When he was a little boy, Mark DeSantis loved to tinker with gadgets and mold miniature cities from clay.
"I wanted to be a TV repairman because I liked all the little tools they had," says the high-tech entrepreneur with a grin. "I like to see how things work."
In high school and college, he pondered various careers -- scientist, banker, history teacher, business executive -- but deep down he already was hooked on politics, says DeSantis, 48, of Downtown, the Republican nominee for mayor in the Nov. 6 election.
DeSantis, president of MobileFusion, a technology startup in the South Side, faces tough odds against unseating Democratic Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 5- to-1. Pittsburgh hasn't elected a GOP mayor since the early 1930s.
Even so, the Republican with a doctorate in public policy is a skillful organizer with keen political instincts, a quick mind and competitive nature that kicks into overdrive when he sets a goal, say the candidate's longtime friends, relatives, associates and former bosses.
"He's like a dog with a bone. Once he gets it, he doesn't let go," said his brother, Chris DeSantis, 51, of Chicago. "I would call him tenacious."
Mark DeSantis has pledged to lay out specific proposals before Election Day to help reverse the city's money woes, improve public safety, bolster development and better manage the city.
Pittsburgh is slipping toward financial ruin unless it changes direction, DeSantis says.
"We have to completely rethink our city government from the ground up. It's a clean sheet of paper," he said in an interview. "I don't think we can win by tweaking, by twisting things at the margin and shifting things here and there -- given the fact that our government, the bureaucracies we have right now, were structured at a time 50 or 60 years ago for a population that no longer exists, an economy that no longer exists and a demographic that no longer exists."
Such talk scares people, DeSantis acknowledges, but he insists Pittsburghers want reform.
"Maybe I've got rose-colored glasses ... but I talk to a lot of people, and people want change."
The biggest long-term problem facing city leaders is debt of nearly $1 billion combined with an anemic pension fund and rising city employee health care costs.
Pittsburgh's pension fund has about $342 million. It needs $843 million to cover its obligations.
DeSantis proposes reducing the gap in the pension fund by using up to $18 million in anticipated yearly gambling money and $5 million to $10 million in potential contributions from city nonprofits.
An agreement with about 100 city nonprofits to pay the city a total of about $13 million over three years expires at the end of 2007. DeSantis believes the nonprofits would be more willing to donate if city officials guaranteed the money would reduce the debt and pension obligations.
DeSantis estimated his plan would dedicate an additional $23 million to what the city currently pays to keep the pension fund afloat. Ravenstahl said taking $23 million from the operating budget "would be crippling to this city."
Democrat Kilolo Luckett, 34, of Point Breeze, said she's backing DeSantis because "he's a very knowledgeable individual who listens to people, and really gets it."
"All political affiliations aside, it's a critical time for Pittsburgh and Mark is the best candidate to lead our city forward," she said. "We are really stuck in this old-school mentality, and he's not afraid to speak in opposition to the status quo."
Robert Ridge, a Downtown attorney who has known DeSantis since they were classmates at the University of Dayton, said DeSantis has experience in fighting long odds.
Ridge of Upper St. Clair worked with DeSantis when DeSantis headed Citizens for Democratic Reform, the group that led a petition drive to place row-office consolidation on the ballot in 2005. …