It’s been a year for politics. But which political leaders will guide Pittsburgh in the future?
Meet our second class of Who’s Next winners. These under-40 professionals working in politics are consultants, finance directors, chiefs of staff for city council members, even a county council member. They spend their time in the day-to-day of government, working on policies, meeting community leaders and constituents and fundraising to get their candidates elected, all with the goal of finding ways to make Pittsburghers’ lives better.
Who’s Next, sponsored by S&T Bank, is our way to honor the best and brightest under-40 professionals in different fields. Our editorial staff vetted dozens of nominees before deciding on this list, and soon, we’ll celebrate these dynamos and Who’s Next: Community Leaders at a party in their honor. (You can nominate someone for Who’s Next: Community Leaders here.)
Here they are, Pittsburgh: Who’s Next in politics.
Kate Abel was involved in city and state politics before looking to the town where she grew up. She’s now a councilwoman for the Borough of Dormont, where she works to make change on the local level and serves as chair of the Public Safety/Public Service Committee. She’s also the finance director for Ampersand Consulting and works to fundraise for nonprofits and candidates for city and state office. “Kate has spent her career helping many progressive candidates in Pittsburgh with Ampersand Consulting,” a person who nominated Abel wrote. “In 2015, Kate made the switch from helping elect people to deciding to run herself.” Before working for Ampersand Consulting, Abel was a development assistant for Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting. Abel is a member of the Young Elected Officials Network and attended the National Convening in 2016. She’s a graduate of Point Park University and lives in Dormont.
Between 2012 and 2014, Aerion Abney worked as a legislative assistant for Pa. House District 19, represented by Rep. Jake Wheatley. Abney went on to challenge Wheatley for his seat before dropping out of the Democratic primary in 2016. Abney said he wants to become an elected official to use “the platform as a sphere of influence to share action oriented plans and perspectives that will help empower people into the future.” Since 2014, he’s been the program officer at the POISE Foundation, which empowers African Americans through grantmaking and other services. He previously served as a committeeman for the 21st Ward, 4th District. He is a board member for Community Human Services, Hill District Federal Credit Union and Human Services Center Corporation; an advisory board member of the African American Achievement Trust Collective Focus; and a committee member of My Brother’s Keeper Pittsburgh. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Abney currently resides in Manchester.
Tom Baker was elected to Allegheny County Council in November 2013 and represents District 1, which includes Aleppo Township, Ben Avon Borough, Moon Township, North Fayette Township and Ross Township. He is the founder of Get Involved!, Inc., which “provides leadership and development programs and initiatives that engage, energize, educate, and empower students, young professionals, and lifelong learners to make a positive difference in their communities and to become civically engaged.” Baker is chief community affairs officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh and mentors three young men through the program. “I am very proud to call Tom Baker a friend and someone I personally look up to,” wrote one person who nominated the councilman. “Beyond politics, Tom's dedication to his community is why I hold him in such high regard.” Baker lives in Ross Township with his wife Erin.
As Bob Casey’s regional representative, Jordan Ball interacts with working-class people in coal country and Appalachia on behalf of the senator. He also serves as co-director of New Leaders Council Pittsburgh. “Jordan is a pragmatist. He looks at the challenges facing our city, state and country and listens to regular people on the ground as he works for a solution through his work with Senator Casey,” one person wrote in nominating Ball. “He possesses a strong passion for bridging the divide between urban and rural communities.” While he was a student at California State University Channel Islands, Ball was a Panetta Congressional Fellow. After graduation, he worked as a field organizer for Americans for Workplace Opportunity and field director for Chuck Hadley for State Representative. He’s currently pursuing an MBA at West Virginia University and lives on the North Side.
As chief of staff, Marita Bradley coordinates and researches economic development initiatives as well as writes public policy. Through her work, she’s advocated for low and moderate income people, as well as worked within the community to make sure plans are realized. Bradley hopes to help more young women and people of color to run for office. Bradley has worked in Burgess’s office in multiple roles since 2011. She was his campaign manager in 2015 and then became his chief of staff later that year. She also served as field director to re-elect state Rep. Joe Preston in 2012. Bradley is on the board of directors for the Urban Academy Charter School. She’s a graduate of the University of Hawaii and the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Garfield.
As executive director of the American Congress of Real Estate, Anissa Coury works to assist landlords, investors and property managers in the Pittsburgh area. Coury has worked on a number of legislative issues including lobbying the Pittsburgh City Council to support an alternative to raising the realty transfer tax to pay for an affordable housing trust fund. Under her leadership, ACRE won the National Real Estate Investors Association’s Award of Excellence in Government Affairs. Coury is also chairwoman of the Young Republicans of Allegheny County, which is working to start a scholarship. In her role there, the group campaigned for candidates including Sen. Pat Toomey and worked with Young Democrats of Allegheny County to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh. “Anissa Coury is Next in politics because she demonstrates effective leadership, a passion for public service and a willingness to transcend political differences,” a person who nominated Coury wrote. She lives in Mt. Lebanon.
Austin Davis’ passion for government started early. He founded the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council in McKeesport while in high school and served as a legislative intern in the Pa. House of Representatives while he attended Pitt. Since graduating in 2012, Davis has served as executive assistant to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, where his duties include managing and staffing several committees and commissions and representing Fitzgerald on county boards. He also assisted in the creation of the Jail Medical Services division of the Allegheny County Jail and serves as vice-chairman of the Allegheny County Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners. Davis is the vice-chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and plans to run for office someday. He lives in McKeesport.
After more than four years as chief of staff, Ashleigh Deemer plans to run for the District 4 seat on Pittsburgh City Council. Deemer's boss, Natalia Rudiak, recently announced that she doesn’t plan to run for the seat again. Deemer started working in nonprofits — the Clean Air Task Force and the Clean Water Action. She moved to government and was the constituent services manager for Rudiak’s office before becoming chief of staff in March 2012. She works on a variety of legislation from economic development, public safety, infrastructure, budgeting and more. Deemer was previously on the board of directors for the Community Technical Assistance Center. Deemer is a graduate of Chatham University and is working on a master’s degree in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon University with an expected graduation in May 2018. She lives in Beechview with her husband Chris and son Axel.
When Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" after she testified before Congress about contraception, Abigail Gardner took her on as a client pro bono. Gardner served as communications director during Fluke’s California State Senate run, one of several campaigns Gardner has worked on. She was on the communications staff of U.S. Rep Dan Maffei and Gov. Eliot Spitzer before joining SKDKnickerbocker in D.C. where she worked with political clients including HUD Secretary Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro. She founded Scottie Public Affairs in 2015 and works with candidates on “message development, media training and debate prep.” As a volunteer, she serves as vice chair of the board of directors for Emerge Pennsylvania, which works to get Democratic women elected to office. “She is quickly becoming a Democratic influencer, using her D.C. skill set to bring more capable young women into the Pittsburgh political fold,” one person who nominated Gardner wrote. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and lives in Friendship.
Marita Garrett, who announced this week that she’s running for Wilkinsburg mayor, serves as vice-president of the Wilkinsburg Council and chairs the Social Media & Promotions Committee. During her time on the council, Garrett started a community conversations initiative and co-founded the Free Store, where residents can pick up donated goods. She’s also the co-owner and CEO of Admintrinsic, “which provides a wide range of outreach and engagement services to small businesses, nonprofits, and mid-level corporations.” Garrett is the program trainer for Coro Pittsburgh’s Women in Leadership 2016-17 cohort, first vice chair of the Congress of Neighboring Communities and is a member of the Allegheny Regional Asset District Citizen Advisory Board. Garrett said she wants to run for higher office in order to serve as an example and voice for young women, especially women of color. She is a graduate of Pitt and Chatham and lives in Wilkinsburg.
Grant Gittlen has been in his current role for about a year and was previously community affairs manager for the city and a political and field director for Mayor Bill Peduto’s 2013 campaign. Gittlen also worked as a deputy political director in Western Pa. for Obama For America in 2012. He previously led the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and worked on the campaign for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Gittlen is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and lives in Beechview with his wife Katie and son Max.
As finance director, David Grim managed and led Western Pennsylvania fundraising for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey since January 2014. Grim works with donors, PAC administrators and GOP operatives to fundraise. For this election, he led a $31 million fundraising operation with the eastern Pennsylvania fundraising staff and others. Previously, he was the executive director of the Mike Turzai Leadership Fund and a field staffer for the Pennsylvania House Republican Campaign Committee. Grim is a graduate of Juniata College and lives in Sewickley.
Julie Hallinan has helped multiple local candidates with fundraising and campaigning, most recently as finance director for Friends of Rich Fitzgerald where she raised more than $1.2 million in 2015 and 2016. She’s also worked on, and in many cases led, fundraising for campaigns of Gov. Tom Wolf, Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilman Dan Gilman. She is treasurer of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County. Hallinan is on the the development committee of the Women’s Center and Shelter; the Planned Parenthood Young Leaders Committee and the Riverlife Young Professionals committee. Hallinan is an avid runner and completed the Boston Marathon in 2015 and 2016 and completed the Marine Corps Marathon in 2016. Hallinan is a graduate of Pitt and lives in Shadyside.
The founder of Cold Spark Media, Mark Harris has worked as a consultant for multiple campaigns including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy. In the 2016 election, Harris was a general consultant for Toomey. Harris has had several roles with the Toomey campaign including transition director after the 2010 election. He started Cold Spark in 2011 to help political campaigns and issue advocacy with advertising and public affairs. He also previously ran for state representative, ousting an incumbent in the primary before losing the general election. Harris is a graduate of George Washington University and lives in Mt. Lebanon with his wife Krista and their two kids, Abigail and Davin.
James Hill started as special assistant to Mayor Bill Peduto in 2015 and since then he’s worked on a variety of issues for Peduto, including responding to and addressing concerns of residents and guests. Hill began his role right after graduating from Point Park University and was previously an intern for City Councilman Daniel Lavelle. He also previously worked as a tour guide for Just Ducky Tours and was a Next Generation Fellow for WQED-TV. Hill volunteers with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and as an archivist with Pittsburgh Public Schools. Hill lives in the Lower Hill District.
Nikki Lu is the daughter of an Irish-American mother who worked multiple odd jobs and a political refugee father from Vietnam who worked as a steelworker in a Rubbermaid factory. Lu said she witnessed and felt the effects of inequality during her childhood in rural Ohio, one of the reasons why she decided to work in government. She got her master's from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and worked on the campaign of Pittsburgh City Councilman Dan Gilman. She later served as campaign manager for Councilwoman Deb Gross before becoming Western Pennsylvania political director of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. “Nikki is the future of the labor movement and Allegheny County politics,” wrote one person who nominated her. Lu is also a graduate of Coro Pittsburgh's Women in Leadership program and was selected to be in the inaugural class of Emerge Pennsylvania, which trains Democratic women to run for office — something Lu plans to do at the state and national level. She lives in Friendship.
Dj Ryan grew up and still lives in the Mon Valley. “As much as I love the city, I chose to stay here because I think there's a lot of work that needs done here. This area has not seen the revitalization that has happened in many parts of the city, and I want to ensure that doesn't continue,” he said. Since October 2015, Ryan has served as executive director of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. In that role, he helps gets Democrats elected at all levels of government by fundraising, coordinating with other party officials and overseeing communications for the committee. Ryan was a national advance associate for Hillary For America between July 2015 and November 2016, preparing for visits from Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine and the campaign’s surrogates. He was deputy field director for Better Jobs, Better Future PAC between February and May 2015, and before that, he was legislative assistant to Pa. state Rep. Bill Kortz. A person who nominated Ryan highlighted his involvement with Steel City Stonewall Democrats and his role as LGBT Caucus chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, “where he advocates for LGBT-related causes.” Ryan, who said he hasn't ruled out a future run for office, also serves as president of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County. He graduated from Penn State University and resides in West Mifflin.
Erika Strassburger is an environmental advocate turned chief of staff for Councilman Dan Gilman. She’s been in her current role since 2014, where she manages the staff and interns in the office and worked on bills and policy regarding a range of topics from government transparency to non-discrimination, energy, water, housing and transportation. Previously, she was a clean water advocate with PennEnvironment and an advocate for Environment New Hampshire. Strassburger is a board member for Conservation Consultations and the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition. She’s also a runner mentor with PUMPed to Run and a polo fundraiser committee member with Family House. Strassburger is a graduate of Bucknell University and lives in Squirrel Hill with her husband Jordan.
Brent Weinert has been chief of staff for Councilwoman Deb Gross for a year now, working on policy, management and strategic planning as well as with community and business leaders. Previously he was community relations coordinator for Gross and worked with constituents. Weinert said he's drawn to public policy for the opportunity to help Pittsburgh communities and neighborhoods in new and innovative ways. Before working for Gross, he spent two years as an English teacher for middle school students in Romania as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Weiner is a graduate of Pitt and of the University of Saint Francis and lives in Brighton Heights.