Q&A with Pittsburgh City Council District 7 incumbent Gross and challenger Kane

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Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deb Gross, left, and District 7 challenger Deirdre Kane. (Photos by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

One of the more interesting races for a Pittsburgh City Council seat is happening in District 7. It's the only face-off where the Allegheny County Democratic Committee did not endorse the incumbent, in this case Councilwoman Deb Gross. Instead the committee gave the nod to challenger Deirdre Kane, a district resident who works in marketing at Highmark.

District 7 covers Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, Highland Park, Morningside, Polish Hill, the Strip District and parts of Stanton Heights and Friendship. Gross, a Highland Park resident, has been representing the area since winning a special election in 2013.

Development and gentrification are key topics in the race, in part because several District 7 neighborhoods, most notably Lawrenceville, have seen more building and higher housing costs. Gross has taken steps to curb gentrification in Lawrenceville, but Kane has characterized her efforts as too little, too late.

We posed six questions to each candidate. Their answers are lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Click on a question below to see the candidates' answers.

  1. Could you prioritize the needs of District 7 residents, and how do you know that those are the needs?
  2. How are you proposing to work with residents, businesses and other constituents to promote economic development?
  3. In your view, what's the most important quality to be a good representative on the city council for District 7 constituents and why?
  4. Which experiences make you the best person for this job?
  5. What would you do to represent District 7 in the term that begins in January 2020?
  6. How will you measure success of your time in office?

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1. Could you prioritize the needs of District 7 residents, and how do you know that those are the needs?

GROSS: What I hear about most is affordability pressure across housing, utilities, food access, child care costs and transportation.

My constituents have been clear about their priorities: equitable, community-driven development that prioritizes affordable housing and allows residents to stay in their neighborhoods. My district includes some of the fastest growing residential neighborhoods in the city. Home prices have skyrocketed and luxury condos and retail office spaces are popping up all over.

To protect economically vulnerable Pittsburghers from getting pushed out of our neighborhoods, I introduced the city’s first inclusionary zoning law, which will force big developers to build affordable housing. I also worked to pass legislation that changes the Riverfront zoning process to incentivize projects that include affordable housing. And, I’m working with State House Reps. Ed Gainey and Sara Innamorato to advance robust protections from property tax increases for longtime residents.

The other top priority issue is clean, affordable water that is safe and lead-free for every resident. As a member of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] board, I was the first to demand that PWSA replace all lead lines, and I called for water filters for all households with children. I will continue to demand that PWSA remain a public asset, accountable to the people of Pittsburgh and committed to ensuring safe, affordable, public water for not just residents in my district, but everyone in the city.

I believe strongly in community-driven processes and always prioritize the voices of my constituents and of the communities I serve. If re-elected, I will continue to prioritize the needs of the people over the desires of the profit-makers, whether they’re giant developers or water industry privatizers.

KANE: As a dedicated volunteer, former business owner and lifelong resident of District 7, I believe I have a good understanding of the priorities of the residents. I also believe that many of the issues of District 7 are also concerns of all Pittsburgh residents: housing affordability, demand for effective and efficient delivery of city services, safe streets and green spaces, parking and traffic, and environmental concerns like clean air and water. However, if elected I would certainly want to hear more from people throughout the district to get a sense of the priorities of each of the unique neighborhoods that make up District 7.

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2. How are you proposing to work with residents, businesses and other constituents to promote economic development?

GROSS: It is always important to ask, ‘Economic development for whom?’ Part of keeping our city affordable, inclusive and liveable is keeping locally owned retailers and restaurants in our neighborhoods. Businesses on our main streets that serve our daily needs — dentists, daycares, drugstores — are what make our neighborhoods liveable. Also, I believe we all deserve the chance to benefit from Pittsburgh's burgeoning prosperity and growth, and our local business owners live and work here, too, and their wealth stays in the community.

I work every day to ensure that the most economically vulnerable residents of Pittsburgh have access to safe, secure, affordable housing. I have brought together allies on city council, affordable housing advocates and residents to introduce the City's first inclusionary zoning law to force big developers to build affordable units.

KANE: Again, I believe listening to the residents and business owners in the district will be the most important role in promoting economic development. For example, a neighborhood like Morningside — which has a small business district but not a staffed community development organization — will need a very different approach than neighborhoods that have thriving business districts and multiple community organizations. I look forward to having business and resident roundtables to get to the heart of the needs of each community.

Once I understand the basic business needs of a community, I can work to promote programs offered through organizations like the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] and its Façade Improvement Program or the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for funding assistance in starting or improving small businesses in the district. I look forward to playing an active role in reaching out to the businesses and residents of the district to make sure that I am being proactive in helping meet the needs of the community.

I am a strong believer in small businesses to boost economic development. It was my experience as a small business owner, that many people make it a priority to spend their money at small locally owned businesses. The importance of supporting and growing small businesses is reflective in the URA’s decision to create the Micro-Enterprise Loan program. Programs like this that help entrepreneurs bring their vision to reality are integral to expanding the small business community throughout the district.

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3. In your view, what's the most important quality to be a good representative on the city council for District 7 constituents and why?

GROSS: I believe the most important quality to be a good representative on city council is the ability to listen carefully to both sides of an issue, and then stand up for what’s right. Many of our biggest policy issues have started with calls to my office and conversations I have had with constituents. In a time when so many elected officials are afraid to challenge growing corporate power, I always fight for people over profits. For example, I believe that water is a public good and human right; not a commodity.

By listening to customers and constituents and refusing to disregard their voices, even over the advice of “experts,” I advocated at PWSA to replace thousands of lead lines, develop a Customer Assistance Program, fix the billing system, reduce lead in the system and institute a winter moratorium on water shutoffs. I am proud to say that the citizens were right and I was able to represent them effectively. We now have safer water and more equitable rates for everyone from a public water authority that is more accountable to the public than ever.

KANE: I believe the two most important qualities of being a leader go hand in hand. In my opinion, the best leaders listen with understanding and empathy and have the ability to work well with others to achieve common goals.

An effective leader understands the issues and needs of their constituents in order to proactively advocate for their communities’ economic, environmental and social wellbeing. However, to be an effective leader, one must also have the ability to listen to and work with those who are not always aligned in order to meet needs.

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4. Which experiences make you the best person for this job?

GROSS: As city councilwoman for the past six years, I have seen firsthand how difficult, yet rewarding this job can be. When I stand up against the privatization of our water authority, I do it because it is the right thing to do. Selling off one of our most precious assets for a short-term financial boost would be handicapping future generations, something I refuse to do.

This is exactly the kind of leadership we need, and it only comes with understanding the position, its powers and responsibilities. I’m not sure that in my first year on council I would have had the know-how to stand up against this privatization in as effective a manner. Looking at the next four years, the challenges and opportunities are that much greater, which is why I am the best person to guide District 7 into the 2020s.

KANE: I believe my time on the board of Lawrenceville United [LU] as well as being the owner of the 52nd Street Market provides me with a unique perspective on community leadership. During my tenure on the LU Board, I participated in creating programs like the First Time Homebuyer program, Side Lot Purchase program and Senior Advantage as well as volunteering and participating in neighborhood events such as National Night Out, holiday parties and other events. I understood that my role on the board meant I would act as a conduit of information to my community members when I was out and about in the neighborhood. Folks would always reach out to me with questions regarding development or new businesses that were opening in the community. And I was happy to share any information that I had with inquiring friends and neighbors.

I also believe my time as owner of the 52nd Street Market provided me with insight to the needs of our community members. The Market served as the go-to place to find out about what was happening in our community, so we made sure to share flyers and information regarding events and community happenings in the neighborhood. During my time at the Market, I also seemed to have a front-row seat to some of the issues facing our community. We opened the Market to address the lack of access to fresh and local food but also to serve as a third space, so new neighbors could meet and chat with folks who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. Sadly, we lost many of our customers to gentrification; and we also had to post education materials regarding the opioid crisis because unfortunately we also lost a few customers to overdoses.

I believe being involved at the community level, seeing issues arise and being in multiple positions that enabled me to proactively help to address community needs provides me with unique experience and perspective as a potential council member.

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5. What would you do to represent District 7 in the term that begins in January 2020?

GROSS: One thing that I will do in the next term is work with my colleagues to address budget allocations to neighborhoods and community projects. Some of us will remember that nearly two decades ago, when the City of Pittsburgh entered Act 47 financially distressed status, the city budget was cut back severely and funding for neighborhood improvements was stripped from both operating and capital budgets. I am working now with council members to evaluate how we can shift our focus and resources back to our community members who do so much of the caring in the city. From food pantries to safe streets to Little Leagues to small business to tree planting, Pittsburghers are caring for each other and their neighborhoods. I believe the city could be a better partner in this important work.

KANE: If I am elected to serve as the city council representative for District 7, the first item on my agenda would be to establish regular “council on the go” times in every neighborhood in the district. It is very important that I am connected to the communities that I serve. For the first year in office, I will make it a priority to personally attend as many community and neighborhood meetings as I can to make sure that community members know who I am and that I will always be willing to help address their needs when possible.

One of my priorities as a council member will be to focus on constituent services and be a presence within each community. I will enact a 48-hour constituent service policy to make sure that community members know that they are being heard and their needs are being met.

6. How will you measure success of your time in office?

GROSS: I have been concerned about both the health and wealth of city residents. How many of our citizens are financially secure? How many of them have housing security and health security? Others may measure success by new development dollars, jobs or new luxury buildings and, for a long time, those measures were considered a proxy for how well people are doing. But in 2019, those same indicators may tell us that more of the people are doing poorly. For example, if development is lifting property values to a level that means seniors can’t afford to live in their homes, that’s a problem, even if on paper the rising values appear to be beneficial to our tax base. Making sure we prioritize and focus on individuals and communities is crucial for measuring the success of a city. We are only as well off as the least among us, and we can’t only rely on facile, out-of-date preconceptions. I would like to explore the idea of a community census, possibly in conjunction with the 2020 census, to get a real look at how our neighborhoods, and our neighbors, are doing.

KANE: I will measure success in a few different ways. Most importantly, I want to be an effective leader for the communities, so I am hopeful to be able to point directly to projects I helped to facilitate for residents and business owners.

Another measure of success will be if I submitted and passed legislation. It is my goal for my first year to propose at least one piece of legislation that will help the communities in my district.

My goal to propose one piece of legislation is representative of my desire to take real action for the residents of the district. That is why I am looking forward to understanding the highest priorities of the each community in the district.

I understand that proposing legislation is not enough, and I will make sure that the residents and business owners in my district understand and support any proposed legislation.

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