When North Siders noticed someone was dumping trash and other rubbish behind Perry High School last year, they spent months calling various city departments wondering: Couldn’t someone stop the mess and get it cleaned up?
Then they called city Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who represents the area. Two weeks later, the dumping had stopped and the land was cleaned up. As her constituents say, she knew how to get the job done.
On Harris’ personal Facebook page, a forum she frequently uses for interacting with North Siders, one woman last year wrote that she needed a handicap tag for her vehicle but couldn’t figure out what to do. Harris walked her through the process, step by step, even listing the name and number of a state representative she could call to expedite the process.
When asked about the interaction, Harris said simply, “Oh yeah, I help people get handicap tags.”
Harris, a councilwoman for more than 10 years, even had Twizzlers stocked up prior to a visit from one of her more famous constituents, Randy Gilson of Randyland. He was in city hall to receive a proclamation declaring June 3, 2017, as “Randyland Day” in Pittsburgh. Harris knew that Twizzlers are Gilson’s favorite candy.
These exchanges, however minor, provide a clear sense of how Harris operates as a city councilwoman. It demonstrates the depth to which she connects to her North Side constituents — at least the 2,022 who voted for her in 2015 — and shows them she knows how to get things done for them.
As for her critics? They’ve learned not to get in her way.
But to only view Harris from this lens, especially as she vies for the position of Pittsburgh mayor on May 16, does not give you a full picture. Harris, a lifelong resident of the North Side, is best viewed from the streets of her district, its storied past and the eyes of her own constituents. It is from that perspective that her work, her controversies and her disdain for Mayor Bill Peduto begin to make sense.
“Darlene is a neighborhood girl herself. She loves the North Side,” said Bill Gandy, the owner of the Allegheny City Historic Gallery, formerly located on East Ohio Street. “She was born in Brighton Heights, raised in Spring Hill … a lot of us North Siders have a common bond.”
It is a bond that formed before Heinz Field and PNC Park commandeered the North Shore, before Interstate 279 cut through the neighborhoods, before Allegheny City was incorporated into Pittsburgh. But those milestones in North Side history are often seen as grim reminders that progress often hurts, rather than helps, everyday North Siders. Where Harrisburg or City Hall saw grand projects, North Siders saw decimated neighborhoods, displaced people and shuttered businesses, in some cases, propelled by eminent domain.
As a result, North Siders have grown protective of their neighborhoods; some older residents, including Harris, who is 64, long for days when the business districts they knew growing up were still bustling. The selective development of the North Shore and Central North Side, and a wider decline in the other 16 neighborhoods, has colored life there for as long as Harris has been alive.
“North Siders by character, as any of us would, have been spending a significant portion of their time trying to preserve the community they love during a time of decline,” said Diana Bucco, the president of The Buhl Foundation. “That place where they live is in their DNA…that’s the secret sauce of the North Side.”
If nothing else, Harris is the North Side’s fiercest defender and often its proudest promoter. While she’s frequently portrayed as the contrarian on city council, Harris has said she’ll only support legislation that benefits her constituents. More than 40,000 people live on the North Side; only about 4,300 voted in District 1’s 2015 primary.
Gandy knows this firsthand. When he and his wife wanted to find a way to showcase North Side history in 2013, Harris helped them get $5,000 in funding using the North Side Leadership Conference as a fiduciary; the Conference is a community development corporation Harris helped found.
One can also look at the North Side’s war memorials to see Harris’ level of dedication. In 2009, after one memorial in Troy Hill was hit by a minivan, Harris, then president of council, led the charge to make an inventory of all of the city’s memorials and restore the ones in her district. Mark Fatla, the head of the North Side Leadership Conference, said that work showed North Siders, especially the older ones, that Harris cared and was fighting for them. On the campaign trail this spring, Harris has been the only candidate to repeatedly call for an increased focus on the city’s senior population.
“The thing about Darlene is that she’s all about the neighborhoods,” said Mark Masterson, who leads the North Side Community Development Fund, which helps finance and support businesses and other community projects on the North Side. “It’s simple sort of stuff, that’s what she’s known for, that grassroots, retail level stuff — and that’s useful.”
It’s these small acts that resonate with her constituents, said Dorrie Smith-Richie, a longtime North Sider active in the community. If someone sees a blighted home on their street, Harris will find the money to fix it up, she said. Harris was also the driving force behind the Observatory Hill dog park and the security cameras installed in several neighborhoods.
“She finds her way with all of us,” said 60-year-old Smith-Richie, who is a friend of Harris’. “I don’t think any of us can say she hasn’t been there when we needed her. She is there to listen and can take action.”
But this work is only one side of Harris. Others, those she counts as her critics, paint an image of a scrappy, aggressive, anti-progress representative who plays favorites and dismisses those who disagree with her as “not real North Siders” or not understanding North Side issues.
Bobby Wilson has heard that one before.
Back in 2015, when Wilson was running against Harris for her District 1 seat for the second time (the first was in 2011), he was invited to speak to a group of people who lived in the Pressley High Rise apartments, a housing complex primarily for seniors and people with disabilities. The primary that spring wasn’t as crowded as past races, and Wilson was making a strong showing. He scored coveted progressive endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Steel City Stonewall Democrats.
As far as campaign stops go, the event should have been unremarkable, Wilson said. Thirty or so people in a meeting hall, him in front of them making his pitch. That is, until Harris showed up. Wilson hadn’t expected her to be there. Her staff showed up with pizza for everyone, and several Democratic ward chairs as well. Then, Harris spoke.
“Darlene got up there and just started calling me out; it turned into this hostile thing,” Wilson recalled.
Wilson, who is about half of Harris’ age, was just “a kid” who didn’t know the North Side like she did. Oh, and he was also “a puppet to the mayor,” Wilson recalled Harris saying. At the Pressley High Rise event, Wilson said he just stood to the side, aghast, and took it. Harris, for the record, confirmed she had used those tactics with Wilson because they were “the truth” she said.
The Pressley incident was hardly unique.
“She was always very disrespectful towards me,” Wilson said, bringing up another incident from the 2015 campaign when he sent out campaign literature that described him as a fifth-generation North Sider, a detail sure to hit home with voters. But soon after he circulated his fliers, Harris countered with fliers of her own, saying her family had lived on the North Side for eight generations.
Then there was the Observatory Hill incident. As part of his campaign, Wilson had asked several supporters in various parts of the North Side to sign their name to a “Dear neighbor” letter he mailed out to residents. The tone of the letter, generally, was that Harris wasn’t doing enough good for the North Side and that Wilson could do better. It struck a nerve with Harris.
At a regular meeting of Observatory Hill Inc., a resident group in that neighborhood, after Harris had won re-election, she stood up and read the letter aloud. When she finished, she called out a person who had signed it, a member of the board. She had better think twice before signing a letter like that again, Harris said. That board member, Leslee Schaffer, confirmed the incident occurred but said she couldn’t discuss the matter further. Harris, too, recalled the incident and said Schaffer shouldn’t have signed the letter in the first place, especially since Harris had helped Observatory Hill Inc. in the past.
As a politician, that feisty hostility is Harris’ style. Facts matter little when she lets the attacks fly. It’s the same style that leads her to accuse Peduto of ordering homeless residents to move into tents in her district and registering them to vote as she competes with him for his seat in this year’s mayoral primary, a claim the mayor has repeatedly denied. A central theme is that no one knows the North Side, and no can serve it, better than she can.
In the end, Wilson and the third challenger, the carpenter Randy Zotter, split the vote, sending Harris into her third term. But Wilson’s strong showing — he won about a third of the votes — was indicative of Harris’ souring with some North Siders, especially as new people continue to move in and some neighborhoods begin to revitalize. Now, as Harris campaigns for mayor, a small Facebook community, calling itself “Citizens Against Darlene Harris for Mayor” has sprouted.
Harris carries a “you’re either for me or against me” attitude, a mindset she applies to constituents and colleagues alike. Harris, for example, blocked Jeff Heil, the creator of the “Citizens Against” page, on Facebook. And City Council President Bruce Kraus is banned from visiting Harris’ office. If he wants to speak with her, or visit, he must set up a meeting through the City Clerk’s office, he said. According to Harris, she banned Kraus, in part, for using the F-word in her office in the past.
As a politician, Harris can boggle the mind. In her campaign for mayor, she flaunts the rules and tradition. She has no campaign office, no website, no yard signs, no campaign literature. She’s refused to file campaign finance reports with the county and when she did, she reported she had raised $0. Controversies, too, seem to have little effect on her.
But then again, Harris claims she is a not a politician. A community activist is how she identifies herself.
Heil sees it a different way. He says he doesn’t support Harris because he sees her as a roadblock to progress and development on the North Side. When parts of a neighborhood do revitalize or a new business opens, it’s often in spite of, rather than because of, Harris. He sees her “whole objective” as being obstructive.
“I’d like to see a real advocate for the people,” Heil, whose family has long lived on the North Side, said. “There’s more people in your district than just the people who support you.”
At the end of the day, Harris sees herself as an advocate for a gritty, hardworking collection of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Whether that comes with polished politics or controversies that would sink the careers of others matters little to her most fervent supporters. Smith-Richie said she sees both sides of Harris and knows she means well.
“As a friend, sometimes I wish she wouldn’t say so much but I think her heart is in the right place,” Smith-Richie said. “That’s what’s important to me, that someone’s heart is in the right place.”
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