Call him Corey.
“My favorite part is that nobody calls me Councilman,” said Corey O’Connor, who represents Pittsburgh’s District 5. “I love that. I don’t like titles or anything like that. I’m Corey. I always will be Corey. Just come and approach me.”
Or call him. O’Connor was used to answering the phone when he worked for U.S. Rep Mike Doyle, a Democrat who represents much of Pittsburgh and some surrounding areas. When O’Connor became a city council member, he kept up the habit of having conversations with constituents.
One time, O’Conner said he answered the phone and said “Councilman O’Connor.”
The caller “started just tearing into me. … They were cussing and screaming, and he doesn’t do this, and he should do this, and he doesn’t do that.”
“Then I responded, ‘Well I’m working on it. We just got money to pave this street, and it should be done in June,'” O’Connor said. “The caller realized it was me.”
“Oh, uh, forget all that. You’re doing a good job.”
The person just hung up, O’Connor said with a laugh. Growing up around politics — his dad is former Mayor Bob O’Connor — the council member said he was raised to help others. Plus, it’s his personality to want to talk to people and be on the front line with his staffers.
O’Connor did pick up the phone when The Incline called ahead of a March interview in his City-County building office. For the fifth part of our City Council series, The Incline talked with O’Connor about his district, bringing Pittsburghers together and O’Connor’s future plans. This Q&A is part of that conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Corey O’Connor 101
First elected to council: O’Connor was elected to City Council in 2011 and reelected in 2015. He previously worked in Doyle’s Pittsburgh district office.
Next city council election: 2019
District 5 includes: Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hazelwood, Hays, Lincoln Place, New Homestead, Regent Square, Squirrel Hill, Swisshelm Park See the map.
Contact: Call the District 5 office at 412-255-8965, or use this feedback form.
Q: What are the big issues in District 5?
A: “We’re a very diverse district, so any issue that we’re talking about citywide is going to effect us,” O’Connor said.
Look at Hazelwood alone.
Workforce development is happening in Hazelwood, he said, adding it’s important to make sure residents in the neighborhood work on the Almono site, and that there isn’t a barrier between the site and the neighborhood. O’Connor said community groups have helped with workforce development, which is a good path. The focus is getting people ready for a new type of work, he said, adding that a steel mill isn’t going to open up.
“Even if one did, I tell people, in 1975 there would have been 1,000 jobs. Today, you’re down to 200 jobs because it’s all robotics,” O’Connor said.
There’s an opportunity to be a city — and countrywide — leader in housing in Hazelwood, he said. Instead of waiting for a developer, O’Connor said, the city could use the properties it owns for affordable housing to make sure “residents that live in Hazelwood now will continue to live in Hazelwood 15 years from now.”
He said the city could rehab the single family homes it owns, sell them at an affordable price to get them back on the tax rolls, or work with community groups to do a rent-to-own program. Other neighborhoods were gentrified with higher prices and no consideration for the neighborhood, but Hazelwood could put the neighborhood first.
O’Connor also lauded Squirrel Hill as being another positive example, as affordable housing is being opened across the street from market rate apartments.
Blending communities means it won’t be one million-dollar house after another, O’Connor said.
“If you have a community where everybody can live together, they’re all supporting one another,” he said. “Incomes and things like that are thrown out the door. ‘That’s my neighbor Tom. That’s my neighbor Mary.’ It doesn’t matter. And I think that’s what Pittsburgh is all about. It’s a place where anybody can live next to anyone, and we’re going to welcome you here.”
A mix of housing throws out barriers, and as a leader, O’Connor said, it’s his job to make sure communities come together.
“It’s great for the growth of the community and for individuals as well,” he said.
Q: What are the biggest issues in the city?
A: Looking at Pittsburgh as a whole, housing, workforce development and transportation need to be addressed — just like in his district, he said.
With new tech jobs, the next generation of Pittsburghers needs to be able to get work in these fields, O’Connor said, adding that the city needs to invest in science, technology, engineering and math education for residents and students as young as kindergarteners.
“The sooner we get kids involved in that type of technology, the better off we’re going to be years down the road,” he said.
Meanwhile, connecting neighborhoods is really important, so whether it’s trails or bike lanes or public transit — or something else — transportation needs to be a priority, O’Connor said.
“It’s up to us to develop a smarter grid so that from the hours of 3 to 5 p.m.” people can get in and out of where they are going, he said.
Q: What is your favorite part of living in your district and Pittsburgh?
A: Born and raised in Pittsburgh, O’Connor said what he loves most is “you can walk up and down the street,” and people feel comfortable talking to anyone and having a dialogue.
“That’s what’s so great about Pittsburgh. … We’re an Eastern city, but it’s a Midwest feel,” he said. “…The best part of Pittsburgh is the people. Hey, we got great sports teams, we got this, we got that, but when you really get down to what makes up a great city, it’s the people.”
District 5 is a great district to “show off Pittsburgh,” he said.
“If somebody was looking to say, ‘What is Pittsburgh as a whole?’ I’d say, ‘OK, let’s drive around the district, and you can see a little bit of Pittsburgh in every part of the neighborhoods,” O’Connor said.
Q: What stands out about Pittsburghers?
A: Pittsburghers pull together for causes and support each other, he said, sharing a story about rebuilding the library in Hazelwood.
O’Connor said he approached a man working on the library to say thank you. The man came down his ladder to say he lives a few blocks away and was working on the library because his niece and nephew were in kindergarten were going to use the library.
When he left, O’Connor said it really hit him that “there are so many people that just want to do good for others” and who want to be a part of turning neighborhoods around so younger generations can say their uncle worked on this building. That family connection is part of Pittsburgh, he said.
“That’s how we continue to build momentum. … When new people come here, it’s good to talk about the past. It’s what brought us to this point,” O’Connor said.
Q: What have you learned in office?
A: When he first started, O’Connor said his gut reaction was to act as quickly as possible.
“Let’s get this done. Let’s do it. Boom. Boom. Boom. Without thinking of what the ripple effect might be three months from now,” he said.
Now, O’Connor pauses more.
“Every time I have an idea, I call four or five people, and when I don’t, I always make a mistake,” he said.
O’Connor said he relies on feedback because he always learns things, and it helps him to see issues in a different way.
“I always see myself in the middle trying to pass legislation for one group, but understanding that it’s going to impact others so: how do you get a good bill that’s going to satisfy everyone?” O’Connor said. “You can’t always do that, but if that’s what your intention is, I think it reflects in how that bill is presented.”
Q: What’s next for you?
A: It’s a question O’Connor admitted he gets often.
“I’ve see a lot of elections from my dad’s races to mine to working for a congressman to know that you never know what’s coming next. If you go out there and meet as many people as you can and do your job to the best of your ability some opportunity will open up,” he said.
O’Connor said setting a timeframe doesn’t work because politics can change in a heartbeat. Elected officials should always be looking at opportunities where they think they can make a difference for more people, not just a higher title, he said.
He’s seen elections from a family perspective, too. It’s more of a commitment than, “Oh, we’re going to do two commercials, and we’re going to win an election.” Running for office is a decision to be made with family.
He’s not ruling anything out.
“I love this job. It’s fun. It’s great. Will something open up in the future that I’d be interested in? I mean I’d be lying to tell you, ‘No,’ so I think there’s always something that could open up, but I’m not set on what that could be,” O’Connor said.