There may only be one thing City Councilwoman Darlene Harris, after more than 30 years of public service in Pittsburgh, hasn’t formed an opinion on: the Pittsburgh Left.
When asked, jokingly, by PublicSource if she would allow the illegal traffic maneuver, she said she wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it,” she said.
In an interview with PublicSource, Harris, who is in her 11th year on city council and currently running against incumbent Bill Peduto for mayor, discussed a range of issues including her position on bike lanes, how she would fix the water authority and her recent controversies.
As the May 16 primary for Pittsburgh’s mayoral election approaches, PublicSource wants you to have access to the candidates. Here, you’ll find a full, unedited interview with Harris (recorded live Wednesday) as well as transcribed excerpts (slightly edited for brevity and clarity) from that conversation. You can check out this link to see our interview with Mayor Bill Peduto, who is running for re-election. We’ll be interviewing the third candidate running for mayor, Rev. John Welch, on Friday, May 5.
First, some key takeaways:
- Harris believes hiring more public safety officials such as police officers and firefighters will make the city safer and believes Mayor Peduto has not done so adequately.
- Bike lanes may be good for Pittsburgh’s communities, Harris said, but their implementation has been sloppy. She said she would work more closely with individual neighborhoods and seek a study before installing more.
- She also responded to two recent controversies — a photo of Harris on an elephant and a video of her in a road altercation with a cyclist on the North Side — explaining that the full stories of what happened were not circulated.
On her campaign platform:
I started out as a community activist...people are displeased who work for the city and people are displeased who live in the city with not getting services. I would start with the water, the health, safety and welfare. That’s the issue we have right now with the water. I’d go back and try to get the people who worked here, who had 20, 30 years of experience. This administration has booted them out.
Public safety — what I’m worried about right now, No. 1, is Washington Boulevard. I can’t believe it didn’t work again... you have to do better than that. We’ve lost two children and a mother and we don’t need to lose any more people. The other is… I have been very upset that we’ve been down 100 officers, we were down 60 firefighters. Now I guess we’re close to an election and three classes of officers went on and he did replace the firefighters, but that was being used as a slush fund. What I would do is make sure we have everyone we need for public safety. People want to live in safe neighborhoods and that would be No. 1:, our water, our safety, our services.
On fixing the problem of lead in drinking water:
When [Peduto] came in, he wiped out a lot of people who had a lot of years and a lot of experience. Over at [the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority], there were 16 or 17 people who really knew how to work the system and they had 25, 30 years of experience each and we had a chemist, I mean, we were award winning with our water. ...If I could rehire those people, I would in a heartbeat.
I don’t know how much damage he has done by letting these people go, and the chemist, the chemist and his assistant are gone. I would really have to get those people back to help me. How much can I guarantee after you’ve used cheaper chemicals and corroded lead pipes? I don’t know how far we’re gonna have to go with that. There’s a problem there, and you can’t just shake it off; it needs done, so I will work with those who know the system. ...I think it was foolish to get rid of people who know the city. I would do everything in my power to fix what this administration has broken.
On why she lacks campaign infrastructure:
The one thing I won’t do is “pay to play” like the mayor and have my staff go out, haunting people for money for an election. I can’t be bought. I haven’t been bought in 43 years and I don’t intend on being bought. The only one who’s gonna tell me what to do are the residents of the City of Pittsburgh.It won’t be some developer or anyone like that. When you get that deep into money...then you start owing people and that’s not me. I’ll be indebted to the residents.
I have some people who have made homemade signs already, so what's a sign? People know my name...I don’t know if I need someone to put a Harris sign in their yard to make me feel good.
On bike lanes:
It has actually been the people of Pittsburgh [who have been critical of the bike lanes]. Have we had safety checks on them? Have we had traffic studies on them? There were no safety studies done. We have people that are stopping coming into the city right now because of the congestion to go to dinner and a show. And we rely on people coming into the city as much as the people who live in the city.
…They’ve been taking out a number of turning lanes so it’s stalling traffic, too. You have to do things right. Bike lanes might be really nice, but I don’t want it to be unsafe for the bike riders or unsafe for those who are driving cars and walking.
On her recent controversies:
I don’t think they’re fair at all. No. 1 with the bicycle, he was driving a lot further out East Street. East Street is a really long street and I got cut off by the bike where I almost hit him and I had to lay on my brakes and then I laid on the horn halfway down East Street and none of that is in any of those pictures. If you’re going to put a video up, put the whole video up, don’t just give pieces and try to make a political thing out of it.
As far as the elephant, I’m an animal person who loves all animals. I have raised wild animals, chimpanzees; I have had groundhogs, I have had raccoons, dogs, cats, mice. You name it, I’ve had it growing up.
After Bruce Kraus came up and decided he wanted to get rid of the circuses, and the circuses invited us over, I was the only council member that went over to see how they were treating the animals. I spent a whole day behind the scenes… I was there probably five hours, without going to the circus, to see the animals, talk to the trainers, looking at the elephants, every one of the animals I was looking at, trying to find out background on them and actually they showed me the elephants, where they live, which is a sanctuary. It was beautiful and they invited me down to see them.
When it was over, that’s when they were giving free rides and they said, “Before the free rides start, would you like to ride on an elephant?” and I say, “Yes” because the one thing you couldn’t see was behind the elephant's ears. What people have said is that they’ve been using the pick and picking them behind the ears and then they touch it up or they have sores so the best way to see that is to be up on the elephant and I was and I did take a ride on the elephant, but I didn’t give any details so there was absolutely no problems with the backs of the elephant’s ears. There was no shading on her at all. And then I also took a ride on a camel and there was nothing for that, I’ve just never been on a camel before.
If [the media] is going to treat someone like that, who cares about animals, the animals know how I feel.
On attracting new businesses to Pittsburgh:
What I’ll do first is try to save the jobs we have. I didn’t see the mayor trying to save Macy’s from going out...but yes, I’ll be out there bringing jobs in. How will I do that? By word of mouth, by talking, by talking to people that I know in other areas.
We don’t have manufacturing jobs anymore.Right now, we have the high tech…[Mayor Peduto] can take credit for Uber, but the one thing he didn’t do is work and negotiate with Uber ahead of time… I’m not going to be that way. I’m going to work with companies and, if I’m going to negotiate anything, it’s going to be in the front.
There’s a lot of people who say [manufacturing jobs] will come back...there have been some electric companies I’ve been already talking to. [Harris declined to give specifics, saying, “Um, not at this time.”]
On attracting more people to Pittsburgh and increasing population:
I won’t be building single-bedroom apartments.What I will do is work with the neighborhoods to get the blighted buildings. There’s some that need torn that haven’t been torn down, but there are also a number of them that you can preserve and they’re homes. ...It’s nice to have the single rooms to keep the students coming in, but [we need to] have a place for families to want to live. Without schools, without families, the city will just be in and out. We have to work on bringing people here and keeping them here...I don’t want to see people coming in and filling apartment buildings with one bedroom [units] and not worrying about the properties we have in the city and getting homes taken care of. The neighborhoods don’t look good the way they are right now, and the blight isn’t getting taken care of.