Michelle Madoff-Scheske fought for clean air, women’s rights on the Pittsburgh City ‘Circus’

Michelle Madoff-Scheske fought for clean air, women’s rights on the Pittsburgh City ‘Circus’

Michelle Madoff-Scheske, the colorful and divisive Squirrel Hill woman who served on Pittsburgh City Council for more than 15 years, and whose brash outspokenness and flare for argument made her one of the city’s most colorful characters, died Oct. 12 in a retirement community in Peoria, Ariz. She was 85 years old and had suffered from leukemia.

Born Pauline Radzinzki in Toronto in 1928, she attended Central Commerce High School and Brown’s Business College. In 1952, she immigrated to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1958. Madoff-Scheske arrived in Pittsburgh with her then-husband, Dr. Henry Madoff, in 1961.

Almost immediately, she was taken aback by the region’s air quality, resulting from decades of heavy industry and steel production. In 1969, Madoff-Scheske formed GASP — the Group Against Smog and Pollution. GASP singled out politicians it deemed sympathetic to the region’s economic interests at the expense of the environment. To this day, the University of Pittsburgh retains in its archives a collection of documents related to GASP, known as the Michelle Madoff Papers.

Madoff-Scheske launched unsuccessful bids for a council seat in 1973 and an Allegheny County commissioner’s seat in 1975. In 1978, when City Council President Richard Caliguiri became mayor after incumbent Pete Flaherty left to become Deputy Attorney General in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Madoff was elected to serve out the remainder of Caliguiri’s term.

In her 15 years on city council, Madoff-Scheske openly fought with nearly every one of her elected colleagues, none more notable or memorable than Eugene “Jeep” DePasquale. Sessions often became so heated that observers were known to refer to council as a circus. One anecdotal, possibly apocryphal instance involved Madoff-Scheske inviting DePasquale to kiss a certain part of her anatomy under the Kaufmann’s Department Store clock. Ultimately, they put the past behind them.

“She and I got along. I tried to support her as a woman, and as a Jewish woman,” said former Mayor Sophie Masloff, who served on City Council with Madoff from 1978 to 1988. “She was sincere and she was very hard-working, but she faced a lot of opposition.”

Madoff-Scheske was just the fourth woman elected to council in Pittsburgh’s history, and she took up a number of feminist issues, much to the chagrin of a council that had, for years, been ostensibly a men’s club.

During an era when women felt more vulnerable in public, Madoff-Scheske fought for laws requiring lighting in parking garages and nighttime security, and did so over the objection of men on council who didn’t see the need for such measures.

“I recognized her for her ambition, and for her desire to be good to the city,” Masloff said.

Madoff-Scheske served on city council until losing a re-election bid during the 1993 Democratic primary. When her term expired in January of 1994, she left Pittsburgh, living for a while in South Carolina and Las Vegas. In 2001, she married Fred Scheske, and the couple moved to Arizona.

In addition to her husband, Madoff-Scheske is survived by a daughter, Karenlin Madoff, of Los Angeles, and two stepchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to Banner Hospice of Peoria Inpatient Unit, 8977 W. Athens St., Peoria, AZ 85382.

(Matthew Wein can be reached at wein.matthew@gmail.com.)