Meet City Council District 5 candidate Doug Shields
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Meet City Council District 5 candidate Doug Shields

The special election for Corey O'Connor's seat is set for November.

Doug Shields (Photo courtesy of Doug Shields)
Doug Shields (Photo courtesy of Doug Shields)

Following Corey O’Connor’s appointment to the post of Allegheny County Controller, a special election for Pittsburgh’s District 5 City Council seat is set for November. In the lead-up to the election, two candidates have tossed their hat in the race: Squirrel Hill’s Doug Shields, who represented District 5 before O’Connor; and Greenfield community advocate Barb Warwick.

Pittsburgh’s 5th District encompasses nine neighborhoods, including Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, Hazelwood, Lincoln Place, New Homestead, Regent Square, Squirrel Hill South, and Swisshelm Park.

Shields spoke with the Chronicle about a variety of topics ranging from policing to gun control to environmentalism and more.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
No one has the breadth of experience that I have had in city government. That’s 12 years as a chief of staff with Councilman Bob O’Connor and then eight years on the [city] council. It was a very difficult time — those were not easy days for the city. By the time I was elected, the city had already gone into financial distress in 2003 and ‘04. When I took my oath of office, there was a lot of heavy lifting to do to get the city’s ship righted. Beyond the finance, there was still time for the people, of course. I have a record of accomplishment that people can actually review and judge for themselves.

What would be your first priorities if you join City Council?
My priority coming in is a really deep and abiding concern related to the state of affairs with our families and children in Pittsburgh. In January of this year, the U.S. Surgeon General announced at a press conference –– an unusual press conference, too –– to talk to us about a new crisis that has come to America, the mental health crisis our children are experiencing. When the city was basically broke, the first thing that got cut were programs that we had under the Parks and Recreation umbrella that were designed to go into communities and help families. They were the first thing out the door. It was called the Community Enrichment Program. But we have a problem here. Our children have been burdened with six years of terrible political discourse, openly racist, homophobic, antisemitic commentary being blasted into the community every day, and a pandemic. They’re watching television, watching children in other countries go through a war in Ukraine. They’re watching their classmates being slaughtered in their classrooms and in their neighborhoods. Someone asked me about this. They said, “Well, what are you going to do about guns, Doug?” and “What are you going to do about violence?” We need to have a real focus on supporting families and children. If we don’t address this now, how do you think you’re going to get rid of guns? How do you think you’re going to address poverty and equality and equity if we don’t start building from the bottom of society that cares for one another and to build community?

How do you think policing should look in Pittsburgh?
There’s been a lot of discussion about how we have to change policing. And I agree. We all talk about the mental health crisis we’re in right now, especially with our children. I don’t think it’s appropriate to burden a police department or an officer to have to deal with the social aspects of our society. We see models now coming out where police are being joined by teams, a mental health specialist and so forth.

I want to tip my hat to former chief Scott Schubert. I think he really worked hard to try to build community relationships. I knew Scott when he was a lieutenant and caught my eye as somebody who was really dedicated to his job and having officers on the police force like him have done amazing work. I understand that. But on the other side of that coin, I was on the City Council when the city had to go into a consent order because police abuses were not being addressed properly. There was no action with regard to making sure that our police officers work within the law. You don’t want to have that aspect in your police department, where you’re putting your police officers up against a wall and expecting them to deal with problems that they’re not trained to deal with.

Following the County Council’s banning of fracking in county parks, is there anything else you think local government can do to further environmental goals?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I drafted that ordinance that was just passed in the County Council for [County Councilor] Bethany Hallam. So, I’ve stepped back, but I have been working all this time. I also wrote the legislation for the lease registry for [County Councilor] Anita Prizio. There’s a lot to be done with regard to dealing with our environmental issues. The county doesn’t have a Climate Action Plan. There are 130 municipalities in Allegheny County. I know that other municipalities are working on their own individual climate action plans. But I think it’s time that the city and the county begin to work on development, along with other municipalities, so that there’s consistency and some uniformity in our approach — and don’t forget economies of scale that benefit the taxpayer. We’ve got a lot of work to do here on that front.

Would you support trying to revisit local gun control laws on the City Council, even with them being struck down by the state courts?
I’ve had a history of tackling problems people tend to avoid. Back when I was on City Council, we did pass the loss and stolen handgun ordinance. It’s pretty simple. If you lose your handgun –– the most dangerous consumer product on our market –– or lose any weapon, then it should be reported to the police. I don’t understand why the city has yet to pursue that. They never enforced it.

I don’t have a problem with enforcing this. My argument has nothing to do with the Second Amendment because it’s a post-possession matter. You don’t have the gun anymore. How about letting us know that there’s a gun loose in the neighborhood somewhere? I say this is the most dangerous consumer weapon or consumer product on the market, and it goes missing. We should know about that. Before we do other things, it would be interesting to implement the things that we already have done.

Councilmember O’Connor had good relationships with the district’s Jewish community. Is there anything specifically that you’d want to do to continue this priority?
Yes. I’m not Jewish, but I ended up living on a kibbutz in Israel in 1973. In 1977, when I got married, I took my bride and we went, visited some people in Europe on a backpacking trip, nothing fancy, and then went back to Israel and lived on a kibbutz again for a year-and-a-half. That experience taught me a lot about security. I was there during the Yom Kippur War. I once went to pick up a package and when I got back to the kibbutz, [everyone said] “Oh, you’re OK.” And I’m like, “What happened?” And they said a bomb just went off down there. To this day, if I ride any kind of public transit, out of habit, I look under my seat. Those are things you just don’t forget. Also, during my time in council, I met the Jewish leadership to talk about security in the community. That was always a big deal when I worked with O’Connor. It was Bob that came up with the idea of parking police cars in front of synagogues, just to enhance that security, to do whatever we could to enhance security in the Jewish community because the threat was clear. Jewish institutions have been under attack for decades. We’ve had a history of shootings and horrible other things happen.

The other thing that we all knew in those meetings was we can never do enough. You can never do enough, and that was born out with what happened to Tree of Life and our friends who were murdered in their house of worship. I’m sure that’s important to everybody in our community.
Part of it is having sensitivity and understanding of what Judaism is, knowing what the holidays are and understanding Jewish tradition. That is really important if you want to be a representative of a community. The fifth council district is certainly diverse. You have an amazing Jewish population.

When you look at what you’re trying to represent here, you really have to really get down into the granular level of the community and in the Jewish community here. It’s incredibly important that people feel safe in their homes and in houses of worship. We have to do everything we can to enhance that feeling of security and safety. After all, the primary mission of government is doing productive work, and the safety of the people. That’s what drives my thinking. How do we address what we need to start supporting our families and helping families grow here? How it all comes back and ties in together about the health, welfare and safety of the community.

Is there anything else you’d want to add?
People ask me why I came back to politics, and the fact of the matter is, I guess I never really left. After leaving City Council, I spent four or five years working with a national advocacy organization, Food and Water Watch. And working with governments in Allegheny County about how we need to really start working in a more comprehensive fashion. We all grow together and I think we see that now. We see cooperative agreements for policing and so forth. I mean, the city of Pittsburgh has been doing that with Wilkinsburg, with their fire [department] so forth. I’m not here to advocate for a merger, I’m just saying look how we can cooperate and help each other to develop plans that are responsive to our needs. We have done well in the city of Pittsburgh and there are some places around us that have not. I think there’s an obligation to be a mensch. Let’s let that rising tide flow instead of leaving some sitting at the bottom. PJC

Ethan Beck can be reached at ebeck@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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