Former mayor Sophie Masloff remembered as 'the embodiment of our city'

Sophie Friedman Masloff / Dec. 23,1917 - Aug. 17 2014

On the surface, absolutely nothing about Sophie Friedman Masloff said “mayor of a major American city.”

She lacked the politician’s varnished smoothness.

Her rhetoric was as organized as freshly shattered glass.

Area residents remember former Mayor Sophie Masloff

Area residents remember former Mayor Sophie Masloff. (Video by Nate Guidry; 8/18/2014)

A newspaper columnist aptly described her voice as “three cats in a microwave on full power.”

“I’m not a glamour gal,” Mrs. Masloff once said.

“I don’t have the attributes of a typical politician. I really can’t account for my success,” she said.

But on May 6, 1988, in one of the more improbable stories in Pittsburgh’s political lore, Mrs. Masloff, then president of city council, found herself in a conference room next to the sanctum of Mayor Richard Caliguiri.

Mr. Caliguiri had died earlier that day.

Mrs. Masloff had been in the mayor’s office countless times. Now, having inherited it, she was reluctant to go in.

“I’m frantic beyond recall,” she said at the time.

After a few days at a respectful distance, Mrs. Masloff moved in. She not only went on to complete Mr. Caliguiri’s mayoral term, she confounded political experts the next year by winning her own four-year term in one of the hardest-fought mayoral elections ever in Pittsburgh.

Mrs. Masloff made history as the first woman and first Jew to be mayor, attaining the office at age 70. Her unpretentious, grandmotherly manner made her an authentic Pittsburgh celebrity, earning her appearances on national television, in national newspapers and, after she left office, in commercials.

Her 5½ years as mayor capped a career in public service that spanned six decades and saw her ascend from a job stuffing envelopes at Democratic headquarters to the pinnacle of Pittsburgh power.

Mrs. Masloff, 96, the city’s 56th mayor, died at 8:55 a.m. Sunday at the Center for Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon. She lived in Squirrel Hill.

“Sophie Masloff was the embodiment of our city,” said Mayor Bill Peduto, who in January became the 60th person to hold the office. “She was kind, she was compassionate, she loved our city, but she was tough.”

He ordered all city-owned properties to fly flags at half-staff.

Her funeral will be Tuesday morning at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.

Rabbi Ronald Symons said Temple Sinai is honored to help the city remember Mrs. Masloff’s legacy. “We’re trying to make Pittsburgh the kinder place she envisioned,” he said.

After leaving office, Mrs. Masloff remained active in city affairs. In 2010, as he eyed a long-term lease of parking garages and meters to stabilize the pension fund, then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appointed her to his Parking Advisory Committee. In 2011, city council twice honored her in proclamations, one for community activism in Squirrel Hill and another for her work with the Zionist Organization of America.

From 2001 until last year, she served on the Stadium Authority. In recent years, she sometimes attended meetings in a wheelchair that an assistant maneuvered into place behind the board table. When she spoke, the room fell into a respectful silence.

“Sophie Masloff was the quintessential daughter of Pittsburgh: an outspoken, direct and honest character who embraced her work with a sense of service and a spark of joy,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a statement. “This daughter of immigrants helped to shape the city’s culture and persona, with a voice and flair that were unmistakably Sophie and essentially Pittsburgh.’’

Among other distinctive traits, Mrs. Masloff was known for speaking her mind.

During her time as mayor, she allowed her name to be put on street sweepers. Other mayors put their names on things, too. When Mr. Peduto took office in January and promptly banned the practice, an unimpressed Mrs. Masloff called his executive order a “waste of time and money.”

Two weeks ago, when Mr. Peduto was in the hospital visiting a loved one, he received a message from Mrs. Masloff, who was being treated in the same facility. The message?

“You’re doing a good job, but you still have to prove yourself.”

“That’s a message I’ll take with me,” Mr. Peduto said.


An unlikely force

Mrs. Masloff, a Democrat, made a warm, lasting friendship with Republican Party stalwart Elsie Hillman. The two recently shared a meal together at Ritter’s Diner in Bloomfield. Several years ago, when friends arranged for Mrs. Hillman and her husband, Henry, to re-enact their wedding vows on the couple’s 60th anniversary, a green-clad Mrs. Masloff served as maid of honor.

Jim Turner, a Caliguiri administration official who became a top adviser to Mrs. Masloff, called her “the surprise of the century.”

“I don’t believe anybody expected the quality that came from her,” he said.

As mayor, Mrs. Masloff tacked the city forward in a turbulent time of economic hardship and increasing violence stemming from the crack cocaine epidemic that plagued virtually all U.S. cities.

“She led at a time when Pittsburgh really was just beginning to get off its knees,” said Mr. Peduto, who once worked in Mrs. Masloff’s finance department.

“She was very cognizant that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be the same city she grew up in,” he said. “She was the fabric that held the city together during some of our darkest hours.”

Despite the financial difficulties, Mrs. Masloff was able to cut the city’s reviled wage tax twice. Her administration launched the “blue bag” residential trash recycling program still in effect today, and it made the city’s maze of winding streets a bit more navigable with new, high-visibility signs.

If one issue symbolized Mrs. Masloff’s approach to the job, and her most nagging frustration, it was the 28-day public transit strike in 1992. As it wore on, Mrs. Masloff, who never lost the pulse of her constituents, heard from those most disrupted by the lack of bus service — the poor and the elderly.

“The thing was getting out of hand. I felt bad. People couldn’t get to work; they couldn’t get to the doctor,” she recalled.

As mayor, she had no direct role in the labor dispute, which was the province of Allegheny County government. She wanted to intervene but said county Commissioner Tom Foerster, who oversaw the Port Authority, tried to warn her off.

It was one of numerous times that Mrs. Masloff would feel herself patronized in a male-dominated power structure.

“[Foerster] said, ‘I don’t want you meddling in this,’ ” Mrs. Masloff recalled. “I said, ‘You wouldn’t say that to a man.’ ”

Mrs. Masloff decided to go to court to stop the strike. The effort, born of her altruism, now was handed over to her advisers, who did their legal spadework so well that they knew the outcome in advance. A judge ordered an end to the walkout.

Critics sometimes derided Mrs. Masloff as a figurehead and poked fun at her penchant for malaprops, including her serial mangling of the names of musicians and other celebrities.

Bruce Springsteen became “Bruce Bedspring,” the Grateful Dead became “the Dreadful Dead,” and Steelers quarterback Bubby Brister became “Buddy Brewster.”

It turned out that Mrs. Masloff was a step ahead of her critics. The bloopers were a put-on that humanized her with voters. Her strong advisers were a secret of her success.

“Those malaprops were deliberate,” she said in a 2002 interview. “We’d sit through a boring meeting, and people would be falling asleep and I’d say ‘When is Bruce Bedspring coming?’ I knew it was ‘Springsteen.’ I just wanted to liven things up.

“I found the secret to good government is to have knowledgeable, smart, dedicated people around you. I knew up front I was not able to handle it myself.”

“One thing that bugged me was the myth that she was a product of advisers,” Mr. Turner said. “What happens on every important issue is you’re getting advice on both sides of the issue from your top people. At the end of the day, you have to make a decision.”


Wild pitch

Possibly the darkest moment of Mrs. Masloff’s tenure was her ill-advised proposal, at a time when the city was laying off employees in a budget crisis, for a new baseball stadium.

Mrs. Masloff said the idea was hers and stemmed from a visit to Baltimore. where the new Camden Yards stadium had just opened.

She announced it in September 1991, displaying a drawing of “Clemente Field,” a $130 million, open-ended ballpark with a grass field on the Allegheny riverfront.

“All hell broke loose,” Mrs. Masloff recalled.

Over the next 11 days, she was barraged with so much criticism that she announced she was dropping the plan.

The misstep probably set back plans for a new baseball stadium for years, making it a radioactive political issue, but when PNC Park opened in 2001, on the exact spot where Mrs. Masloff had proposed Clemente Field, she happily claimed credit for being ahead of her time.

Mrs. Masloff also expressed pride with three projects that moved ahead during her administration — Crawford Square, a public-private housing development that revitalized the lower Hill District, where Mrs. Masloff grew up; and redevelopment of two polluted industrial sites: Washington’s Landing, formerly Herrs Island, in the Allegheny River, and the Pittsburgh Technology Center on a former steel mill site off Second Avenue, near Downtown.

“Coming out of the Great Depression, Sophie saw numerous changes in Pittsburgh. She was a part of many of these changes and was the leader that this community needed,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Mrs. Masloff’s second term was beset by economic woes and by seemingly intractable crime and gang troubles. Faced with declining poll numbers, she decided not to seek re-election in 1993.

Even as she prepared to leave office, she was instrumental in securing passage of legislation creating the Allegheny Regional Asset District and increasing the local sales tax to fund parks, libraries, stadiums and cultural attractions.

The tax ultimately helped finance the baseball stadium that had plunged Mrs. Masloff into political hot water years earlier and a new football stadium and Downtown convention center.

After stepping down, Mrs. Masloff remained active in politics and civic life and appeared in television and radio commercials, hawking appliances and milk.

Mayor Tom Murphy’s razor-thin re-election victory in 2001 might have been attributable in part to Mrs. Masloff’s radio commercial on his behalf, after years of estrangement between the two chief executives.

“I can tell you from firsthand knowledge, Tom Murphy is hard to get along with, but, as President Truman said, ‘If you want a friend, get a dog’ ... Tom has done terrific things for this city,” Mrs. Masloff said in the spot.

A mild heart attack in August 1999 slowed Mrs. Masloff for a while, but she bounced back after having surgery to clear six blocked arteries.

As a member of the Stadium Authority board, Mrs. Masloff was responsible for helping to guide redevelopment of the prime property that Three Rivers Stadium once occupied.

“She was a very interesting lady on the Stadium Authority board,” said state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, who served with her for a time. “She was basically very committed to seeing the growth of the North Shore” and had “very little patience with people’s politics and games.”

When he joined the board, he said Mrs. Masloff reminded him that they were there for “the citizens’ business.”

Starting from scratch

Mrs. Masloff was born in 1917 and grew up on Roberts Street in the lower Hill District, the daughter of poor Romanian-Jewish immigrants, Louis and Jennie Friedman.

In a 1989 interview, Mrs. Masloff recalled that her mother often sent her to Downtown to pay utility bills or taxes. She particularly remembered her trips to the City-County Building on Grant Street.

“I would walk all over the building and look in the offices and say, ‘Wouldn’t this be a nice place to work?’ ” she recalled.

She graduated from Fifth Avenue High School in 1934 and worked briefly as a bookkeeper and stenographer at American Butter and Egg Co. in the Strip District.

During high school, Mrs. Masloff had frequently spent time at Democratic headquarters, making the acquaintance of party leaders such as Commissioner John J. Kane and Mayor David L. Lawrence. Those meetings led to her first government job, with the county, in 1936.

She worked in a county tax office for five years, during which she met and secretly married Jack Masloff, another county employee.

The two eloped to Wheeling, W.Va., on Feb. 9, 1939, keeping the marriage quiet to skirt a rule that spouses could not both work for the county.

After serving in the South Pacific with the Navy during World War II, Jack Masloff returned and became a security guard. He retired in 1979 and died after a long illness in 1991.

Mrs. Masloff’s county duties took her to the parks department and Mr. Kane’s office, and in 1951 she took a position as a clerk in the jury assignment room of Common Pleas Court.

She was active politically, serving as the first secretary of the Democratic Women’s Guild of Allegheny County.

In 1976, Democratic committee members rewarded her years of service to the party by endorsing Mrs. Masloff for a city council seat Amy Ballinger vacated.

Mrs. Masloff won a special election, and was re-elected in 1977, 1981 and 1985.

Surrounded by council members who were renowned for their bickering and grandstanding, Mrs. Masloff distinguished herself with her silence.

She generally voted the administration line, rarely spoke and offered few legislative initiatives.

Her outspoken colleague, Michelle Madoff, once derided her as a “lump of clay,” but Ms. Madoff would later change her mind and support Mrs. Masloff’s candidacy for mayor.

Mrs. Masloff was chairwoman of the subcommittee that oversaw construction of the city’s cable TV system in the late 1970s and did not discourage those who gave her the moniker “Mother of Cable TV.”

Even as she gathered experience and led the Democratic ticket in her re-election campaigns, Mrs. Masloff rarely was mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office. She campaigned for the council presidency in January 1986, losing to Ben Woods.


Climb to power

The series of events that would propel her to the mayoralty began in May 1987, when three incumbent councilmen who were loyal to Mr. Woods were defeated in the Democratic primary. Five months later, Mr. Caliguiri disclosed that he was suffering from amyloidosis, an incurable, deadly disease.

The city charter provides that the council president fill any midterm vacancy in the mayor’s office.

Mr. Woods, meanwhile, was beset by reports of an FBI investigation that ultimately led to his conviction for racketeering and extortion and his resignation from council.

When it became clear that Mr. Woods would be unable to muster the votes to retain the presidency, Mr. Caliguiri turned to Mrs. Masloff, encouraging her to run again.

Her election to the post in January 1988 made her the city’s first female council president.

Five months later, in the early-morning hours of May 6, Mrs. Masloff was awakened at her apartment on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill with the news of Mr. Caliguiri’s death.

She was sworn in that morning, vowing to continue Mr. Caliguiri’s programs and asking that his top advisers stay on.

“My experience was that she was as honest and as straightforward as they come,” said Mr. Turner, a holdover who became a trusted aide. “What concerned everyone [initially] was her ability to manage a city.”

Mr. Turner said Mrs. Masloff quickly dispelled notions that her decision-making would be shaped solely by her political instincts. She told him not to advance a proposal to cut the wage tax unless the reduction could be sustained after the 1989 election.

When a key political supporter who worked in the Water Department was caught bypassing the meter at his residence, Mrs. Masloff didn’t hesitate to fire him.

“She said, ‘I pay my water bills. He should have, too,’ ” Mr. Turner recalled.

If staff members expected a slower pace with a septuagenarian mayor, they quickly learned otherwise.

Her work days often began at 7:30 a.m. and continued late into the evenings with appearances at civic events.

Two police detectives who accompanied the mayor amassed more than $20,000 in overtime pay in one eight-month period.

Aides, some nearly 40 years younger than Mrs. Masloff, complained good-naturedly of being worn to a frazzle.


After a series of postponements, Mrs. Masloff announced her candidacy for a full term as mayor on Jan. 19, 1989, saying “grandparents don’t have ambitions for themselves; they have aspirations for those who will follow them.”

Her news conference featured one of the gaffes that made Mrs. Masloff’s advisers cringe. Questioned by a TV reporter, she misstated her age and date of birth. Later, she issued a clarification.

Mrs. Masloff’s first wage tax cut and a fragmented, five-candidate Democratic field enabled her to win nomination for a full term in May 1989 with 28 percent of the vote. The runner-up, with 23 percent, was Mr. Murphy. She was elected without Republican opposition that November.

Mrs. Masloff had seen her triumph coming long before most.

In January 1988, still in her council office, she reflected on the fact that no one seemed to regard her as a serious political force. The conventional wisdom was that if Mr. Caliguiri left office and she did become mayor, she would finish his term and step aside.

When a reporter asked her if that was her plan, Mrs. Masloff acknowledged, with a twinkle in her eye and spreading smile, that she had bigger ideas.

“I just might surprise them all,” she said.

Mrs. Masloff is survived by her daughter, Linda Sue Busia of Carnegie; a granddaughter, Jennifer Busia; a grandson Michael Busia; a great-granddaughter, Scarlett Busia; and a niece, Elayne Harris.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Staff writers Karen Kane, Janice Crompton and Joe Smydo contributed.

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