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Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff dies

| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 9:49 a.m.
File photo of former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff from 2007.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
File photo of former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff from 2007.

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.

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