Brian O'Neill: Sophie shrewdly summed up city


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Sophie Masloff loved this city and it loved her back.

Love is rarely so perfectly requited. Yet even as I type that the morning after her funeral, I can see the old mayor rolling her eyes and saying in her extraordinary cats-in-a-microwave voice (which pretty much every Pittsburgher was mimicking by the time the ‘80s rolled into the ‘90s): “Give me a break. I wasn’t always so loved.’’

She’d be right. As city council president, she inherited the mayor’s position in 1988 when Richard Caliguiri died. The record shows that she won the five-candidate Democratic primary the following spring with only 28 percent of the vote, which works out to only about 14 percent of the adults living in Pittsburgh at the time.

Ah, but those are just polling stats. Love can’t be quantified, and our city’s affection for this woman never stopped growing. Well into her 90s, she’d turn up every now and again at an event and, always, comfortable smiles bloomed around her.

Maybe that’s because nobody epitomized the uniquely casual complexity of Pittsburgh like Sophie Friedman Masloff.

Consider this: She was the city’s first Jewish mayor and the first woman to hold the office, yet people saw her mayoralty as a continuation of the status quo. And they were right.

She kept on much of Mayor Caliguiri’s staff because she knew and trusted them, and they her. She’d be a caretaker, most thought, but we can look back on her 5 1/2 years as mayor and see that she got a helluva lot done.

To name just two things still with us:

• She cut the wage tax. Twice. The combined city/schools wage tax stood at 4 percent when she became mayor. Mayor Masloff cut the city portion by a half-percent and then cut it another 5/8 the following year by nudging up property taxes with a ”tax swap.“ The combined wage tax dropped below 3 percent. With minor fiddling, it stands at 3 percent today.

Supply-side mythology would hold that what was effectively a 50 percent cut in the city’s portion of the wage tax led to many more dollars immediately coming into city coffers -- but real life doesn’t work the way that it’s sketched on the back of a napkin. Mrs. Masloff and her successors have had to make do with less, but every working soul with a city address has held on to a bit more of each paycheck since.

• The blue recycling bags. Among her great strengths was knowing what the average Joe or Josie would or wouldn’t do. She knew the way real homes operated and that most people would do the right thing if you limited the hassles. So when her people came to her with this simple, one-plastic-grocery-bag-fits-all plan, she walked the plan right to the curb.

“Bag lady,’’ some sneered, but Pittsburghers showed such strong compliance that dozens of other cities adopted the plan. Let radicals try to change the culture; Mrs. Masloff had the wisdom to work within one she knew intimately.

As I drove across town to Temple Sinai Tuesday morning, I couldn’t help thinking of all the changes Sophie (let’s cut that Mrs. Masloff stuff) had seen since she was a poor little girl in the Hill District in the Roaring ‘20s, and how her city seemed to be agleam for her sunny morning sendoff.

Her old friend and adviser John Seidman would say in his eulogy that she worked at being underestimated, which is exactly right. Almost everyone has a Sophie story about how this seeming lightweight could outwit the room, and here’s mine:

It’s February 1992 and she’s on the witness stand in a lawsuit brought by City Controller Tom Flaherty against her and city council. Mr. Flaherty was seeking to restore $600,000 in cuts to his office’s budget.

On the stand for two hours, Sophie behaved like a student being quizzed for a trig exam in a foreign language. She testified that she set policy, didn’t worry about every little line item, and let on like no one took any glee in putting the screws to Mr. Flaherty. The controller’s solicitor couldn’t pin her to a single number in his pile of documents, and finally she was free to leave and face the media scrum in the hallway.

Before she even got out of the courtroom, she spotted me and asked about my brother. “How’s Dullboy?’’ she asked, flustering me with a name I’d long used in print.

Budgets, smudgets -- those she couldn’t remember, but she could remember the nickname of a guy she’d never met?

Yeah, she knew what she was doing. Sophie Masloff was shrewd, and she was fun and, boy, she is missed.


Brian O’Neill:boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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