This week, Erika Strassburger sat in on the first meetings of her City Council career, a career that began little more than a month ago with her winning a hotly contested — and by municipal standards very costly — special election in the city’s 8th Council District.
The special election was touched off by the resignation of former District 8 Councilmember Dan Gilman, who stepped down last year to take a job as Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff. Strassburger had both Gilman’s and the mayor’s support, having worked as Gilman’s chief of staff during his time on council and having worked with the mayor then as well.
Peduto, himself a District 8 resident, cited Strassburger’s experience and work ethic as reasons for his endorsement.
Now, Strassburger — not “Strausburger,” as you may have heard it put by some of her new colleagues this week — is representing one of the busiest council districts in the city. She’s also the first female to hold the post since District 8 was created decades ago.
In speaking with The Incline, Strassburger said she’s optimistic and applying lessons learned from years spent working in City Hall. She also expressed ambivalence about Amazon HQ2, shared her thoughts on the pending removal of Oakland’s Stephen Foster statue, conveyed what she hopes to achieve in her first term in office and what she thinks are the biggest misconceptions about the district she now represents.
Here’s what she told us — answers are lightly edited for clarity and length.
Erika Strassburger 101
First elected to council: 2018, replacing Dan Gilman who resigned to become Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff
Next city council election: 2021
District 8 includes: Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill. See the map.
Contact: Call the District 8 office at (412) 255-2133, or use this feedback form.
Q: What’s the biggest issue in District 8?
A: “Managing the rapid growth occurring in District 8, and that’s everything from how we move from place to place (transit and transportation and associated issues like parking) to housing and affordability, and so those quality of life, affordability and equity concerns are top of mind for me. […] It’s the quality of life issues that come along with growth.
“Some people are concerned about major new developments, and some people are concerned about affordability and parking and traffic and congestion. It comes across in different ways, but it all boils down to the challenges that come with managing growth and that it’s not necessarily even across the whole city — certain parts are growing very quickly and certain part aren’t.”
Q: Amazon HQ2 could explode that existing growth. What are your thoughts?
A: “First of all the process is — it’s almost like forcing cities to grovel. I’m not a huge fan of the process. But at least it gives us the opportunity to sort of showcase who we are and get ready for something like that in the future. And that’s good, because if the money and people come in — I think there’s just a lot of need for job creation and a lot of need for investment in infrastructure like lead service lines and water infrastructure in general. If we can improve public transit and expand it — I even hear about ‘Could Light Rail to the airport be a possibility if we had that huge influx of funding?’ ‘Could Light Rail to the North Hills be a possibility?’ I don’t know, maybe, I mean that’s a lot of money coming in.
“On the other hand, it’s a double-edged sword. If we think the growing pains in District 7 and 8 and 5 and 6 (Downtown) are tough to deal with now, that’s gonna be a whole lot of other people coming in, and I understand not just the blind fear of change, but it’s the trepidation over a loss of identity. No one wants Pittsburgh to turn into Anywhere, USA, or Amazon, USA, and I’m not saying Amazon would necessarily do that. We’re a proud strong city and have gone through a lot of changes, and no matter what there’s gonna be a changing face of Pittsburgh. People are choosing to live here now. So, if [Amazon] chooses us, we have to buckle down and be ready to accommodate that growth in really wise ways and to plan for the future in a way that includes the people already feeling left behind.”
Strassburger said she has not seen a copy of the city’s bid but doesn’t expect the physical HQ2 facility to be located in her district.
“My sense is that the need is for such a large footprint that there’s just not room in District 8. That’s the sense I have.”
Q: What’s at the top of your agenda as the newest member of City Council?
A: “Top of mind right now is the PWSA, and that encapsulates everything from governance and customer service to infrastructure, both lead and otherwise, and managing stormwater runoff.
“I see things slowly improving, and we’re on the right path and have to keep going and getting the governance in place and continue to improve on customer service because that’s the biggest thing my constituents care about.”
She said she’s hopeful PUC oversight of the PWSA will result in improved consumer advocacy for PWSA customers.
“We also have to be transparent about lead and lead lines and find ways to fund major infrastructure improvements. That’s a lot and will be an ongoing project and interest of mine over the next 3-and-a-half years. That will carry me through a lot of the first term.
“Also, when it comes to managing growth, that gets to one of my campaign platform planks of smart streets and safe streets and designing streets so that it encourages walkability and bike-ability. Those moving to the district increasingly say they want that and it also cuts down on the need for driving. And even though we don’t necessarily think of District 8 as having a strong need for affordable housing and development, that’s something I heard loud and clear from my constituents and it’s something they think about and care about.”
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about District 8?
A: “I won’t dispute anyone who says District 8 is a higher socioeconomic district, but that also doesn’t mean there aren’t real needs and real concerns and problems or that people’s problems aren’t real. I will fight tooth and nail for anyone regardless of whether the issue is an ongoing water main break in front of their house that’s flooding their basement or the inability to buy a house because of affordability issues.
“There are various issues and varying degrees of challenges that every district faces. The misconception might be that District 8 is free of problems.
“What I heard from the campaign is that residents of District 8 care about their neighbors outside of their own neighborhoods or outside of their own district, too. They care about affordability citywide.”
Q: What are your goals for your term?
A: “Every year I want to make some progress on clean water and clean air or environmental initiatives. I want to improve the lives of residents through direct funding of infrastructure and want to make progress on social and human rights issues.
“In a few months I’ll know a little more about what those will look like.
“I also want to increase the accessibility of streets for all users and want to make progress on all of those things little by little every year.”
Q: What do you think about the pending removal of the Stephen Foster statue in your district?
A: “I agree with the removal. I think there are two different conversations about the man and about the statue and the depiction of two people in the statue. It’s been recognized over and over again that the depiction is incredibly racist. If it’s relocated or moved, I hope where it ends up is a place where it can be placed in the context needed to have ongoing conversations about race in this country, which is difficult to do, but I think it can be a tool for good.
“But where it is now is not an appropriate setting. And it was at this point in 2018 when it was finally recognized and people were willing to take action.”
Q: How does your experience as a City Hall staffer translate?
A: “It makes everything a whole lot easier and the learning curve less steep. There’s still a learning curve absolutely, but I don’t think those who work outside of City Hall appreciate how much there is to learn once you first get here; from people to processes and who can help you on small and large issues to the personalities, there’s just a lot you learn over time and you learn from experience.
“The experience I’ve had over the last four years is an invaluable tool in knowing how to serve my constituents and how to get things done and how the city works and how to be even more effective more quickly.”
Q: Who have you chosen as your chief of staff?
A: Moira Egler, a Master of Urban Planning Candidate at University of Michigan, former real estate intern with the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh and former commercial district coordinator with the Lawrenceville Corporation.
“I can say I interviewed dozens of people around Easter weekend, and Moira’s experience with legislative and community processes and with development and the issues that are important to me and local government really gave me the confidence that she too would hit the ground running as a former District 8 resident herself.
“She is returning after she graduates. She’ll be starting the second week of May. […] I knew her when she served as a staffer for Patrick Dowd in District 7 and then for Councilwoman Deb Gross.”
Q: Is it at all strange to now be on the other side of the desk?
A: “It’s just the title, the formality, that’s still what I’m getting used to now. Having my own office.
“You feel the same. I’m still doing the work, a lot of the same work I have been doing. But people start treating you differently — that’s the strange part.”