Erika Strassburger made history Tuesday night as the first woman elected to represent Pittsburghers living in Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze on Pittsburgh’s City Council with 64 percent of the vote.
Strassburger served as chief of staff to Dan Gilman, who previously held the seat and left to become chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto.
About an hour after polls closed at 8 p.m., taking the clear lead with more than half of the precincts reporting, supporters greeted Strassburger with raucous applause at her election night party at Soba in Shadyside.
“Obviously it feels amazing to win, but I’m ready to get to work,” she said.
Strassburger promised to keep “quality of life issues” at the forefront of the District 8 agenda, including problems with traffic, infrastructure and parking.
“I know it doesn’t sound like big hallmark issues, but that’s what I heard most from constituents,” she said.
She also hopes to take on challenges continuing to plague the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, as well as Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The special election to replace Gilman was a contentious one, splitting the city’s Democratic party between Strassburger, who won the backing of Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Dinette owner and chef Sonja Finn, who declared her candidacy early and won the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Party.
Gilman left his District 8 seat in December to take over as Peduto's chief of staff. The announcement followed former chief Kevin Acklin’s return to the private sector and came just after Gilman won reelection to another four-year term.
Both Peduto and Gilman said they’re thrilled for Strassburger and expect her to be an asset for council, especially given her background in environmental advocacy and activism. Peduto said he hopes to find “the greenest way possible” to solve the city’s problems.
“I’m sure we’re going to find ways to disagree over the course of the next four years, but you won’t see the disagreements in the papers or on Twitter,” Peduto said. “They’ll be handled in a way that I think Pittsburghers deserve, which is working together and creating mutual compromise.”
Down the street, Sonja Finn awaited election results at Slice. Finn trailed Strassburger, nabbing nearly 28 percent of the vote. She said even though she didn't win, running for the seat on city council was "one of the most important things she has ever done."
“We brought to light a lot of things that were happening in this city and in this government that I think people needed to know,” Finn told supporters. “Like universal pre-K, like gun control, like making the Amazon bid public, like the water lines, and campaign finance, obviously.”
The race's lone Republican, Rennick Remley, who described himself as a moderate and said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, got less than 7 percent of the vote. The party holds a four-to-one registration advantage over the local GOP.
Both Strassburger and fellow candidate Martin Healey are Democrats, but officially ran as Independents after failing to nab the Democratic party endorsement.
Before entering city government, Strassburger worked at PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental group that advocates for clean air and water. Throughout her candidacy, she pledged to address storm water sewage overflow, pollution and green infrastructure.
While campaigning, Strassburger said that replacing lead lines managed by the PWSA would be necessary to ensure clean water for the city and proposed a storm water utility fee to cover costs.
As his chief of staff, Strassburger has been moderating constituent services for District 8 in Gilman’s absence, a skill he said she already excels at.
“It’s a win for every resident of the city and of the region,” Gilman said of Strassburger’s win. “To have a strong progressive woman with experience – who knows how government works, who’s a pragmatic and practical leader but with a vision – is incredible. This is exactly what we need not just on Pittsburgh City Council but in government in this country.”
Finn boasted during her campaign that her lowest paid employee made $13.50 an hour, nearly twice Pennsylvania's minimum wage of $7.25. She'd promised to be a strong advocate for raising the minimum wage for all workers in the city, public or private, though the power to set all but city employee wages rests with the state legislature.
On Monday, local union leadership criticized her intentions, sharing documents from the U.S. Department of Labor showing Finn incurred fines for allegedly diverting tips from employees. Finn also advocated for universal pre-K for 3- to 4-year-olds and finding a solution to Pittsburgh’s continued issues with water quality and infrastructure.
Healey and Remley, both of Shadyside, had each vowed to pursue inclusive policies friendly to Pittsburgh’s LGBT population. Healey is the financial officer at his family's construction company. Remley is the manager of corporate relations at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater.
*This story was updated at 7:15 a.m. on March 7, 2018 to include more information, and at 4:25 p.m. to clarify language describing U.S. Department of Labor actions.