Some things sound better in theory than in actual practice. When I was asked to develop a concept for interviewing local newsmakers, I thought my premise of humanizing the subjects by interviewing them while doing unusual activities would be a blast.
After the first fall onto my shoulder while carpet sliding in the North Hills, it dawned on me this may not have been my best idea. When I watched in horror as County Councilman Tom Baker (R-District 1) tumbled to the carpeted, yet surprisingly still quite hard, floor shortly after me, I immediately regretted my decision.
None of it seemed to bother the 35-year old Councilman, as his trademark relentless positivity kept the day going. Elected after a heated Primary in Spring 2013, followed by a fiercely contested race in the Fall General Election, Baker is becoming comfortable in his new role as a County Councilman. The scope of District 1 is vast and which includes Aleppo, Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Coraopolis, Emsworth, Findlay, Glen Osborne, Glenfield, Haysville, Kilbuck, Moon, North Fayette, Ross Township, and West View. For many, it would be a daunting task to keep up on all the varied needs of a district that large, especially for the paltry sum of $9,000 per year, but a busy schedule is nothing new for Tom Baker.
Down goes Baker onto the carpet.
“Well, how about that?!” he said with a slight smile.
He got up, steadied himself…and immediately fell again.
“This is tougher than it looks!”
The same could be said of Baker’s daily routine. Tom Baker is the Chief Community Affairs Officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh. He also serves as President of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Pennsylvania State Association, is a tireless public speaker to schools and community leaders about the necessity of leadership, and has even published three books on the subject. His leadership and empowerment venture is under the umbrella concept called Get Involved!, which is an accredited 501 c)3 non-profit.
Baker’s interest in Big Brothers Big Sisters was not a random choice. Baker’s own father tragically died at the age of 39 when Tom was only 12 years old. Catastrophes such as this can easily cripple a young person’s social and emotional development, but Tom’s incredible volunteer efforts over the past two and a half decades, his career path that steadily led him into a leadership position in an incredibly philanthropic community organization, and his dedication to genuine public service indicate how 12-year-old Tom Baker did not allow this terrible event to move him into a negative direction. Instead, it seems that he was galvanized into becoming someone who could make it so that other young people in similar need don’t have to be alone and can be supported and nurtured during difficult times.
In 2002, Baker decided to become a Big Brother via the Big Brothers Big Sisters program the month that he graduated from college. He was matched up with a young man named Preston and over the last 12 years Baker has mentored him through high school and his teenage years, his college years, and was even present recently at Preston’s college graduation. Baker’s positive experiences with the Big Brothers Big Sisters soon morphed into his full time job. He has since taken on another Little Brother named Eric in 2010 and is really excited at seeing this young man through his developmental years in the same way.
He seems to be everywhere in District 1. I’ve attended Ross Township meetings, community events, parades, school board meetings, a local workshop, or even just a fun event in the North Hills and have seen Tom Baker there. As Baker was talking about his efforts to make connections with his district’s residents, I daydreamed a bit and imagined what his personal organization calendar looks like. In the fictional agenda that I visualized for him, there is an array of color codes for the mind-boggling number of volunteer/work/public service activities Baker’s involved in, copious notes for vital prepping documents and meeting deadlines, and extensive footnotes on dealing with schedule conflicts. I became convinced that some sort of incredibly detailed Baker Master Schedule like this has to exist somewhere. And that doesn’t even account for the 13 half-marathons that Baker has completed.
It’s not lost on Baker that his father’s early passing could be viewed as the catalyst for his non-stop schedule.
“I chose this life. I chose to run hard and work hard. When your best friend passes away at 39 and you are 12 years old, you realize life isn’t that long. It can sometimes be a detriment, but I like to jam pack each and everyday,” he said, fully aware that most people would be winded just hearing his typical weekly schedule.
When he wasn’t fearing for his well-being at the carpet sliding park, with techno music blaring into our eardrums and the psychedelic color schemes coupling together to make us feel like we were at a rave party in an empty warehouse, Baker proved to be an active listener. His strong eye contact and introspective responses are atypical of most politicians today.
It’s rare for a politician to give credit to the leaders of the opposite party, especially in our highly politically divided city and county, when discussing a political defeat. I did not expect Baker to express such a high level of respect for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald when I asked about Mr. Fitzgerald’s veto of Act 202 (tax abatement), an issue Baker felt strongly about.
“We passed a tax abatement to help homeowners,” said Baker enjoying some water after our carpet sliding was over. “It was 8-7 through Council and that was bi-partisan. That was a case in which it was vetoed by the County Executive. It definitely seemed like a good thing to do to help homeowners. We did try to override the veto but could not reach the two-thirds needed.”
To date, Baker’s biggest political accomplishment on County Council was a bipartisan one as the plan for Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley to drill beneath Deer Lakes Park became official via a 9-5 vote in May 2014. There were a lot of emotions and efforts on both sides of this issue, but the evidence seems to be that the County Council (including Baker) put in very long hours and reviewed extensive information before making this decision.
“The Deer Lakes drilling was a close vote as well. I’m happy to be one of the votes to push it over the edge,” Baker said.
He is politically savvy, but my time with him leads me to believe that Tom’s reticence to criticize his colleagues is more rooted in his positive personality and good manners rather than in just a calculated effort to appear nice for political purposes. I asked him about what was on the horizon for him on the County Council.
“Part of what I’ve really enjoyed this year is being part of the face of Allegheny County. What I want to continue to do is attend as many community events as possible to let people know that their County really does care about them. Rich Fitzgerald is great at doing this and seems to everywhere. We are trying to do this on our side of the aisle as well. I consider it to be a privilege and an honor to be invited to each event.”
He didn’t budge, though, when I asked him about future political office runs.
Given his overwhelming optimistic outlook, his upbeat approach to life, and the good deeds he sees each day throughout his BBBS work, I wanted to ask Baker about where he might encounter the worst in humanity as he interacts with far too many people for it all to be positive. He indicated that he has been involved in PA’s Professional Standards and Practices Commission, which requires an appointment by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate, for the past two years. It is the charge of this Commission to revoke certifications for teachers who may have violated ethical standards and committed crimes. However, even when he discussed this, an endeavor that strips authority from and revokes licenses from those who have violated the public’s trust in them, I got the sense that Baker wasn’t taking part out of retribution or to enact justice,as you or I might do. Instead, Baker’s thoughts are again with the young people who might be affected and how his participation in this commission might prevent harm from coming to another child in the future.
Many scientists and theorists are trying to chase the idea of a perpetual motion machine. There is a chance that one already exists in the human form of Tom Baker. As we were dragging our bruised mid-30’s piles of meat and bones out of the carpet sliding park, his final words resonated with me strongly.
“We’re never promised to live forever. We’ve got do as much as possible at a young age. The worst thing you can do is fail forward.”
Check out www.bakerleadership.com for more info on Baker’s Get Involved! initiatives or email Thomas.Baker@AlleghenyCounty.US for questions or concerns about District 1.