Pennsylvania born and raised, John was born to teenage parents who were just starting out on their own. At the time, his father worked nights to put himself through college. John grew up in York, and later followed in his father’s footsteps to Albright College, where he played offensive tackle for the Lions.
At 23, John joined up with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and his life has never been the same since. John threw himself into the program, mentoring his ‘little’ – an 8 year-old boy who had recently lost his father to AIDS and whose mother was also battling the disease. Before she passed away, John promised that he would continue to look out for her son and make sure that he would graduate college. Fifteen years later, John’s and his ‘little’ had both held up their ends of the bargain, with his little’s graduation from Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, PA.
But John wanted to do more. The disparity between his own life and that of his ‘little’ motivated him to quit his job and join AmeriCorps’ 2nd Year class. For two years, John served in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District, where he helped set up the first computer labs in the neighborhood and taught GED classes to young mothers and fathers. He went on to earn a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he focused on finding solutions in social work, business, and public policy to confront urban challenges and economic inequality.
John then returned to Pennsylvania to start a GED program in the town of Braddock. Once a booming steel town where Andrew Carnegie established his first mill, Braddock in 2001 was one of the poorest and most troubled communities in the commonwealth, facing steep population decline and high rates of poverty. John saw the town’s beauty and the grit and determination that had been the community’s roots for generations. He bought an abandoned church and made Braddock home.
In 2005, encouraged by his students and motivated to do more to address the inequality that he felt was holding Braddock back, John ran for mayor. He managed to win the crowded primary by a single vote. And he’s been hard at work ever since. During the last 10 years as mayor, John is most gratified by breaking the cycle of violence in Braddock that culminated with nearly 5 ½ years without the taking of a life.
He’s applied a hands-on approach from AmeriCorps and his service experience with to take steps towards progress and rebuild this community, creating jobs, getting youth engaged, and bringing creative urban policy solutions to Braddock. John’s made a pitch to young people and artists to transform creative spaces downtown and he’s worked to recruit new residents and businesses. Braddock now has a community center, urban gardens, and a free store run by John’s wife, Gisele.
When Pennsylvania lawmakers continued to push outdated discriminatory policies banning marriage equality, Mayor John stood up and officiated one of the first same-sex marriages in the commonwealth. He’s encouraged clean energy policies to create new jobs and put folks in Braddock back to work. Mayor John was re-elected in 2009 by a 2-1 margin, and again in 2013 by an 8-1 margin, and now serves in his 3rd term as mayor.
John, his wife Gisele, and their three children Karl, 6, Gracie 4, and August, 18 months, live in a restored car dealership in Braddock with the family bulldog, Dave.