Dinner with Dan and the Fam

Talking about the city’s past, present and future over a meal the mayor made

words by Chris Horne, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

This is a little weird, I finally realize. It’s one of those split-second thoughts that happens so fast it feels like instinct. You try to catch the thought but its echoes are already fading out because it’s long since zoomed past you. That’s where I am — asking that internal voice, “Why? Why is it weird?” — when the door opens and I try to tell the sophomore who answered my knock why I’m at her house. But she already knows. She tells me her name is Kennedy and politely tolerates my rambling introduction. Walking inside, I notice “The Horrigans” on a plaque on the door. This isn’t just weird. It’s happening. I’m having dinner with the mayor and his family.

As soon as he sees me, Mayor Daniel Horrigan leans away from the stove and greets me like we’ve met before, which we haven’t. Extending his hand, he says, “You asked me where my favorite kitchen in Akron is. It isn’t someone else’s; it’s mine.”

Moments later, our photographer, Ilenia Pezzaniti, arrives and he says, “Hi, I’m Dan.”

1Dan. Like, just some guy. Some guy named Dan. Totally not the mayor but this average guy, Dan, who is stirring a pot of his homemade red sauce, which must be good because it smells amazing. The whole house does because of it.

“When we first got married, we both said, ‘Hey, let’s cook!’ But we didn’t do a very good job,” he says about those early days with his wife Deanna. “We both come from good-sized Italian families and so one day, I said to my mom, ‘Hey, I’ve got to learn how to make sauce.’ That was about 20 years ago and now I make it about once a month.”

The family’s schedules don’t always align, so he’ll fix a big enough batch that the three teenage daughters can heat it up for dinner when their parents aren’t home.  

As my brain settles down, I see Dan — is it okay if I call him Dan? — didn’t have time to change out of his work clothes entirely. He’s wearing a light-colored Under Armor thermal shirt, but he’s still clad in dress slacks and dress shoes. A couple times, he asks — everyone, no one — if he should put on a collared dress shirt. We all assure him it’ll be fine and he agrees. He even works for consensus when he’s trying to be comfortable.

Escorting the food to the table, he catches me eyeballing the spread and says, “We always get our sausage from DeVitis.”

It reminds me that his path to the mayor’s office has been an unusual one. Paying his way through an education degree at the University of Akron, he dressed chickens at Difeo’s, which he later boasts is a skill he’s maintained. Before that, he served burgers at Swensons. With his second degree in hand — the first, in economics, he got at Kent State — he landed a teaching job at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, where he’d attended school as a boy.

You’d be hard pressed to have a much more Akron resume.

Before Ilenia walked in, Dan was forbidding me from calling him “sir,” which I’m genetically programmed to do as a Southerner. I offered to instead call him “Mr. Mayor,” but he didn’t seem to love that either. So I stuck with pronouns and he asked about my family. We discover their daughters once attended the same daycare mine does now.

1_8Cassidy, the oldest, is now a high school senior with one eye on college and a job at the Mustard Seed in Montrose where her letterman jacket — HORRIGAN emblazoned across the shoulders — yields more attention these days. It’s one of the small things that reminds them something has changed.

Once, running for mayor was an inside joke among the family members. Then Cassidy and her siblings heard the speculation on the radio, making it real, which felt surreal.

It took something of a perfect storm to put Daniel Horrigan in the race.

He wouldn’t have run against Don Plusquellic, he says. The same is true had The Don’s handpicked successor, Garry Moneypenny, lasted more than ten days in office after he admitted to sexually harassing a female city employee. Dan approached the race for mayor out of a sense of duty to his hometown, not for the sake of adding it to his resume above the line reserved for his time as Summit Co. Clerk of Courts.

Given the turmoil, he is a sensible candidate, one who can promise to calm the waters. But he’s too passionate about the city and its potential to be anyone’s bridge mayor, simply to right the ship and sail away.

1_1Plates are passed around and soon filled up. Kennedy will have to split soon so the family hurries somewhat. Camille, the youngest (and by far the most energetic), sits between her big sister and mom. Deanna offers up some bread and Dan notes it’s focaccia from Sweet Mary’s.

“Looks good,” I say.

“It’s not just good,” he corrects me. “It’s excellent.”

1_3The family says grace and we all dig in, making small talk between mouthfuls. Compliments are traded like favors. Kennedy has to leave. My plate is soon clean and struggling not to ask for seconds so I ask about Akron instead.

He sees North Hill, the neighborhood where he grew up and where he still lives within shouting distance of several family members, as a hub not only of the international community but immigrant entrepreneurship and culture. He gave several millennials and Gen Xers positions of authority in his cabinet and charged them with the knowledge that “this is about your generation” and those after it. He has great hope the Innerbelt project, which he inherited from the Plusquellic administration, can be a catalyst for growth — even after I confessed skepticism it could end up being an enormous skatepark.

The optimism he conveys is a surprise for someone who assembled a Blue Ribbon Panel to get a thorough, measured grasp of the city’s financial situation. Even though the result brought some bad news, he eagerly points to the opportunities he finds in its findings. Then he balances that, admitting, “I’m not saying it won’t be tough.”

He takes a similar approach to the 62.4 Report released by the Greater Ohio Policy Center a day before this dinner. When he finds a silver lining, it isn’t “spin” but rather the byproduct of embracing the problem and looking for its solution. Akron has fallen behind. What do we do now? The 62.4 Report may just suggest that the path to success involves investing in quality of life issues, as opposed to putting all the city’s eggs in that one basket reserved for landing a new major employer.

There isn’t a story here, I’m comforted to realize. Not yet — not in any controversial way — and maybe never. That could be the best thing about Daniel Horrigan, the mayor: Plenty of vision, but no drama.

But the best thing about Daniel Horrigan, the cook, is definitely that red sauce.