By Aaron Forbes
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Xander Orenstein, a nonbinary housing organizer, announced today that they are launching their campaign against long-time incumbent Tony Ceoffe for district magistrate in the Polish Hill / Lawrenceville area (Wards 6 & 9, Magisterial District 05-3-10). A neighborhood activist, Ceoffe was first elected to office in 2009 and was re-elected in 2015 without opposition. Orentein is the first nonbinary individual to run for this position in Pittsburgh.
Bex Tasker (they / them), Orenstein’s campaign manager, wrote in an email, “When elected, Xander will be the first openly nonbinary elected official not just in Pittsburgh, but in Pennsylvania. This is a huge honor but also a huge responsibility for our team to take on. We want to make sure we get this right because we’re setting the precedent of how to be openly trans and campaign in this city. Everyone who works on our campaign is LGBTQ, which wasn’t a deliberate choice — it just turns out all the best people for the job happened to be gay. As a trans yinzer, knowing that there would be someone like me in our justice system would be a welcomed radical change.”
Orenstein moved to Pittsburgh in 2010 and has lived here ever since. They attended Carnegie Mellon for their undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences, and they attended Johns Hopkins on line for their master’s degree in Biodefense and Biotechnology from which they graduated in 2019. They’ve worked in several positions including biological testing startups, pharmaceutical (drug) development, and conducting genetics and age research.
“A big part of my studies was in public health and how to deal with outbreaks of epidemics,” they said. “I just felt like I’ve been watching a horror movie. Everyone did everything wrong.”
They said their years spent studying the biological sciences has helped them to understand the COVID-19 pandemic on a different scale, and they expressed frustration at how it’s been handled on both a national and statewide level—particularly in housing and evictions.
“I don’t think we could have handled it worse,” they said.
To help address some of their biggest concerns for the community, their campaign announces proposed reforms including ending evictions, ending cash bail, and the end to “rubber stamping”police warrants.
Orenstein sat down for an in-depth interview with the Pittsburgh Current before launching their campaign. The following is that interview which has been edited for both brevity and for clarity.
What made you want to run for this position?
There was a CDC moratorium (on banning evictions during the pandemic). [The decision] of each individual case was up to the magistrate judge’s discretion: whether [the individual in the case] fit the criteria, whether or not the eviction could proceed, or if it would have to be postponed until the moratorium ended. And from a public health perspective, you can’t have people evicted from their homes during a pandemic of this magnitude.
Think about the options an evicted ex-tenant has: they can try to find a public shelter, which is going to be overcrowded. Because public shelters are always overcrowded, they can try to move in with friends, but that’s just going to increase the risk of contracting COVID for everyone involved.
They could try to find another place to live, but if they don’t have a job and were just evicted, they’re going to have a difficult time finding a place. It’s almost inhumane to evict anyone at this time.
For a judge to prioritize the financial success of a corporate landlord—which, let’s face it, in Pittsburgh a lot of landlords are part of large corporations—over the health of the community is extremely disturbing.
My goal in justice is going to ensure compromise and understanding at the center of any decision I make.
What does justice mean to you?
I think it’s important to think about justice not in terms of revenge. A lot of times you’ll have this idea that if somebody did something wrong, they must be punished for it, they must suffer for it, … they must feel that they have done wrong. And they must hurt because of it.
I don’t agree with that outlook. I’m Jewish, and in Judaism there is a quote that says “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף) which, translated into English, means Justice, justice, you shall pursue justice as an ideal that we’re pushing toward. It’s not an attainable thing though; there’s always going to be a more perfect solution, there’s always going to be a better way of resolving conflicts.
Currently, our system is a very stark and binary one: you have one person or party in the right, one person or party in the wrong, the wrong party shall make amends towards the party in the right. Our justice system works as a ‘winner-takes-all’ type deal, and generally that winner will be the people with power—the people with money. I think the art in justice is learning how to compromise, see things from both sides, and bring both sides together to work toward a solution that enriches both of them.
I do want to clarify that when I rule in certain cases, I’ll always be doing so following the code of conduct outlined by the state of Pennsylvania in the Judicial Code Of Conduct.
During this time, community is more important than ever. How do you feel your position can help the community grow?
The way you grow as a community is by working together working your issues out. One person I really admire is Mik Pappas, a magistrate judge a couple of districts over [who is now running for Court of Common Pleas Judge].
The way Pappas approaches landlord-tenant issues is something I will, as a District Judge, be doing quite a lot, and he encourages the landlords and tenants to come to an agreement outside of court to work out whatever issues they have. Now he doesn’t have to make a one-sided judgment or have an eviction go on someone’s record as opposed to a mutually-agreed-upon “I’ll be out by such-and-such date and we’ll just leave it at that.”
By having people work together, not only are you relieving potential, massive financial burden and a potential pipeline into poverty, but you’re strengthening the ties of the community.
One of the major reasons that you said you’re running is to end evictions. How do you feel about Tom Wolf’s ordinance last year temporarily halting evictions and then allowing them once again despite no end in sight to the pandemic?
I think it’s important to focus on why he thinks his hands are tied. As a society, we have the ability to say: “Alright, you know what, we could just put all rent and mortgage on pause.” It’s not like the big banks are going to go out of business because they’re not collecting mortgages. Sure, they’re going to have to rearrange some things, and they’re going to have to adjust to the times, but I think it’s horrifying when the main concern of a government is to take care of the banks as opposed to its people.
If there was a moratorium on just rents and mortgages, you’d see to it that both the tenant and the landlord be well taken care of, because in the end landlords are providing spaces where their tenants are able to stay at home.
Staying home during this pandemic is work—public health work. And the fact that people are still expected to go out and earn money so they can pay their landlords and landlords can pay their mortgages, and that people aren’t being paid for the public health work of staying home is it’s ridiculous, a one-time $1,000 check, a one-time $600 check, a one-time $1,400 check over the past year, you know, nowhere near enough.
I think that the eviction moratorium needs to be extended indefinitely until we have a large portion of the population vaccinated. We can’t have people killing themselves just to keep a roof over their heads.
You’re in favor of ending cash bail. Why is that important to you?
There is a massive population in jail. People who are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted of anything are still sitting in jail only because they’re unable to pay their bail. It’s essentially just a check in the criminal justice system to see if you’re wealthy enough not to have to deal with it.
If you can afford bail, you go right back to your life while you await trial. If you can’t, you have two options, one of which is simply staying in jail. You’re probably going to lose your job. Because you can’t afford to make bail, you’re probably working in a job where if you don’t show up, you lose your job—and by extension, you’re probably going to lose your home. If you can’t afford bail, you probably can’t afford rent if you’re not making money. And if you have children, they’re going to be put in jeopardy.
The second option is to go to a bail bondsman for help. They’ll bail you out, but they charge an additional 15 – 20%, so if you’re being held on a $10,000 bail, you’re $1,500 out. That’s a massive debt you now owe. So you can see that it’s a senseless system meant to keep the wealthy on top.
A better solution to that is pretrial services, using risk assessments and phone calls, you’d be able to minimize the number of people who are going to be entered into the cycle of poverty. And it’s ultimately going to save the taxpayers money too, because it’s expensive to keep people in jail.
Not everyone (who is sent to jail) is guilty, so the current system is actually doing away with the presumption of innocence. It’s a horribly oppressive system—we can do better, and we should do better.
Do you know of any places in the U.S. or around the world that’s ended cash bail and has a similar policy in place to the one you mentioned that’s already being implemented with success?
I know that D.C. and New Jersey have been doing away with cash bail and they’ve had real success: their numbers of incarcerated people awaiting trial have been going down. I know Illinois has been trying to pass a law doing away with cash bail, but that’s gotten a lot of resistance from law enforcement.
And there are programs out there—there’s even one in Allegheny County called PSA, the Public Safety Assessment, which is starting to be used to minimize the number of people who are being held in jail on bail. It’s a risk assessment which goes through a number of factors to determine if somebody is, you know, likely to show up (for their court date) or not.
It’s not a perfect system—there’s no such thing as a perfect system—but it’s a place to start. And I think by considering that we should be starting from our presumption of innocence and keeping the safety of the community in mind, we’d be able to make far better judgments than just throwing them in jail for nonviolent drug offenses, for allegedly non-violent drug offenses.
There are better systems and models out there that we can look to take from and improve upon.
You’ve also mentioned abolishing the “rubber stamping” of police warrants.
It is not the place of the judiciary to work hand-in-hand with the police. We should not always be on the side of the prosecutor looking to lock people up. Justice should not be about revenge, it shouldn’t be about locking people away. Instead, it should be about ensuring that anytime there’s a conflict of sufficient magnitude that there is fair mediation within the process.
As a magistrate judge, I’m going to be holding the police to an extremely high standard of professional conduct. And that’s going to apply to every part of what it is that they’re going to be doing when it relates to the office of the magistrate district judge.
So when a warrant comes across my desk for approval, I’m going to give it the gravity and respect it deserves by doing the research, ensuring that the rationale is just and in the interest of public safety. And rest assured that this will happen with every single warrant—I don’t get fatigued by doing the same thing over and over and over again. So it’s not going to be the case where anytime there’s a warrant, it’s automatically going to be served. I’m going to hold police to a very high standard—the same standard that they generally hold all citizens to in regard to upholding and respecting the law—I’m going to hold them to that same very high standard, because the privacy of individuals is important.
How would your appointment to the position differ from Ceoffe’s?
It’s definitely going to be different. Mr. Ceoffe has been in the Lawrenceville political machine for decades and has a certain way of looking at how the community needs to grow. The forms that it can take with regard to development and projects that can be undertaken working with certain groups that also have their vision of the way development should take place.
My focus is definitely going to be on the people by ensuring that their rights are upheld—that the right to a home is not overshadowed by a developer’s desire to build housing that could generate more revenue. I’m not going to be a one-stop shop for police to investigate wherever they feel like just because they have a hunch. I’m going to be fair and hold them to a very high standard.
I’m going to ensure that anyone who comes into the courtroom is going to get a fair shot and that the interests of the people in the community are going to be looked after.