Sophie Masloff: ‘She was the conscience of our city’

Sophie Masloff: ‘She was the conscience of our city’

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff applauds an address by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a Pittsburgh

rally on April 2008. Masloff, the city’s first female and first Jewish mayor, died Sunday at the age of 96. REUTERS/David


Sophie Masloff: ‘She was the conscience of our city’

Mayor Sophie Masloff would often

open an appearance with the greeting:

“It’s great to be here. But at my age, it’s

great to be anywhere.”

That was typical Masloff, an unassuming,

self-deprecating Jewish grandmother

who knew how to turn a phrase

to connect with the people of Pittsburgh

while making it her life’s mission to

serve them.

“She had a remarkable gift for understanding

how people think and what

they were up against,” said Sen. Bob

Casey [D-Pa.], who first met Masloff

several years before he ran for office.

It was her “authenticity” that defined

her, said Casey, adding that Masloff

“knew who she was, and she acted with

integrity. And she had a lot of strength.”

Masloff’s story can be read as the

quintessential realization of the American

dream. The daughter of Romanian

Jewish immigrants, she began her career

as a civil servant while still in high

school, worked her way up the political

ladder and, improbably, became mayor

in 1988 — the first Jew and the first

woman to hold that office here.

Masloff, a resident of Squirrel Hill,

died of natural causes at the Center for

Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon on

Sunday. She was 96.

She was in her early 20s when Eleanor Roosevelt came to Pittsburgh

in 1940 to dedicate the city’s first public

housing facility, Addison Terrace, and it

was the first lady who inspired Masloff

to enter politics.

“I was so enthralled by Mrs. Roosevelt,”

Masloff told The Chronicle in a

2008 interview, “I decided that’s what I

was going to do. So I joined the Democratic

Party, and I never left.”

Masloff was born in Pittsburgh’s Hill

District on Dec. 23, 1917, to Louis and

Jennie Friedman. Her father died when

she was just 2 years old, and her mother,

who couldn’t read, write or speak

English, was left to raise four young

children on her own.

Masloff graduated from Fifth Avenue

High School in 1935, then found employment

as a secretary in several county

government jobs. Within a few years,

she had worked her way up to becoming

assistant chief clerk in the Allegheny

County Court of Common Pleas, supervising

jury selections, a position she

held for 38 years.

“Sophie was a political pioneer,” said

Dan Cohen, who served on the Pittsburgh

City Council when Masloff was

mayor. “She worked her way up from

the bottom, politically speaking. When

she became mayor, she earned it.

“She was a tough cookie,” he added.

“She kind of had to be to succeed in a

male-dominated environment.”

In 1976, Masloff won a seat on Pittsburgh

City Council in a special election.

When Pittsburgh Mayor Richard

Caliguiri died in office in 1988, the then

70-year-old Masloff succeeded him, after

having been elected Pittsburgh’s first

female City Council president just

months before.

She served out Caliguiri’s term and

was re-elected in 1989.

“When she had to take over as mayor

under tragic circumstances, she knew

she had a lot of responsibilities, and she

never flinched as to what was put before

her,” said Masloff’s attorney and

friend, Frederick Frank.

Still, she was “probably more prepared

than she realized,” according to

Casey. “She had great leadership skills,

and she had dealt with public officials

and public matters for years.”

It was her rare combination of tenacity

and compassion that made her “a remarkable

political leader and government

official,” according to Joseph

Sabino Mistick, Masloff’s friend and

former deputy mayor.

“She could alternate between toughness

and kindness within an instant,”

Mistick said.

She led her administration and her

constituents by example.

“She was the conscience of our administration

and the conscience of our

city,” said Mistick.

Her accomplishments during her

years as Pittsburgh’s top executive were

many, but all had a common theme: She

always put the needs of Pittsburghers

first, according to Mistick.

She backed developments such as

Washington’s Landing, the Pittsburgh

Technology Center and the Hill District’s

Crawford Square, “building a

new neighborhood in her old neighborhood,”

said Mistick.

She non-profitized the Pittsburgh

Zoo, the National Aviary and Phipps

Conservatory, taking the burden of sustaining

these cultural resources off taxpayers.

On her watch, the Allegheny Regional

Asset District was created to provide

grants to distressed communities.

Twice she reduced the city wage tax.

“The common theme was that she

looked out for the people,” Mistick

said. “She put the people first.”

And she was not afraid to act on the

courage of her convictions, he added,

noting that in 1992, Masloff intervened

in the Port Authority bus strike that

was having a deleterious effect on the

city’s poor and infirm.

“She intervened even though the city

didn’t really have a dog in that fight,”

said Mistick. “But people couldn’t get

to their dialysis treatments, and healthcare

workers couldn’t get to work. It

took political courage to do that.”

She did not seek re-election when her

mayoral term ended in 1994, but she remained

involved in the community, serving

as a trustee of Allegheny County

Community College, as a member of the

Stadium Authority and as a board member

of the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading

Center of the Carnegie Library of

Pittsburgh, among other civic organizations,

and continued to attend the Democratic

National Convention until 2004.

She was also happy to give advice to

other politicians.

“I had the honor of getting advice from

Sophie from the time I was chief of staff

for Dan Cohen at City Council until two

weeks ago,” said Mayor Bill Peduto.

While visiting his brother, who was

being treated in the same hospital as

Masloff, the former mayor sent a message

to the current mayor.

“She said I’m doing a good job, but I

still have to prove myself,” Peduto said.

After State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny),

was elected, he often received

phone calls from Masloff, he said.

“Usually I was doing something

right,” he said. “Or she would call urging

me to do something important. The

last time she called, she wanted to talk

about gun violence.”

Her personality, Frankel said, was

“larger than life.”

“She was very unique,” he said.

“Some might say she was eccentric, but

I would say she was genuine and authentic,

which is important for a politician.

She had authenticity in spades.”

During her 1989 campaign, she was

widely underestimated, which proved

to be her “ace in the hole,” said Cohen,

who was on the campaign trail with her

when he was running for City Council.

“When I would attend campaign

events with her, I saw she connected

with people in a way that others didn’t,”

he said. “She spoke their language

in a vernacular in a way the other candidates

didn’t. She was very self-deprecating

about her age and the fact that

she was a woman, and that served her

well. She had a great sense of humor.

“She was humble,” he continued.

“She came from humble beginnings,

and her head never got too big.”

Part of her success can be attributed

to her skill in assembling the right cohort

of advisers, according to Cohen.

“She got herself around strong, talented

people,” he said. “She knew her

strengths, and she knew her limits. But

she had strong people who were able to

put together a public policy agenda for

her to implement. A lot of politicians

think they know pretty much everything

and think they can make decisions

unilaterally, but she sought advice from

all segments.”

Local, state, and federal officials,

family and friends, as well as Pittsburgh

citizens wanting to pay their respects,

filled the pews of Temple Sinai’s Leebov

sanctuary on Tuesday for Masloff’s memorial

service. Temple Sinai’s Rabbi

Ronald Symons delivered an introduction

to the service in the absence of

Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who was out of

the country. Sara Stock Mayo, Temple

Sinai’s cantorial soloist and chaplain,

led the congregation in singing “America

the Beautiful.” Masloff’s coffin,

draped in an American flag, was carried

in, escorted by Pittsburgh police officers

and firefighters.

Symons read letters of condolence

from former President Bill Clinton, and

President Barack Obama and first lady

Michelle Obama.

In his letter, Clinton recalled the first

time he called Masloff on the telephone.

The mayor was not convinced Clinton

was who he said he was. After identifying

himself, Clinton wrote, Masloff

replied: “Right. And I’m the Queen of


Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader of

Rodef Shalom, recited selections from

the Book of Ruth, and eulogies were delivered

by Frank, her friend and attorney;

her former campaign manager,

John Seidman; and Mayor Peduto.

“She remembered the poverty of her

youth,” said Seidman in his eulogy.

“People in need, without a word being

spoken, knew she was their friend.”

Mayor Masloff was preceded in death

by her husband of 52 years, Jack, who

died while she was in office. She is survived

by her daughter Sue (Nicholas)

Busia, her granddaughter Jennifer Busia,

her grandson Michael (Krystan) Busia,

her great-granddaughter Scarlett Busia

and her niece Elayne (Harold) Harris,

among other nieces and nephews.

Memorial contributions may be made

to the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading

Center of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh,

c/o Carnegie Library, 4400

Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at