By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The best ways to redevelop Pittsburgh into a 21st-century city – and championing policies to help ensure the tide raises all boats – are at the center of the May 21 Democratic Party primary for four contested Pittsburgh City Council seats.
Fourteen candidates, five of them incumbents, are vying for the party nod to run in the Nov. 5 general election, though, barring a write-in candidacy or two independent campaigns fomenting on the North Side, the primary likely will decide who will be inaugurated to the four $68,066 council posts in 2020.
Only Councilor Corey O’Connor, a Swisshelm Park Democrat in District 5, is unopposed.
Councilwoman Darlene Harris always has been a lightning rod for controversy. Often a staunch voice of opposition to Mayor Bill Peduto, she has won over North Side voters since first being elected in 2006 with attentive constituent services, something even a handful of her critics concede she handles well.
She is being challenged by Bobby Wilson and former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Mark Brentley Sr. Chris Rosselot and Quincy Swatson, who both originally filed to run against Harris in the spring, are now planning to run this November as independents against whomever wins the primary.
Wilson, a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher from Spring Hill, ran unsuccessful bids to unseat Harris in 2011 and 2015. He thinks this is his year.
“I feel [Harris] is out of touch with new leaders that have moved here and want to volunteer their time,” said Wilson, 36, who is a fifth-generation North Sider. “We need to give people who haven’t had a voice in this district a voice right now. There’s decisions being made where Darlene is listening to the same two people she’s been listening to for 20 years … She’s been in for 13 years. The city operates differently than it did a decade ago.”
Wilson, who has served as a board member for North Side Leadership Conference, feels he can help bring the North Side into 2020 by taking a fresh look at affordable housing and blight. And he doesn’t think the North Side should rest its laurels on the presence of Rivers Casino, North Shore development or the two stadiums; he wants to shine a light on parts of the district that have not received as much attention and renew conversation about how to revitalize and beautify them.
Brentley feels his experience as a Pittsburgh city employee – he worked for more than 33 years as a public works foreman – makes him uniquely qualified to navigate the corridors of city power. He cites pursuing more affordable and accessible housing, jumpstarting partnerships between area schools and area entertainment or hospitality venues, and being more responsive to 311 calls as priority items if he is elected.
He also argues that voting for Wilson — whose campaign Peduto formally endorsed in March – is only further fueling Harris’ fight with mayoral authority.
“The loser of this thing is the voters of District 1,” said Brentley, 62, of North Shore. “We need someone who knows how to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Harris, in the meantime, has touted her legacy of local service – about four decades of working for North Side causes and communities – as justification for being reelected a fourth time. However, Harris did not respond to numerous calls to her office, home or campaign contact seeking comment for this article.
Council President Bruce Kraus is fighting for reelection against two opponents with differing ideologies and priorities – one, Chris Kumanchik, a vocal opponent of the controversial city gun laws Kraus champions, and another, Ken Wolfe, Kraus’ former chief of staff, who maintains the councilor doesn’t pay enough attention to his hilltop constituents.
Kraus is quick to cite his accomplishments. He has moved PennDOT to invest $21 million to give South Side’s East Carson Street a facelift. His work with the Carnegie Library board has led to investment in South Side, Knoxville and Mt. Washington, and a pop-up library in Allentown. And, among others, he has pushed for progress with the Brashear Association and the Hilltop Alliance, a consortium of hilltop neighborhood representatives tackling hyper-local issues. Wolfe also has been involved with Hilltop Alliance.
“I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all answer [to what I’d like to do if reelected], but, in this council district, that’s not possible,” said Kraus, 65.
Wolfe said he left his post at Kraus’ chief of staff in 2009 “for the same reason I’m running.”
“There’s nothing happening on the hilltop – and everything’s happening on the South Side, on Carson Street,” said Wolfe, 44, an Allentown truck driver and former president of the Allentown Community Development Corporation. “We’re right for development. The city should be looking at it …. We need to make sure what’s happening with any development is happening on the hilltop.”
“I’m not going to get into a food fight with Ken,” Kraus responded. “’What have you done? Where have you been?’ He’s every bit as much a part of these neighborhoods as I am.”
Kumanchik, a University of Pittsburgh senior and member of the NRA, meanwhile takes issue with Kraus’ support for controversial Pittsburgh laws banning bump stocks and regulating gun use in city limits.
“To me, that’s an overreach of power. That, in my mind, keeps you from having an objective mind and serving on a governing body,” said Kumancik, 25, who instead favors strengthening licensing and firearms training. “I’m not saying we should go in there and shoot down these laws. I’m not going to revisit things that I feel are outside the scope of the legislative branch. I don’t want to get into the same political games that got us into this mess.”
Councilor Deb Gross is running against challenger Deirdre Kane, who recently won the Democratic Party committee endorsement for her first run for public office.
Gross, like many in the region, has seen Butler Street development boom and market prices for homes in Lawrenceville skyrocket in the past five to 10 years. She wants to make sure, though, that more is being done to ensure housing is affordable – from inclusionary zoning to revisiting the issuance of pro-development tax credits.
“I’d really like to be able to push that conversation: not just to look at what we have built but also looking at what we’ve incentivized,” said Gross, a Highland Park incumbent whose campaign website dubs her “a lifelong progressive activist.”
Gross stressed she also wants to ensure public services remain public.
“It seems like such a high-level, big concept but it affects people,” she said. “The people of the City of Pittsburgh own the water system. I do not think it should be there for a private equity firm in San Francisco’s profits or Wall Street’s profits.”
Kane, a lifelong District 7 resident and Lawrenceville United board member, said residents she meets while knocking on doors think a little closer to home. They want her to focus on quality of life issues like constituent services, she said.
“That is the reason people would be looking for a change,” said Kane, 46, of Lawrenceville, who has worked in Highmark’s marketing department for more than 20 years. “A lot of people, quite frankly, don’t know who their councilperson is.”
“The number one thing for me? Initially, I thought it was affordability … but then after talking [with residents] the number one thing that rose to the top was constituent services, making sure the roads are done,” Kane said. “I went down a great many streets full of potholes. I don’t want to be reactive in reference to these problems.”
More than any other district in Pittsburgh right now, the District 9 race is a referendum on incumbency, with development in Homewood and Councilor Rev. Ricky Burgess’ relation to it seated front and center. Burgess is facing four challengers – Stephen Braxton, Cherylie Fuller, Judith Ginyard and Kierran Young.
Fuller lives two doors down in Homewood from Nazarene Baptist Church, where Burgess serves as pastor. But her proximity to Burgess ends there.
A 62-year-old retired Port Authority bus driver, Fuller said she supports “transparency, inclusiveness, dependability, accountability and approachability.” “It’s not about being against Councilor Burgess,” she said, “it’s about addressing what’s lacking.”
To illustrate her point, Fuller cites 58 units of housing developed with Burgess’ support along Kelly Street and Hamilton Avenue, near his church. The Homewood Concerned Citizens Council, which she has helmed for more than five years, protested the construction, as did groups of local residents.
“Definitely, we are not against low-income housing – they call it affordable housing — but these units were not for us,” Fuller said. “The two- and three-bedroom units are priced at $1,200.”
Ginyard, 60, a North Point Breeze real estate broker who has run for this seat several times, takes it a step further, questioning how much the project benefitted Burgess’ church.
Burgess’ church bought three parcels that became part of the Kelly Street development for $600 in 2001, $1,000 in 2004 and $1,500 in 2010, Allegheny County property records show. According to the city Housing Authority – on whose board Burgess sits – the parcels were assessed by Trustmark Real Estate Services of Aliquippa for $31,350, $32,250 and $30,600, respectively. The city Housing Authority paid Burgess’ church $94,200 to buy them in 2017. Burgess abstained from the board vote.
“The first thing I see is collusion,” Ginyard said. “As long as I’ve been selling real estate, I’d love to have a sweetheart deal like that, wouldn’t you? That’s not fair to the residents.”
Young, in the meantime, takes exception to the very presence in District 9 of Burgess, who he called a “top-down” Peduto ally.
“He’s had three terms. He deserves four? Why? Because he helped build substandard housing?” asked Young, 26, a Stanton Heights man and Peabody High School graduate who has worked as a political consultant in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. “I’m not a huge fan of Darlene [Harris] but I am a huge fan of her independence from Bill Peduto … I believe it’s racist that Bill Peduto doesn’t think African-Americans can pick their own leaders. He picked Ricky because he thinks Ricky will do what he wants him to do. I think it’s disgusting.”
Young’s father, Andre Young, previously ran against Burgess, placing second to him in a contested primary in 2015.
Braxton might be the only candidate not taking shots directly at Burgess. He just doesn’t know if the councilor has done enough for his district’s senior population.
“I just know what I want to do,” said Braxton, 51, of Stanton Heights, a maintenance technician for a senior-care facility, who wants to do more to address older residents’ housing needs. “The seniors, I work with them every day. They inspired me to run for office.”
Like Gross in District 7, Braxton also touts the benefits of inclusionary zoning, and its benefits for providing better quality low-income housing.
Burgess is no stranger to contested elections. He faced primary opponents in 2007, 2011 and 2015. This time, he’s working to stay above the fray and stresses that, while Homewood – which he says remains more than half vacant – is improving, there’s a long road ahead.
“You’re seeing the community taking investment in a way they haven’t in 50 years,” Burgess said. “But I have to keep working to ensure the investment in our community and our city are felt by everybody.”