Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade brings politicians

By Gretchen Andersen

Vice President Joe Biden was no stranger to Pittsburghers on Saturday at the annual St…. Vice President Joe Biden was no stranger to Pittsburghers on Saturday at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade Downtown. He high-fived and shook an endless amount of hands and kissed the cheeks of babies and women while making his way, sometimes running, down Grant Street.

Taking his jacket off and rolling up his sleeves, Biden – wearing an emerald tie — was shortly joined by Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald during the beginning stretch of the parade on Grant Street.

However, when turning onto Boulevard of the Allies and entering massive crowds along the streets and in Stanwix Garage, Biden, who is of Irish descent, picked up speed and began running to both sides of the crowds – some areas six people deep — in a zigzag pattern alongside Secret Service agents.

“At first he started walking from side to side and was moving real slowly, and then he took off and started to sprint, at which point I fell back a little bit. But he was great with the crowd, they responded well to him,” Ravenstahl said with a smile.

The vice president was met with boos, applause and “Way to go, Joe!” chants from the crowd as the distant sound of bagpipes filled the streets.

Biden joined about 200 marching units, including 18 bands, floats and several police, fire and emergency service agencies at the St. Patrick’s Day parade. According to the parade’s press release, the three-and-a-half-hour-long march usually has about 150,000 to 200,000 spectators.

Thousands of Pittsburghers, dressed in shorts and sandals for the unseasonably warm weather, stood by the streets as the light breeze and glaring sun shone down on the parade.

Sunkissed skin complemented many faux orange beards and painted faces. Parade-goers were decked in green; some with dyed hair, T-shirts that read “Kiss Me I’m Irish” and leprechaun outfits.

Biden was not the only politician present at the parade. As the second biggest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the country with a 142-year history, local politicians flocked to the parade, such as Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney and Gov. Tom Corbett.

Corbett, who visited Pitt’s campus on Friday, waved to crowds with his green Steelers hat and a St. Patrick’s-themed Terrible Towel hanging from his pocket.

Joining in the parade behind Biden after meeting him halfway through Grant Street were members of Organizing for America — campaign volunteers for the re-election of Barack Obama. OFA supporters had signs such as “Mr. President, Your Care Made My Health Affordable.”

Jennifer Austin, Pennsylvania press secretary for the Obama campaign, said in an email that in addition to handing out campaign stickers and placards, OFA registered voters and recruited volunteers.

Biden later visited the CONSOL Energy Center in the afternoon to watch Syracuse, his alma mater, play Kansas State in the 2012 NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“We are really happy [Biden] was here, and Pennsylvania will be an important state in the coming election,” Ravenstahl said.

Ravenstahl added that it was great to see the 200,000-person turnout and children lining the street, making for a safe parade.

“This is a day where everybody is Irish for a day, and that includes the German Ravenstahls as well,” Ravenstahl said.

Punxsutawney Phil enlivened the crowd as he perched up in his see-through plastic case in the front of an SUV. Keith Shields, a member of Phil’s Inner Circle, a group of men that coordinate Punxsutawney’s annual Groundhog’s Day festivities, walked alongside the famous groundhog.

He said they came out to the parade because “everyone loves to see Phil.”

“It’s great to see all the people and the reception. It’s a beautiful day,” Shields, the Head Hailmaker, said.

Several Irish dance schools entertained parade-goers with their sparkling uniforms, bouncing hair and footwork.

Katie Conlon, 18, Butler County, danced with several others on the Bell School of Irish Dance float. Conlon, who wore an intricate blue sequined Irish dance dress that she designed herself, said she has been dancing in the parade for about 10 years and enjoys the experience.

“I love doing the parade every year and its definitely different being up there,” Conlon said. “As my teacher said, ‘we are the face of Bell School,’ so it’s a lot of waving and a lot of smiling and a lot of fun.”

City firefighter Pete Soergel marched in the parade playing the bagpipes with the firefighters.

Soergel said the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is his favorite parade of the year and has marched in it for the last 10 years.

“When you come up here, down the Boulevard of the Allies and you get in line with the parking garage there is lots of people cheering for you, and it’s really cool,” Soergel said.