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Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff dies

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PAYING RESPECTS

A public funeral service for former Mayor Sophie Masloff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.

The family asks that people be seated by 10:45 a.m. The burial will be private.

The city will host memorials throughout the week. A weeklong vigil in the lobby of the City-County Building begins on Monday and will display Masloff's official portrait as well as a guest book that will be given to her family.

Mayor Bill Peduto ordered flags on city property to be lowered to half-staff for the week.

Highlights of the administration

• Became Pittsburgh's first female mayor in 1988 after Mayor Richard Caliguiri died

• Got a Commonwealth Court judge to force striking Port Authority employees to go back to work, ending a 26-day strike in 1991

• First pitched the idea of a new stadium for the Pirates in 1991, though most balked at the idea

• Created a five-member ethics board to hear complaints from people against city officials and employees

• Sparked a lawsuit that set a court-ordered floor for the number of employees the City Controller's Office must have

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Sophie Masloff, a no-nonsense pathfinder with a common touch and a voice all her own, rose from the Hill District home of immigrants to the seat of power in Pittsburgh, a place no woman has occupied before or since.

Masloff, who helped the Democratic Party establish its dominance in Pittsburgh, died of natural causes on Sunday morning in the Center for Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon, family spokesman Frederick Frank said. She was 96.

“The first question out of the gate on every policy discussion was: What's the right thing to do? She started it all with that,” said Joseph Sabino Mistick, Masloff's longtime friend and former chief of staff.

“She was our conscience,” he said.

Masloff was born on Dec. 23, 1917, to Romanian immigrants who settled in Pittsburgh to be near relatives. Masloff, who was also the city's only Jewish mayor, spoke only Yiddish until she began attending school in Pittsburgh.

“It's an extraordinary American story,” said Mistick, a law professor at Duquesne University who writes a column for the Tribune-Review.

She got involved in local politics in the 1930s, helping David L. Lawrence devise the party organization that wrested control of city government from the Republican Party and established Pittsburgh as the Democratic stronghold it remains today.

“No one else has spanned the number of mayors and presidents that Sophie Masloff did. She was active in politics when Franklin Roosevelt was president,” said Common Pleas Judge Tom Flaherty, the former city controller, who lost to Masloff in the 1989 Democratic mayoral primary.

“She was pretty much on the ground floor with Dave Lawrence and John Kane,” titans of the local Democratic Party for much of the 20th century, Flaherty said.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who used to meet Masloff for coffee at the Starbucks on Forbes and Shady avenues across from her Squirrel Hill home, would often marvel at her history.

“Here's a woman who was on the ground floor of a Democratic movement in a city that used to be a Republican city,” Peduto said. “Here was a woman who started out as a volunteer and, as a teenager, became a political leader in the Hill District. And here was a woman who built a career on her own and, in the process, changed the dynamics of the city forever.

“What a great life. Sophie didn't have much given to her. She had to earn it.”

Masloff won a seat on City Council in 1976 and became the first woman to serve as council president in 1988. Then-Mayor Richard Caliguiri, a close friend of Masloff's, helped orchestrate her election to the post, which is next in line for the mayor's office, Mistick said.

Caliguiri had fallen ill with a rare protein disorder that would eventually kill him, and he spent months helping Masloff prepare to take over, Mistick said. During long, private meetings, he would lie on a couch in the mayor's office, covered in an afghan, while he and Masloff talked about city politics and how to pull Pittsburgh out of its post-industrial decline, Mistick said.

“They had these extraordinarily private, personal conversations about the future of the city,” Mistick said.

After Caliguiri's death on May 6, 1988, the sight of that empty couch, which Masloff viewed from behind her friend's former desk, haunted her early days as mayor. Tragedy would befall her again in 1991, when her husband, Jack Masloff, died.

She took office at 70, and struggled to hold together a city that seemed ready to fall apart as residents fled.

She started efforts to privatize costly city assets such as the zoo, aviary and Phipps Conservatory. She became the first public official to recommend building a stadium to help keep the financially troubled Pirates in Pittsburgh, and twice cut the wage tax to keep young families here.

“She really had a deep understanding of what makes Pittsburgh tick,” said Lew Borman, Masloff's mayoral press secretary.

Masloff ran for her first full four-year term as mayor in 1989, beating four opponents in the Democratic primary, all of whom were men.

“She coined the phrase, ‘Four guys and a gal. Vote for the gal,' ” Flaherty said.

Masloff decided against seeking a second four-year term in 1993, saying that she had had “enough.”

As mayor, Masloff was disdainful of receiving flowers.

“Pity the politician who thought he could curry favor with her by sending her flowers. They always got sent elsewhere,” Mistick said.

Masloff sometimes wondered out loud why people send flowers to a funeral “when what the family really needs is a pot of good beef stew.”

That common touch endeared her to voters, said another former press secretary, Al Neri, who spoke to the Tribune-Review before his death in 2011. Neri said she became known as the city's “little Jewish grandmother.”

“And she pretty much treated her five and a half years as mayor as that — being the matriarch of the large family that she considered the family of Pittsburgh to be,” Neri said.

But visitors to her mayor's office would be in for a surprise if they mistook her kindness for softness.

“She was a no-nonsense mayor,” said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola. He described Masloff as an old-school politician whose support meant more than a mere endorsement. She backed it up with personal phone calls to supporters, donors and voters.

City Councilwoman Darlene Harris still has the $100 bill Masloff gave her for Harris' first school board race. Harris could not bring herself to spend the money, she said, “because Sophie gave it to me, and I just thought so much of her.”

“The city lost a great woman, someone who really cared,” said Harris of the North Side. Long after leaving office, Masloff continued to serve on boards and commissions, Harris said. “To the very end, she did what she could for the city.”

Masloff is survived by her daughter, Sue Busia, granddaughter Jennifer Busia, grandson Michael Busia, great-granddaughter Scarlett Busia and niece Elayne Harris.

Fittingly, anyone thinking about sending flowers should think again.

Masloff's family asks that people instead donate to the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Center of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where Masloff served as a board member, or to another charity.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media - Sophie Masloff reflects back on her life in politics at her Squirrel Hill home on Dec. 13, 2007. She took office when Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri died in office on May 6, 1988. the city charter dictated that the city council president was next in line to assume the office of mayor. Masloff assumed the office, and served out the remainder of Caliguiri's term. She was reelected in November 1989. She was the first woman and the first Jewish person to hold the post.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Trib Total Media</em></div>Sophie Masloff reflects back on her life in politics at her Squirrel Hill home on Dec. 13, 2007. She took office when Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri died in office on May 6, 1988. the city charter dictated that the city council president was next in line to assume the office of mayor. Masloff assumed the office, and served out the remainder of Caliguiri's term. She was reelected in November 1989. She was the first woman and the first Jewish person to hold the post.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - File photo of former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff from 2007.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review</em></div>File photo of former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff from 2007.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media - Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff in 1992.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Trib Total Media</em></div>Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff in 1992.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media - Former Pittsburgh mayor Sophie Masloff is all smiles during an unveiling of a street sign in her honor. Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, unveiled the Sophie Masloff Way sign at the corner of Federal and General Robinson on the North Side, on Friday, Dec. 21, 2007.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Keith Hodan  |  Trib Total Media</em></div>Former Pittsburgh mayor Sophie Masloff is all smiles during an unveiling of a street sign in her honor. Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl,  unveiled the Sophie Masloff Way sign at the corner of Federal and General Robinson on the North Side, on Friday, Dec. 21, 2007.
Trib Total Media - A photo of Sophie Masloff with Richard Caliguiri.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Trib Total Media</em></div>A photo of Sophie Masloff with Richard Caliguiri.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media - Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff stops her shopping at the Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill to catch up with longtime friend Milton Reichman on Jan. 12, 1998. Both were court clerks and have known each other for 31 years.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Philip G. Pavely  |  Trib Total Media</em></div>Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff stops her shopping at the Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill to catch up with longtime friend Milton Reichman on Jan. 12, 1998. Both were court clerks and have known each other for 31 years.
Trib Total Media - A photo of Sophie Masloff with Fred Rogers.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Trib Total Media</em></div>A photo of Sophie Masloff with Fred Rogers.
Trib Total Media - Sophie Masloff's high school yearbook photo.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Trib Total Media</em></div>Sophie Masloff's high school yearbook photo.
Trib Total Media - A photo of Sophie Masloff with Muhammad Ali.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Trib Total Media</em></div>A photo of Sophie Masloff with Muhammad Ali.
Trib Total Media - A photo of Sophie Masloff visiting a concentration camp in Europe.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Trib Total Media</em></div>A photo of Sophie Masloff visiting a concentration camp in Europe.
Trib Total Media - A photo of Sophie Masloff with then-President Bill Clinton.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Trib Total Media</em></div>A photo of Sophie Masloff with then-President Bill Clinton.
AP - Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton greets former Pittsburgh mayor and super delegate Sophie Masloff as she arrives on stage during a campaign stop at the Allegheny County Jefferson Jackson Dinner on Thursday, April 10, 2008, at Heinz Field.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton greets former Pittsburgh mayor and super delegate Sophie Masloff as she arrives on stage during a campaign stop at the Allegheny County Jefferson Jackson Dinner on Thursday, April 10, 2008, at Heinz Field.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media - Gov. Tom Corbett holds on to former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff as she gets a kiss from Maggie the sea lion at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium while visiting to announce the name of the baby sea lion Sophie named after the former mayor on Monday, Aug. 8, 2011.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Jasmine Goldband  |  Trib Total Media</em></div>Gov. Tom Corbett holds on to former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff as she gets a kiss from Maggie the sea lion at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium while visiting to announce the name of the baby sea lion Sophie named after the former mayor on Monday, Aug. 8, 2011.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media - Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff is helped onto a train at the Gateway Station, Downtown, on Friday, March 23, 2012, for the grand opening of the North Shore Connector.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Keith Hodan  |  Trib Total Media</em></div>Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff is helped onto a train at the Gateway Station, Downtown, on Friday, March 23, 2012, for the grand opening of the North Shore Connector.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media - Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff, a Squirrel Hill resident, gets her voter photo identification at the CCAC Homewood-Brushton campus on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Philip G. Pavely  |  Trib Total Media</em></div>Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff, a Squirrel Hill resident, gets her voter photo identification at the CCAC Homewood-Brushton campus on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012.
- Photo taken by Joan Seidel for Sophie Masloff’s 1989 mayoral campaign.
Photo taken by Joan Seidel for Sophie Masloff’s 1989 mayoral campaign.
- Photo taken by Joan Seidel for Sophie Masloff’s 1989 mayoral campaign.
Photo taken by Joan Seidel for Sophie Masloff’s 1989 mayoral campaign.
- Photo taken by Joan Seidel for Sophie Masloff’s 1989 mayoral campaign.
Photo taken by Joan Seidel for Sophie Masloff’s 1989 mayoral campaign.
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