Meet four Allegheny County women breaking glass ceilings as they run for mayor

They clinched the Democratic primary nods in Bellevue, Carnegie, Duquesne and Wilkinsburg — and could become first-term mayors.

Marita Garrett, Emily Marburger, Nickole Nesby and Stacie Riley

Marita Garrett, Emily Marburger, Nickole Nesby and Stacie Riley

courtesy of the candidates
MJ Slaby

The congratulatory texts started on election night before Marita Garrett got to Biddle’s Escape, where she planned to wait for the results.

She had a feeling she’d won the Democratic primary for Wilkinsburg mayor but wasn’t ready to declare victory just yet. When the votes were tallied and unofficial results posted, she claimed victory with more than 60 percent of the vote in a four-way race.

“It all hits you at one time,” she said, remembering she wanted to cry and laugh as months of campaigning paid off.

Garrett was one of 25 women in Allegheny County who ran for mayor during last week’s primary election, compared to 104 men. Of those female mayoral candidates, 18 won their races.

This map shows where women won primary contests for mayor. Democrats’ wins are in blue, and Republicans, red. In Ingram, women won both primaries and that’s indicated in purple. Click on the markers to see the candidate’s name, party and where they won. (An asterisk means she ran unopposed.)

We caught up with four of those women. They won by defeating one (or more) challengers in the Democratic primary. They weren’t incumbents. As of election day, they had no Republican challenger for November (though it’s still possible for write-in and/or Independent candidates to join the ballot). Inspired by their family, their city or borough, and even by the president, these four women decided to run for mayor and break into the “good old boys” club of local politics.

It’s a club, one researcher said, that is especially strong.

“Allegheny County is really bad on women’s representation,” said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University,

She pointed to two reasons. First, incumbency. That candidate, usually male, knows how to campaign and fundraise and has name recognition with voters. Second, recruiting. Through the informal network, men in power recruit more men to be in power, she said.

But networks for female candidates are growing. It’s anecdotal for now, but Sweet-Cushman said more women are coming to the center for training with the goal of running. Emerge Pennsylvania, which trains Democratic women to run, saw a surge in applications for training after the presidential election, said Abigail Gardner, vice chair of the organization. She Runs Southwestern Pennsylvania is a new organization focused on connecting female candidates to each other and to resources they need, said one of the founders, Sara Innamorato.

When it comes to running for and being a mayor in Allegheny County, it’s an executive role that, outside of Pittsburgh, isn’t always a full-time job, doesn’t pay much and largely focuses on the budget and police.

Women tend to shy away because it seems less collaborative than something like city council, Sweet-Cushman said. Women tend to be more interested in civil rights issues — which comes with leading the police — and that collaborative spirit is important with the political polarization that’s happening, she said.

But Sweet-Cushman said more women need to run.

“These women who are running for mayor are unicorns, in a sense,” she said.

New title, same goals

Marita Garrett

Marita Garrett

courtesy of marita garrett

For Garrett, 31, being mayor is the next, natural step.

“I don’t think I would have ran for mayor if I wasn’t on [Wilkinsburg borough council],” she said. During her four years on council, she said she learned the inner workings of the budget and public safety.

In the mayoral race between Garrett and three male challengers, she won with 64 percent of the vote, per unofficial county results. (Garrett said she encouraged Republican voters to write her in, likely giving her the GOP nomination, as well.) She also won her Ward 1council seat with 63 percent of the vote, a role she said she’ll vacate if sworn in as mayor.

2017 Democratic primary for Wilkinsburg mayor

In Wilkinsburg, a borough of nearly 16,000 people east of Pittsburgh, the council has the power, Garrett said. But it’s the mayor who can advocate for the community and get resources, she said, adding that she wants to change the perception of “Oh, Wilkinsburg. It’s dangerous.”

Although it wasn’t her first campaign, she said her mayoral run was more intense: Her yard signs were stolen, and she said she watched as men chose to not publicly support her or stayed out of the election. That treatment isn’t new, Garrett said.

So she leaned on her networks of other female elected officials and people she met through the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics and through the Young Elected Officials Network.

And when the Wilkinsburg Democratic Committee endorsed Michael A. Johnson, a school board member, for mayor, Garrrett went elsewhere looking for support. She went to local businesses like Biddle’s Escape and Nancy’s East End Diner, because Garrett said it’s the business owners’ and residents’ votes and voices that matter.

“The numbers mean that they support and trust me,” she said.

A presidential election as inspiration

Emily Marburger

Emily Marburger

Marburger for Mayor / facebook

To Emily Marburger, the outcome of the November presidential election could have been avoided. Disappointed in Hillary Clinton’s loss, the 29-year-old decided she wanted to get more involved. She reached out to the Allegheny County Democratic Committee to see what she could do.

Marburger is a resident of Bellevue, a borough north of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River with more than 8,000 people. By talking to county committee members, she learned more about the two men who would become her opponents in the race for Bellevue mayor — current mayor Paul Cusick and Tom Fodi, a city council member who previously ran as a Republican. Marburger decided then she would run for mayor, campaigning on being a “lifelong Democrat” and her work experience, including time in banking at Fifth Third Bank.

Marburger won with about 47 percent of the vote, per unofficial results. And while write-in candidates aren’t official yet, Fodi is expected to have enough Republican votes to be the nominee in November.

2017 Democratic primary for Bellevue mayor

That means more door knocking and campaigning for Marburger, as she stresses her plans to streamline the budget and address infrastructure needs. While Marburger campaigns as a lifelong Democrat with values that align to the party, Fodi paints himself as the candidate for all, who isn’t worried about party lines.

Throughout her campaign, Marburger said she met women in politics who were willing to help her and introduce her to other people, creating informal networks. In the fall, women are running for mayor in nearby boroughs, too, such Melanie J. Hughes-Holcomb in Ben Avon and Amy Sue Lillie in Emsworth, who both won their Democratic primaries. Marburger said she’s talked with them about combining resources and working together. She hopes the general won’t be the uphill battle that the primary was, adding that at times it felt like treading water.

But winning the primary was validation that she “should keep on the current trajectory.”

‘Part of the solution’

Nickole Nesby

Nickole Nesby

Courtesy of Nickole Nesby

Family made it the right time for Nickole Nesby, 46, to run for mayor of Duquesne.

“I considered it years ago. … I never did it because I have three kids. The job doesn’t pay well,” she said. With two of the three through college, Nesby said her situation changed.

She looked around at the city where she’s lived for most of her life and saw drugs and unemployment. Nesby didn’t want that for her dozens of nieces and nephews in Duquesne, a city of roughly 5,500 people along the Monongahela River, southeast of Pittsburgh.

She started attending meetings, but felt shut out. So in October, Nesby — who previously worked for U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle and on the campaigns of local politicians like Paul Costa and Jay Costa — decided to run for mayor. She wanted to use her experience to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Last week, she beat challenger and city council member John S. Gyure III with 58 percent of the vote, per unofficial results from the county. Nesby said she doesn’t expect to have a challenger in the fall.

Duquesne struggles with high unemployment due to a lack of training programs and many residents have criminal records because they spent time in jail in the ‘80s and ‘90s for drug-related offenses, Nesby said. As mayor, she wants to advocate for more job training to bring needed services into Duquesne.

After having the same mayor, Phillip Krivacek, for nearly two decades, voters told Nesby they were ready for change.

“I didn’t support Trump, but I certainly understand why they didn’t support Hillary,” Nesby said, adding that many voters saw Clinton as more of the same from her husband’s administration.

Throughout her campaign, Nesby said she saw terrible comments attacking her and her race on social media. She said she didn’t dwell on the posts, but saw them as a sign of ignorance, because they ignore what made her qualified.

“When you think about politics, you generally think of white men,” Nesby said.

Nesby said she’s noticed a shift in who wants to get involved. Young kids wanted to help with the campaign and have started to think that they could be mayor, too, one day. Their parents are getting involved and suggesting ideas like Sunday jazz in the park or day trips for the kids.

More women are saying, “I want to meet up,” Nesby said.

History in the making

Stacie Riley

Stacie Riley

Stacie Riley for Mayor of Carnegie / Facebook

In 2013, Stacie Riley bought a house in Carnegie and wanted to get more involved the community. So she asked Mayor Jack Kobistek to meet for coffee.

As they sat down at Carnegie Coffee Company, he asked “Is this political?”

“No, not at all,” Riley responded.

Or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. In the last four years, Riley, now 35, ran for the Carnegie Ward 2 council seat and won in 2015, gained Kobistek as a mentor and is on track to be the first female mayor of Carnegie.

When Kobistek decided to not run again, Riley said she was inspired to add her name to the ballot. He instead ran and won both the Democratic and Republican primary for district magistrate.

“There has been such a renaissance happening in Carnegie,” Riley said, adding that she wants to ensure a lack of parking won’t cap business growth in the 8,000-person borough southwest of Pittsburgh.

In the primary, she beat challenger Amanda M. Kolle-Conner with nearly 85 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results from Allegheny County. Riley also had a write-in campaign to earn the Republican nomination and said it’s encouraging to have support from both sides.

“You’re always going to have haters. … People that want to go low,” she said, adding that she wants to “put our energy into doing good.”

Carnegie and Emsworth were the only two Democratic mayoral primary races in the county with all female candidates, but Riley said that didn’t change the race.

“I would have run the same way [against a male candidate] … keeping it clean and being positive,” Riley said. She said she wanted people to look at the ballot and know her name, no matter who was next to it.

That meant being “out door knocking in every little nook and cranny,” she said. “I represent Ward 2, and when I was going to Ward 1, they don’t really know me.”

The possibility of being the first female mayor of Carnegie didn’t hit her until election night when supporters started telling her she was breaking the glass ceiling.

“I really just wanted to be the best person for the job,” Riley said.