Ivan Itkin, a Pennsylvania state legislator representing much of Pittsburgh’s East End, and who served in former President Bill Clinton’s administration, died April 5 of heart failure. He was 84.
Itkin was a civil servant who had “the heart of a progressive and the mind of a pragmatist,” according to his daughter Laurie Itkin.
The future nuclear scientist and politician was born in New York City on March 29, 1936, to working-class parents. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from New York University.
Itkin moved to Pittsburgh in 1957. He received his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh while employed at the Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory as a nuclear scientist, applied mathematician and reactor physicist.
In 1962 Itkin married Judith Weiss. The pair had two children, Laurie and Marc.
Itkin’s daughter said her father was a “consumer advocate” who discovered his passion when he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1972. The Rodef Shalom member represented the 23rd District, which included Squirrel Hill, Greenfield, Hazelwood and Point Breeze.
During this same period Itkin and his wife divorced. In 1975, he married Joyce Hudak. The couple had one son, Max.
Laurie recalled her father as someone passionate about “fighting against discrimination.”
The legislator was able to help pass a bill in 1974 prohibiting discrimination against the disabled. He was also responsible for laws that established energy efficiency standards on commercial properties and allowed doctors to prescribe generic medications.
“As a consumer advocate, he was concerned about the interest rates that credit cards could charge,” his daughter said. “He also worked to ensure that the new airport couldn’t gouge consumers. And, he always cared about making sure that low income people had access to education and health care.”
His former legislative assistant, Cindie Watkins, said that in 1995 Itkin introduced House Resolution 43 to study the feasibility of opening schools “like the Milton Hershey School” for the underprivileged using school district funds. “The Department of Education wasn’t too happy about that,” Watkins said.
The two had a working relationship from 1989, when Watkins started as his administrative assistant until 1998. She said that the focus Itkin demonstrated in his work did not always extend to other situations.
She recounted a time when she entered their office smelling something “horrible.” She made her way into the kitchen and found Itkin reheating coffee in the microwave inside of a melting Styrofoam cup. After explaining that material could not go into the microwave, she said with a laugh, “You’re a nuclear scientist and I have to tell you about microwaves.”
Dan Frankel, who currently serves as the representative to the Pennsylvania House for the 23rd District, recalled Itkin as “a bright, thoughtful legislator who fought for progressive causes and legislation but also knew how to compromise. Unlike many politicians, Ivan had a modest and unassuming style which enhanced his capacity to get things done.”
Itkin’s son Max said his father was “always working. He was dedicated to his job in the state legislature. As a kid, I remember he always had a big pile of materials to read and information available. He would have legal pads out and was always taking notes. I remember him like that and admire his hard work and preparedness.”
Despite that dedication to work, Max said his father also found time for him and his mother. “He would come home from work and we’d have dinner together and spend some family time. He was very proud of my competitive running in both high school and college. He enjoyed watching me run.”
In 1998 Itkin ran against incumbent Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as the Democratic nominee. He lost the race but earned the respect of his opponent.
“Michele and I were sad to learn that Ivan Itkin has passed,” said Ridge in a prepared statement. “After holding a series of positions in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Ivan eventually became my opponent when I sought reelection … He ran a tough but fair campaign and was always a gentleman. I consider it a privilege to have run against him.”
His career came full circle when, in 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed the nuclear scientist turned politician as the director of the office of civilian radioactive waste management within the U.S. Department of Energy.
Itkin “considered that the capstone of his career,” said his daughter. “He was very excited to work with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on Yuka Mountain and it gave him an opportunity to work with Sen. Harry Reid, who was the majority leader of the U.S. Senate at the time.”
Former President Bill Clinton remembered Itkin as someone who “brought invaluable scientific knowledge and experience to his service in government, both in his 26 years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and at the Department of Energy during my presidency,” Clinton said in written statement to the Chronicle. “I’ll always be grateful for his work to ensure that the important decisions concerning America’s nuclear waste were fact-based and rooted in the protection of health, safety and the environment.”
What Itkin “enjoyed doing wasn’t that traditional,” said his son, Max, “which made it hard to find a Father’s Day card but we loved him for who he was. Those were the qualities that made him unique and special.”
Although Itkin had a career spent in the upper echelons of state and national government, his daughter said that it was something else that made the 84-year-old proud in his later years.
“He would walk every day and get my stepmother her 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke. He was really proud that he was in his early 80s and walking to the grocery store every day carrying back two bags.”
His legacy, Laurie said, “was his work. He was consumed by it. Being a legislator gave him such a sense of purpose. It was important to him that he was able to positively affect the life of others.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.