Councilwoman Erika Strassburger Speaks with the Eagle


Erika Strassburger after winning the City Council District 8 seat

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

Recently, I gave Erika Strassburger, newly elected Councilwoman for Pittsburgh’s District 8, which encapsulates the East End neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Point Breeze, and Oakland, a call to discuss her career, aspirations, and priorities for her new position. The following is a complete transcription of the discussion. Major questions are highlighted so as to make it easy for you to pick and choose which topics you would like to hear Ms. Strassburger’s input on.

Sam Bisno: Okay, so the first question is just: What inspired you to run for the position?

Erika Strassburger: It’s a complex answer, but it was a very quick decision. I was not expecting the position to become open and so I guess it was two things: one, I felt like I had the experience, I had the knowledge, and I was a person who could be a good candidate and could be a good, strong councilperson. That combined with the vow that I made to myself after Trump was elected, and throughout this whole year seeing the limited amount that I’ve been able to do to sort of push back against the policies or the attitudes that Trump has brought to the forefront, that the ultimate thing I could do to make change in my own way was to run for office. I was given opportunity, and so I sort of vowed to myself when he was elected that if I ever was given the opportunity that I would take advantage of it and run for office, and I had to keep that promise to myself.

SB: And so what was it like when you found out that you had won, and by such a wide margin?

ES: Obviously it’s great to win, and I credit that to all the hard work that my team put in. I mean, I had a really, really incredible group of people who were working for me. Some were in paid positions; many more were in volunteer positions. And I think that’s the most humbling part of it: just think the sheer number of people who did something to help me win, because, when it comes down to it, winning an election is about the number of people who you – or the people who are representing you – get to talk to face-to-face or get to talk to you over the phone. I mean, that’s how local elections are won. You have to sort of trust that the person who you’re supporting is going to do a good job and you do that by – especially around here – talking to them face-to-face or over the phone. And so I had countless numbers of volunteers and staff who are knocking on doors, calling people on the phone – I was doing that myself – and there were dozens and dozens of people who opened up their homes to me and invited their neighbors over and allowed me to speak face-to-face to them in kind of house party settings. So it was obviously an intense three months of a lot of hard work and no days off and no nights, and it’s just gratifying to feel like that paid off.

SB: And so what do you see as one of the most positive trends in District 8, and then off of that, the most negative trend? And then what’s your top priority? What do you hope to accomplish with your new position?

ES: Well I think that it’s actually the same answer for both the positive and negative, and that is the growth that we’re experiencing. And I don’t just mean population growth, because we won’t see until the 2020 census is done whether we have grown. I suspect that we have. But it’s a whole lot more fun to manage growth than it is to manage the decline. So it’s great that we are seeing that we’re living in a time and District 8 and in Pittsburgh where there are a lot of new people moving here, there’s energy, people want to be here, there’s an excitement around what’s next, and there’s a possibility for people to go to college here, graduate, and get a job. The challenge is all of the unexpected consequences – and they’re not always unexpected but I’m calling them that because if you’re not ready for them they can really be challenges – of growth. And that includes everything from rising cost of living to traffic congestion and parking. For 40 years now, people have been accustomed to being able to find a parking spot, drive without any traffic, and sometimes it’s a challenge to start to overcome some of those issues. But I think the most pressing one is the cost of living. When I first moved to Pittsburgh in 2009, it was completely possible for me to find at first a rental property for me to rent and to live in, and then pretty soon after, a house to buy in District 8 in Squirrel Hill as one half of a couple that was just really starting out and wasn’t making a lot of money, and I was able to do it. And it’s pretty incredible that that was the case. I was able to find a place to live right down the street from where my in-laws lived in a really nice neighborhood. That’s going to be a challenge, to ensure that that continues going forward. It’s already changing. Cost of living is already going way up in neighborhoods all around the city, so the challenge is: What government intervention or what other tools can we use to keep housing costs livable, while at the same time ensuring that wages grow so that you have both of those dynamics happening at the same time with the amount that we’re able to actually control in City Council. We’re not Congress. We’re not the President. We don’t have control over many different things. So what can we control, and how do we do it in such a way that it doesn’t stifle growth in other parts of the city that are looking to revitalize or grow in other ways, bring new people in? So I would say that grappling with growth is going to be my biggest priority, and the overarching theme of equity, to make sure that whatever happens, whether it’s who gets their lead lines replaced first, or who gets access to clean water or clean air – all the kind of things were part of my platform – public transportation, great schools – it’s all in the same boat of equity and leveling the playing field. So that’s another kind of theme that I guess will hopefully run throughout my tenure as City Councilperson.

SB: So you mentioned equity, and this sort of ties into that, actually. How significant is it that you are the first ever woman to represent District 8, and do you think that your leadership will be different because you are a woman?

ES: How significant as it? Well, I mean, I think it’s it a signal of the time that we’re living in right now. Am I the first Councilwoman to ever serve on City Council? No. I mean, I’m standing on the shoulders of the female elected City Council members who have come before me. And what I think is significant is that we now have four of the nine councilmembers who are female, who identify as female, and that was the case previously and now it’s the case once again, and I really, really look forward to working with my other female councilmembers as part of the Women’s Caucus that has accomplished a whole lot in these last four years together. Four very, very different women are coming together to craft and create policies that benefit women and working families, so everything from getting a small sliver of the funding needed for a universal pre-K program to getting the Gender Equity Commission up and going and staffed, to paid parental leave at the city level, a lot of different things that they’ve been able to accomplish, and I’m going to be honored to be part of that process going forward. I don’t know if my approach is different purely because of the fact that I’m a woman or because I’m just a different person, but certainly every councilmember who has had this seat has brought something different to the seat and I will be different as well. I really like to collaborate. I really like to ensure that residents have their say in decisions that are being made. I want to make sure I’m constantly checking in with the district and with my constituents to ensure that my votes and my decisions are reflective of their positions as well.

SB: When we talked to Mr. Gilman in January one of the questions that we asked him was about the #MeToo movement that had revealed so many sexual harassers and assaulters in public office recently. Do you feel that sexual harassment is something that needs to be addressed in City Council?

ES: Yes, I do. I think that at the very least we need to set a tone that that is absolutely unacceptable, that there is a process for any city employee to be able to follow if they want to file a report or address a concern, that there should be a due process. The state has found through investigations that there really hasn’t been a process in Congress or at the state level, and I know that Council President Kraus is taking the lead on looking into what protections exist for those who feel as if they’ve been a victim of sexual harassment or intimidation at the city level. That’s absolutely something that I think City Council needs to address, but I think that also we need to not only put policies in place, but use the power of convening and use the power of the bully pulpit to just set a tone for the whole city to ensure that we’re truly being leaders and setting the example – with the number females serving on Council, that we are calling it out when it happens and supporting females – or anyone – who feels as if they are the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and just creating a culture in the city that rejects that.

SB: So this next question is a little bit complicated, but when Dan Cohen was the City Council representative for District 8, Bill Peduto was his Chief of Staff, and then when Bill Peduto took over for Mr. Cohen Dan Gilman became his Chief of Staff. When Mr. Peduto became Mayor, Mr. Gilman took over duties in City Council with you as his Chief of Staff. Now Mr. Gilman is Mayor Peduto’s Chief of Staff and you have his old seat. Meanwhile, your campaign received significant endorsements from both Mayor Peduto and Mr. Gilman, so how would you respond to the criticisms of some that being a part of this sort of dynasty will compromise your ability to act independently?

ES: Look, if I were someone who was viewing this from the outside and not in it, I would share the concern. I definitely see where the criticism is coming from, and I understand that it looks as if it would be hard for someone in my position to stay independent. I guess I’m just going to have to show everyone different. I’m going to have to demonstrate through action that that is not the case. I am someone who comes from an advocacy background and I did not have any problem in the nine years that I was an advocate on the outside of any kind of political office to target both friends and foes, to target both Democrats and Republicans, and to constantly push to constantly push them to be better on issues that I was advocating for, which were clean air and clean water and climate change and clean energy and fracking. I had no problem being a strong independent voice then, and I think that that background should help assure skeptics that I will continue to raise my voice regardless of who I might disagree with. I felt comfortable as Chief of Staff sometimes disagreeing with Dan Gilman when he was Councilman, or raising concerns or pushing back or challenging when I needed to. I think that’s something he appreciated and I will feel free doing the same thing going forward. Will people always read about it in the papers or see it play out on TV? Not always, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t disagree with certain things that the Mayor or his County Executive or whoever might be pushing. After I start off I will just have to demonstrate through action that that’s the case. It’s hard for anyone to necessary believe it until you see it, and I understand that.

SB: If that pattern were to continue, you might one day find yourself in the Mayor’s office. Is that something that you aspire to?

ES: It’s not something I aspire to, no. I never set any kind of five-year plans for myself. A lot of people do. They try to predict the future or set out a five-year, 10-year plan. I personally never have operated that way. It’s not helpful to me. I’ve just tried to work as hard as I can and do the job that I can to the best of my abilities every single job. I did that for four years in Environment New Hampshire. I could never have predicted that I’d end up in Pittsburgh. I did that for five years at Penn Environment in Pittsburgh after I launched its Pittsburgh office. I was interested in becoming more involved at the city level, doing something more involving Pittsburgh proper. I never could’ve predicted that Bill Peduto and then Dan Gilman would have won their primaries and I would have had the opportunity, exactly when I was looking for something, to work for him. I never could have predicted that after four years I would have the opportunity to run. So I really can’t say what’s going to happen in four years. If I feel in four years that I’m enjoying what I’m doing and that I’m doing a decent job at being a councilperson, who knows? Maybe I’ll run again. Maybe I will not run again. We’ll just have to see.

SB: Some of the major issues that are facing Pittsburgh right now are – like you mentioned earlier – lack of clean water; there’s been, obviously, the teachers’ union struggle, so issues with education; and a demand for a $15 minimum wage and access to a union. What’s your stance on these issues and is there one in particular that you think you’ll prioritize?

ES: You can’t prioritize just one. You have to work on all of them. I will. I would say that the most I can do on education is build bridges with those who do have the power to make decisions on education, on our schools and our public schools and charter school issues, and just build bridges and have good relationships so that when decisions are being made they’re being made with the consideration of the concerns of City Council and the concerns of the city. I want to build on the relationships that I’ve already already forged with school board members and with principals and with members of the teachers’ union and with members of the PPS administration. And fighting for things like universal pre-kindergarten so that there’s a level playing field. The big question is: How do you fund it? We have to be creative about how we fund it. That is going to be something that we continue to work on now, but that’s a longer-term issue. Water and the PWSA? Also, now is the time for action because we’ve studied it, it was good that we studied it, it was good that we had audits, and it’s good that we have all this data and information now. Now is the time to act and to reform PWSA’s governing board and to figure out what comes first, what comes second, what comes third in terms of offering clean water and overhauling our water infrastructure. That has to happen. But I think as the Mayor has pointed out in the past, we probably won’t see results in a few years. We will see final results in like 10 years. So you have to continue to push, push, push and make sure that happens. But I, unfortunately, won’t see immediate results. We’ll start to see some now, but not immediately. On $15 minimum wage, we’ve done all that we can to legislate that at the city level. We don’t have the power as the city government because we’re a second-class city. We don’t have the power to mandate that businesses pay a certain wage. That’s just not something that we are allowed to do. Philadelphia is allowed to do that. We’re not allowed to do that. So instead, obviously, as you pointed out, it’s partnering with labor to demand that from employers and, as opportunities arise, to stand with them and to support them in their various campaigns of various employers. I will. I will. So all three of those things are priorities and I will work on them simultaneously because you have to. It’s funny. I’ll just say as an aside: often times there will be something that City Council does or that a city council member will work on that feels small, or perhaps insignificant. And you’ll see this with Dan Gilman. He would get criticized for working on something or spending time on something that didn’t seem very significant when there were many, many more challenges to contend with and to deal with, and I guess the point that he had always tried to make and I want to try to make is that you can walk and chew gum at the same time. You can tackle the big things while you’re also working on the smaller things. You can have 20 projects going at the same time and forge ahead on all of them. And you have to. To be able to make any progress, you can’t lose sight of the small things, like ensuring that we have policies in place to create incentives or carrots and sticks to get people to shovel their sidewalks, while at the same time tackling wages. You have to do both of them to make a city successful. So I intend to do that.

SB: Pittsburgh is currently facing an increasing trend of gentrification throughout the city, and yet segregation and income disparities between neighborhoods remain a constant. District 8 is home to some of the most affluent Pittsburghers and is one of the whitest areas in the city. Meanwhile, 81 percent of the attendees at Obama Academy, which lies just outside that district, are of some minority. Do you feel any tension around this issue? What can you do to try to reach other parts of the city outside of just District 8?

ES: Yeah, it’s a long-standing problem. Institutional racism that found its way into policies of the past or development trends of the past is to blame. It’s something that I think has gotten a lot of lip service for decades and was never fully solved. And when I talk about that I mean the ethnic and cultural segregation of our communities. Gentrification is just bringing more of a concern about that to the surface. When we’re making policies, I have to represent the people of District 8. But what I’m hearing from the people of District 8 overwhelmingly is that they care about equity and they care about leveling the playing field. So I feel comfortable when I make decisions on policies that might be in the best interest of those most vulnerable or those who have been sidelined or those who have been segregated or who might not come from a privileged background. When I’m making decisions I might help them even if those decisions might not be in the best interest of District 8 residents. I will feel comfortable making that decision in favor of equity because overwhelmingly in this campaign I heard from people who cared more about housing equity and income inequality – issues that didn’t necessarily affect them but affected their neighbors. It’s this interesting situation where representing them means following through on those pledges to help not just the people of District 8 but people citywide. And in some cases leveling the playing field means reducing the vast differences in privilege that some people in District 8 have felt for a long time.

SB: Currently both Daniel Lavelle’s District 6 and Reverend Ricky Burgess’s District 9 – the district that Obama is in – are majority black. But there’s been talk that when the next redistricting rolls around there may no longer be two majority-black districts. What is your response to this? Is this a problem that we need to address or not?

ES: I think that when we’re talking about redistricting we have to keep in mind that there are going to be requirements for majority-minority districts, so we’ll have to see what the census shows. But I think having that majority-minority districts is important and is a factor that will go into that process. I don’t exactly know. I don’t have full control over that process but it’s something that needs to be a criterion as part of a drawing-up of the district lines, absolutely.

SB: Obama Academy is the only inner city school in the state of Pennsylvania to participate in the YMCA Youth and Government program. Basically what that means is that every April some kids will go to Harrisburg and we’ll take over the Capitol building for a weekend and we’ll act like a model legislature. So do you have any advice for high schoolers who might be interested in a career in politics?

ES: A couple of things. One, take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, because you never know, and do the best you possibly can at even the smallest of jobs, whether it’s childcare and babysitting or your first job working at a store, because you never know what relationships you might be able to forge. People will remember your strong work ethic and character, and later on in life, you never know what those jobs will have prepared you for as a stepping stone. Two, start getting involved in your community. There’s no way that I would have been able to win this election had I not shown up at those meetings and helped to plan the events and fundraise for the community events and just been a part of my Squirrel Hill community. That’s where you build relationships and show that you are a dedicated public servant and can work hard. You just get the support of your neighbors that way. And so I say be involved in whatever that means, whether it is the local civic organization or the local political party that you know that they belong to or whatever it is. Just get involved. It’s not too early to get involved when you’re in high school, either. You meet your neighbors, you feel pride in your community and what you’re doing, and you make great connections. And you’re just proud of what you are able to accomplish together. It’s really, really gratifying, and that’s what it’s about, ultimately – serving the public and serving your community.

SB: That’s all we have. Thank you so much.

ES: You’re very welcome. Thank you for doing this. Take care.

The Eagle staff would like to extend its gratitude to Ms. Strassburger for taking the time out of her busy schedule to allow us to pick her brain about the issues currently facing our city. We wish her luck in her new role.