Theresa Kail-Smith didn’t think she’d ever be a politician.
Before she ran for Pittsburgh City Council’s District 2 seat in 2009, the Pittsburgh native was active in many community organizations and groups as her three children grew up in the city.
“I tell people, I was 50 years old the first time I ran,” Kail-Smith told The Incline in February. “It wasn’t like this was my life’s calling or life’s choice and career goal. But since I’ve been [on Council], I’ve learned so much more, even though I was involved in the community for so many years.”
Kail-Smith has been a constituent-focused councilmember. It’s not surprising to see her most weeknights and weekends at various community meetings in her district. (The Incline last spotted her at a pre-snow storm meeting on the Pittsburgh Land Bank.) She’s introduced or co-introduced legislation that expanded access to public pools, studied childcare centers and created a committee on bike infrastructure. Kail-Smith has also for years been one of the most vocal members of Council about the challenges facing the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
She’s running unopposed this year for a third term, and it will likely be her last election.
“My plan is for it to be the last time,” she said. “I don’t want to seek another office. I have no interest in running for any additional offices other than this City Council seat. I’m honored to serve in the seat, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to serve the residents of the city of Pittsburgh.”
For our nine-part series on City Council, The Incline sat down in Kail-Smith’s office to talk about her district, the challenges it’s facing and how you can get more engaged in the community there. The below Q&A is part of that conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Theresa Kail-Smith 101
First elected to council: 2009, replacing Dan Deasy, who was elected to be a state representative.
Next city council election: 2017. She’s running unopposed in the May Democratic primary. There are no declared independent or Republicans candidates.
District 2 includes: Banksville, Beechview, Chartiers City, Crafton Heights, Duquesne Heights, East Carnegie, Elliott, Esplen, Fairywood, Mount Washington, Oakwood, Ridgemont, South Shore, Sheraden, West End, Westwood and Windgap. See the map.
Contact: Call the District 2 office at (412) 255-8963, or email a member of the staff.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about District 2?
A: “That we’re disconnected from the City of Pittsburgh. That was an easy one,” Kail-Smith said, adding that the district is minutes from other areas like Downtown and the North Side and to the airport. She also highlighted the district’s “quick access” to transportation, including inclines, buses and even boats.
Q: What would you say is the biggest issue facing District 2 right now?
A: Kail-Smith pointed to jobs for the community — “I think that’s an issue everywhere” — as well as vacant and affordable homes that people may be unaware of.
“In some ways, we have a bit of an identity crisis — getting people to understand all we offer and all that we encompass,” she said. “I think people may be familiar with Station Square, they may be familiar with Mount Washington, but not too much in between and that we have so many great things. I don’t think they associate those things with being in District 2.”
Kail-Smith said District 2 is home to more than 2,000 businesses and great parks. She said providing programming for youth is a challenge, but one that’s improving.
Getting the word out about the programs can be difficult, as her office’s budget for operations, events and mailings to the 17 neighborhoods is $8,000. “That’s a very big challenge,” she said.
Q. How can people learn more about your district and get to know what it has to offer?
A: Kail-Smith started a Community Development Corporation that covers 14 neighborhoods in the district (in the past, CDCs only covered a small area) and a cultural committee, which she said “is doing amazing work bringing young people and artists into our community.”
The group hosts events like poetry slams, forums and a monthly happy hour in a neighborhood bar.
“They’re getting the word out about what our neighborhoods have to offer and how it is a great place for young people, it is a great place for artists, but it’s also a great place for families, couples,” she said. “It’s just a great place to live. There’s something for everybody in District 2.”
Q: What have been your best and your worst moments in office?
A: “The best moment was actually being elected,” she said. (Also an easy one.)
The worst moment, she said, was the murder of three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009. “Nothing was more traumatic than the loss of the officers on April 4,” she said. “One of the officers was actually raised in our district. His mother still lives there. That was one of the biggest challenges.”
“There are moments of both good and bad,” she added. “I’m a sensitive person, so I think I take things too much to heart and I think that’s a lesson I learned from my colleagues, you know how to toughen up a little bit.”
Q: A lot of women are looking at themselves and saying, ‘I never thought I could run for office, but maybe I should.’ Was that the sort of moment you had when you decided to run?
A: “It was actually very bizarre when I first ran,” Kail-Smith said, beginning a long-but-worth-it (we promise) story.
“A lot of people think, they assume that I’m this Democratic party darling or something, and the fact of the matter is, I never really cared about politics at all. I cared about the community. And when I was asked to run, I had turned it down previously, two times previously. I didn’t want to run for office, for anything. But somebody had said to me, ‘Put your name in the race, just to get these other people out. … Just put your name in so they know you care about the community, and you’re watching, and they better find somebody who cares about the community.’
“After a lot of convincing — I’ll be honest with you, it was a lot of convincing — I put my name in the race. And somebody in the party actually came to me and told me that women don’t belong in politics. So that just drove me even harder.
“At that point I thought, ‘I have been involved in this community for 25 years. Volunteering and giving my blood, sweat and tears and doing everything for everybody. But now it comes time to make it and put me in this position of making decisions in political office and now all of the sudden it’s not OK for me?’ So that just drove me.
“I was raised with six women. I tell people all the time, ‘I was raised with six women who were the original bra burners.’ So it just really enraged me.
“So I ran for office, and about halfway through, they told me, ‘You can take your name off halfway through.’ … I think they realized that I just wanted someone who cared about the community. I don’t really care about politics.
“And they had come to me and said, ‘We don’t want you to be embarrassed, you know. We don’t want you to run and be embarrassed, because you don’t have the votes.’ So I went to the committee people, and I said, ‘For once in your life, if you do anything for this community, stand by me just to send a message that we put our community first.’
“And I got all but six votes out of three wards. And that’s how I won. It wasn’t that I was some favorite. These were some ward chairmen talking to me like this.
“About halfway through, I tried to get out, and they said, ‘You can’t take your name out now. You can’t take your name out. People put their jobs on the line. You can’t take your name out.’ And I said, ‘Why would you do something as stupid as that?’ I didn’t understand politics.
“I ran. I won. As soon as I won, I went home and cried.”
Q: What’s your favorite thing about Pittsburgh?
A: Kail-Smith was born and raised in Pittsburgh. Her family originally lived in the Hill District, until the city tore down their Wylie Avenue home to make way for the Civic Arena. Her mother’s lived on Fifth Avenue in Oakland for about 60 years now.
“I love everything,” she said of Pittsburgh. “What I love about the city is the people who are always willing to fight for the city. I love the passion that people have for the city. I love all the parks. I love our views.”
Kail-Smith said she also loves that more people are becoming aware of Pittsburgh and District 2. “I love seeing the young people moving into our area, that we hadn’t seen for a long time,” she said. “And when I moved to my area, I didn’t need to live in the city. I chose to live in Westwood. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, and I chose to live there.”
Q: What can Pittsburgh do to encourage people to live within the city boundaries?
A: Kail-Smith highlighted two things: job opportunities in the city and painting a realistic picture of Pittsburgh’s schools.
“Whether it’s perceived or reality, the fact is that people have an opinion, a view that there’s a lot of negative and not a lot of positive happening,” she said. While she knows there are challenges like a racial achievement gap and “incidents that occur in the schools that make people feel not safe,” there are also charter, private and religious schools, she said.
“While I would say fight and make the schools the best that you can make them, other people might choose other options,” she said.
But Kail-Smith — the mother of three millennials — noted that not every young person moving to the city has kids, whether because of student debt (a “huge issue”) or another reason.
“They have dogs, they have other things,” she said, “and we have to accommodate those needs.”