Women in Power: The Pros Changing Allegheny County

Allegheny County breaks the old boys’ club by placing women in key positions.

(l-r) Christina Cassotis, Dr. Karen hacker, Jennifer Liptak and Katherine Kelleman

Christina Cassotis was on vacation in 2014 when she received a call from an executive recruiter about a job opening in the aviation industry. “What do you think about Pittsburgh?” he asked her.

“I don’t think about it. There’s not much going on there, aviation-wise,” replied Cassotis.

He asked whether she would want to interview for the position of CEO at the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

But she wasn’t interested. Cassotis had been traveling around the world as an aviation consultant for a Boston-based company and was looking for her next move, but Pittsburgh wasn’t on her radar.

Just go out and talk to them, he urged her.

She figured she’d at least check it out, so she hopped on a flight bound for Pittsburgh International Airport, a facility that had not recovered after US Airways pulled out as a hub. She interviewed with the Airport Authority Board and eventually met with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who is responsible for appointments to the board (who must later be approved by county council).

During the meeting with Fitzgerald and his chief of staff, Jennifer Liptak, Cassotis paid close attention to the way the two interacted. She especially liked the way they bounced ideas off of each other.

During that interview, the job became a real possibility in her mind. Then she learned one reason why Fitzgerald seemed to show so much respect to his women colleagues — he was a father of six girls (and two boys).

“I’m sitting there, a woman from Boston who never ran an airport before, in front of the man who appoints the board. It mattered to me that he respected women,” Cassotis says. “When you are a woman going for a top job, you think, ‘Are they going to see me as an aviation professional or as a woman?’ It was important he was seeing me as an aviation professional.”

County officials took her on a tour of the city, and she realized how thoroughly it had reinvented itself from its industrial past. The Pittsburgh of today is home to high-tech startups and world-class hospitals and universities, making it a vibrant destination she could sell to airlines.

Cassotis, who became chief executive officer in January 2015, has found plenty of female camaraderie among executives heading up other county agencies. She is among a group of women holding key positions in a historically male-dominated government.

In 2018, Katharine Kelleman became the CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, a step up from her previous role heading the transit authority in Tampa. Dr. Karen Hacker moved from Boston in 2013 to become director of the Allegheny County Health Department, a position she held for six years until leaving this summer to become director of the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Selecting women from a wider pool of qualified contenders is a welcome change from the old boys’ network, which dominated many local governments during previous decades, says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

“It is long overdue,” he says. “It takes a while to break down the network of employment in male-dominated governments. It’s beginning to erode. It used to be hire a friend or someone helpful politically.”

The three women hires join Mary Conturo, who became executive director of the Sports & Exhibition Authority in 2004; Arletta Scott Williams, the executive director of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) board since 1998; and Ruth Byrd-Smith, director of the Allegheny County Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Department since 2004.

Then there is Liptak, who became the first woman chief of staff for the county in 2012. To say she is Fitzgerald’s right-hand person would be an understatement. “She runs the county,” he has said on occasion. Liptak, who started her career in public service as an $8.70-an-hour clerk typist in the district attorney’s office, downplays that. “We are a team.”

Both she and Fitzgerald say they didn’t go looking for women to fill the new positions — they simply set out to hire the best candidate for the job. As Liptak put it, “We just wanted someone who was dynamic and wanted change.”

Cassotis wasn’t afraid to shake things up. She was not shy about telling people that the Pittsburgh International Airport was never going to be a hub again, the way it was before US Airways pulled out in 2004, leaving the airport diminished.

“We need to put a stake in the heart of the hub,” she recalls saying during her first speech to the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

There were gasps from the crowd, but she went on to explain her vision of a “dynamic origin and destination airport.” Her team has almost doubled the number of non-stop flights from 37 to 63 including British Airways nonstop flights between Pittsburgh and London. Despite a few setbacks, such as the loss of a daily Southwest flight from Los Angeles, Cassotis has brought eight new airlines into town. Her work has also paid off with 9.7 million passengers, a 7.5 percent jump from the previous year and the most since 2007.

She’s also forging ahead on a new $1.1 billion makeover for the airport. Though the architect of the existing building, Tasso Katselas, has criticized it as too expensive and unnecessary, Cassotis says her plans for a new terminal would cost nearly the same as renovations to the current structure. She also believes the update is key for the airport to stay on track with the rest of the city. “The region turned itself around. If the airport doesn’t keep pace, it will hinder the growth of the region.”
Cassotis grew up in the 1970s, when the world of aviation was almost exclusive to males. Her late father was a Marine fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and went on to become a commercial airline pilot.

Though she never wanted to be a pilot, she caught the travel bug at age 10, when her family took a vacation to London.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston with an English degree, she worked as deputy communications director at Massport, where she garnered public support for a massive  renovation at Logan Airport in Boston. In 2012, she returned to school, eventually earning an MBA at Sloan School of Management at MIT, while working as an aviation consultant, a job she held for 17 years.

She’s never lost the excitement of working in an airport.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world to be in a facility where people are coming and going from all over the world,” she says. “I love to see how it all fits together.”

Katharine Kelleman also was drawn to the transportation industry from an early age.

“I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” the 6-year-old told her father, a retired Air Force officer.

“You can’t. Congress won’t let you,” he replied, as she recalls.

“Then I’ll be president and change the law.”

He encouraged her to go for it. “He never told me girls couldn’t do something.”

But there was another problem — one that was even harder to work around. The first time she got on a plane, she hated it. Instead, she directed her attention to ground transportation. After receiving a master’s of public administration from Angelo State University in Texas, Kelleman worked for the transit systems in San Angelo, Dallas and Baltimore before landing the top job as CEO of the Hillsboro Area Regional Transit System in Tampa.

With her analytical mind and gregarious nature, Kelleman found the transit field to be a perfect fit. Given the opportunity to head up a larger transit system, she took the leap and moved her family to Pittsburgh. The fact that Liptak was chair of the search committee for the new PAT CEO impressed her. “It was notable that another woman in my age group has a powerful position,” Kelleman says.

Early in her tenure, Kelleman stationed herself at the corner of Sixth and Grant, watching the buses go by. “The buses were different colors, but the operators’ [uniforms] didn’t match the bus. The destination signs were all different,” and many were cluttered with sports slogans. As a veteran of transportation, she struggled to navigate the Pittsburgh system. Kelleman has revamped the electronic signs, removing Go Steelers signs from the front of many buses and only giving destination information. She also has improved on-time performance and done long-term planning. Plans are underway to rebrand the Port Authority so that there will be a coordinated look with the buses and drivers’ uniforms.

She also took one bus after another, not to get from here to there but to chat up the drivers. She wanted to hear it all — what they liked about the city’s public transit system as well as their complaints.

Likewise, Dr. Karen Hacker, who left her position in July after six years as the Director of the Allegheny Health Department, would go out to community meetings multiple times a week, talking to residents about everything from air quality to the opioid crisis to the risk of lead poisoning in children. Last year, the health department implemented a regulation for mandatory lead testing of all young children in Allegheny County. Hacker also stepped up tobacco cessation programs to combat a smoking rate she says is too high.

Sometimes the public emailed her directly. Among the email subjects:

Why did you close my restaurant?

How do I report my neighbor who is illegally dumping garbage?

Did you hear about the bed bugs?

In her six years in Pittsburgh, she forged partnerships with other women leaders. “It’s certainly nice when you come and see other women in positions of authority,” she says. “You are not the only one. It says something about the culture.”

Arletta Scott Williams, executive director of ALCOSAN for 21 years, welcomes the new wave of women executives. “The rest of the world has caught up somewhat. As more women have joined the ranks, it’s nice to have the camaraderie,” she says.

Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University and assistant professor of political science, says, “We are excited to boast a number of women in high profile positions in the county, some of them in nontraditional fields like public transportation and ALCOSAN, which often skewed masculine. Political science research shows that when we have women in leadership positions, they bring a different voice to the table. Rich Fitzgerald appears to be very inclusive and purposeful in including gender diversity as part of the job search.”

Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham plans to hold a panel discussion on the evening of Nov. 4 titled “Making a Difference: Women in County Government.” Women running county departments will serve on the panel, and there will be a networking reception, Brown says.

For all the strides women have made in county executive roles, women have not fared as well as elected officials. According to a recent survey by Represent Women, Pennsylvania ranked 49th in gender parity of elected officials at all levels — only Mississippi did worse. On a state level, Pennsylvania ranked 32nd, with women occupying 26 percent of the elected positions on the state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Among the barriers to women holding elected offices are the fact that state legislature jobs in Pennsylvania are full-time paid positions, as opposed to part-time jobs in some states. “Men have wanted those jobs,” Brown says. “Where you find money is generally where you find men.” Brown says women are often kept out because of a low turnover rate among candidates and strong political parties that tend to have male bias in endorsements.

Natalia Rudiak, a former Pittsburgh city councilwoman, called the hiring of Kelleman, Hacker and Cassotis “a welcome break from the past,” while acknowledging the glass ceiling had been slower to break for women running for public office. “I’m glad these women are appointed by the county executive, but at the same time, the county executive has the power to hire and fire them. When women run for office with their own ideas and vision, they are often not supported by men,” she says.

When Rudiak left her city council seat in 2017, her chief of staff, Ashleigh Deemer, ran, but Fitzgerald backed her opponent, Anthony Coghill, who won.

“How many women has he given money to and supported when they run for public office?” Rudiak asked. To help bridge the gaping political gender gap, she and other women have started a group called Women for the Future Pittsburgh to raise funds and provide financial support to women candidates.

“Katharine and Karen and Christina are amazing executives, and I don’t want to take away from what they are doing,” Rudiak says. “But we should take the same tack for candidates in local, state and national elections.”

Fitzgerald countered that he has supported many women candidates, including Rudiak. “I supported Natalia, and she was in a really tough race. I would have supported her had she run for a third term.” Regarding his support for Coghill, he says, “I thought he was a better fit. He had deeper roots in the community. We can disagree on candidates.”

Fitzgerald says he was out knocking on doors for Pam Iovino and Lindsey Williams, who won their recent bids to the state senate, among other candidates.

Kelleman says she enjoys the close-knit community among the women leading public and private agencies throughout the region. “I definitely have more female friends here in Pittsburgh than anywhere else I have worked,” she says.

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