Paul Klein’s part-time position is a full-time concern.
As a member of the Allegheny County Council, Klein is chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a part of the Executive Committee, the Sustainability and Green Initiatives Committee and the Government Reform Committee.
The quantity of Klein’s responsibilities is dwarfed only by the number of his priorities. That list, he said, includes environmental health and well-being, criminal justice reform, affordable housing, food insecurity, public transportation, the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, regulation of single-use plastic, and responsible economic development and growth in the county.
Heading into May’s Democratic primary, Klein, 68, called his job description: “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
The title of the Oscar-winning film “really spoke to me,” he said.
Successfully tackling just one of his priorities would be a major victory for the region. Resolving them all is “pretty daunting,” Klein continued, “but there are many fronts that we need to be working on at the same time.”
One month before the primary, Klein was called “one of the more progressive voices on council in recent years,” by WESA.
He said he isn’t one for labels as political identifiers.
“I’m a humanist,” said the Democratic primary winner. “I feel like all of our efforts should be toward advancing the dignity and the well-being of people. I think that that has to be front and center.”
On council, there’s often talk about a business agenda or other matter. At the core of these conversations, though, must be a realization of who’s affected, he continued: “We need to do what we can to make sure that, in all of our efforts, we are attempting to enhance the dignity and well-being of all members of society and the communities we are a part of.”
In recent years that’s meant using council to protect marginalized people.
Whether in response to antisemitism or other demonizations, council must act, he said: “This is something that is intolerable, unacceptable, and we need to work together in order to advance change in this arena.”
Klein is a Squirrel Hill resident who celebrated his bar mitzvah and confirmation at Tree of Life Congregation nearly 50 years ago.
“That was my family’s synagogue,” he said.
After recalling the massacre of 2018, Klein credited Pittsburgh’s Jewish community with putting a “tremendous amount of effort into making sure that our voices are not forgotten, and what played out here is something that should never be forgotten.”
For 4½ years, an incident that occurred hours after the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre has remained at the top of his mind. That Saturday afternoon, Klein was walking near the corner of Murray and Wilkins avenues. In addition to observing heavily armed officers, he recalled, an elected official approached him and said, “I am so sorry about what happened here today. We are all Jews today.”
Klein said he thanked the person, who wasn’t Jewish, but thought, “What about tomorrow? And the day after that? And the day after that?”
“We as Jews, we live in our skin and we live with this reality all the time,” he said. “I think that more people have to find it within themselves to come to terms with the fact that if we’re to make any progress on this front, we all have to be willing to step up and assume responsibility.”
Combating antisemitism isn’t just a Jewish responsibility, he continued: “We need a lot of help.”
Working in partnership is one mechanism. Investing in the future is another.
For nearly 35 years, Klein has taught law, ethics and corporate social responsibility — first at Duquesne University, now at the University of Pittsburgh. “I spend a lot of time in the classroom with people who are much younger than I am,” he said. “I really feel like people are more tuned in, more sensitive, more alert than I can recall them having been in the past.” Today’s students are not only concerned with social equity and ethics, but “the work that they have done has been really credible and well informed.”
Klein isn’t losing hope in the effectiveness of council — a 15-member group whose members meet twice a month and receive neither a salary, funding, office nor staff, but an annual stipend of about $11,000 — he is keenly optimistic about the future.
“I do feel encouraged that…the generation that is behind me, maybe a couple of behind me, are going to work toward something better,” he said. “I will probably not live long enough to see whatever that group looks like, the fruits of our efforts, but I think that we have to be prepared to play the long game.”
Whether it’s in Allegheny County or nationwide, creating civic and social change is less about hurrying up and waiting than it is about “continued vigilance and a willingness to take the long view, play the long game and advance the cause,” he continued. “That’s something that we’re all going to have to get on board with, where we’re all going to have to agree.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.