”

Celebrating our Previous Pittsburghers of the Year

Hallam and others also criticize Fitzgerald for the rising deaths at the Allegheny County Jail and not attending meetings of the jail oversight committee.

Fitzgerald has hired the National Commission on Correctional Health Care to investigate the jail deaths. “If there is something we need to change, we’ll change it. I need to know what it is first.”

Calling himself a “pragmatic progressive,” Fitzgerald believes his politics haven’t changed over the years, but the reaction to them has.

“I think it could be my age, my gender — people perceiving me as being part of the old-boy’s network, which makes me laugh. When I first ran, I was the ultimate outsider. I had no family members who were ward chairs or council members.”

Fitzgerald says his political positions are appreciated most often by people who remember what bad shape the city was in after the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s.

That assessment was borne out 10 hours before he marched in the Halloween parade when he visited the Senior and Wellness and Safety Expo in McKeesport. He joked with state Sen. Jim Brewster, the sponsor of the event, and thanked him for staying up late in Harrisburg to pass the autonomic vehicle testing bill.

Fitzgerald schmoozed easily with older people, moving from table to table as they munched on boxed lunches. A few people asked him to pose for selfies. “Nice turnout,” he says, stopping at one of the long tables. “It’s nice to get out after COVID. I don’t like Zoom.”

Nearby a dozen or so seniors were lining up for their flu and COVID-19 vaccine shots. Dealing with the pandemic was obviously a major problem for Fitzgerald. But the science-based way he handled it has been hailed by his supporters as one of his major accomplishments.

Dr. Debra Bogen had the unenviable job of starting her new job as director of the Allegheny County Health Department in March 2020, but she says Fitzgerald made her job easier. As the county ordered restaurants to temporarily close down but decided to keep the parks open, Bogen says Fitzgerald trusted her expertise and the latest medical research.

“Being an engineer by training, he was really interested in the science,” she says. “I would send him articles from the New England Journal of Medicine or other publications, and he was super excited to discuss them. Then he would send me articles. It was sort of fun to ‘nerd out’ with the county executive.”

While public health officials in other parts of the country often struggled with a lack of support from their elected leaders, Bogen says Fitzgerald always had her back. “He never politicized the pandemic.”

221114 Pghmag Richfitzgerald Poy Dsc 9598r

Plenty Left to Do

Rich Fitzgerald’s roots are so deep in Pittsburgh that except for six-day bicycle treks to Washington, D.C., on the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Towpath trails — which he’s done four times — he rarely leaves town.

Yet, when duty calls, he’ll hop on a jet to London to promote his beloved city. He recently convinced a contingent of Pittsburgh business executives to accompany him and Cassotis, of the airport authority, to the UK.

They met with the British business press and British Airways to try to persuade the airline to increase its nonstop flights from London to Pittsburgh. It worked: British Airways is adding two more flights a week — partly because of Fitzgerald’s salesmanship.

“Rich is a phenomenal salesman,” Cassotis says. “At the end of the day, economic development is all about sales, and nobody’s better at that than Rich. He’s passionate about the region and its assets.”

What comes next in Fitzgerald’s career is anyone’s guess. He says he has no desire to run for a statewide political office — at least not at this stage of his life.

He would like to continue working on economic development in the Pittsburgh region, whether through a university or a foundation. The one thing he’s not going to do is retire and play golf all day.

Until he leaves office — in January 2024 — he’s still got plenty to do. There are always more old people to schmooze, young hipsters to toast at robotics meetings and kids screaming for candy at a Halloween parade.

Whatever the official event is, though, you can be sure Rich Fitzgerald will be out shaking hands, talking up other politicians and tossing lollipops until the very end.

Cristina Rouvalis is a frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Magazine. Her articles have appeared in publications such as Hemispheres, Esquire.com, PARADE, Smithsonian.com, Parents and AARP the Magazine. When she is not typing with one of her two cats on her lap, she can be found biking on the Great Allegheny Passage.

Categories: Community Feature, From the Magazine, Hot Reads