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'I Had A Lot Of Good Years': Outgoing Councilor Darlene Harris Looks Back

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Days before Darlene Harris was set to leave Pittsburgh City Council, she had packed boxes all over her office on the fifth floor of the City-County Building. Sprawled out on a table were documents to sort through, souvenier hard-hats from projects in her district -- and a leftover bag of doggy treats she kept around in case any four-legged visitors stopped by.

It was a quiet farewell for one of council's most vocal members.

Some of the boxes contained "artwork" that she's collected over the years. Among them: the print out of a bull and a naval vessel that had been taped to her filing cabinet, a memento from a heated 2016 council debate in which she was accused of swearing on record. During the debate, Harris insisted that she said "bull ship," and hadn't used any profanity during the meeting. Harris laughs at the memory now. 

"They're just cute things that you think of," she said. "If you don't have a little bit of humor in what you're doing then you really shouldn't be here." 

Harris served North Siders in District 1 for 12 years before being ousted by Bobby Wilson in last year's Democratic primary. But her public service career spanned over more than 40 years -- first as an advocate for her Spring Hill neighborhood, then as a board member on Pittsburgh Public Schools. But on city council, Harris often sparred with Mayor Bill Peduto and former council President Bruce Kraus. She and Kraus had been allies at one point, and while Harris said he'd "really changed" over the years, she said she doesn't hold any grudges. 

"Somebody like Bruce, I figure it's easier not talking to him than it is to just keep letting him nitpick at things," Harris said. 

Kraus himself told WESA he wished her luck -- just hours before he accused Harris of taking gifts that had been given to the city by international visitors. (Harris has denied that, saying the gifts were given to her personally.) The exchange was emblematic of an often difficult relationship, during which Harris once accused Kraus of taking a manger scene. And with Harris often on the wrong end of votes to advance Peduto's agenda, she was often isolated on council.

When asked if there is anyone she would miss on council, Harris paused. She'd enjoyed working with some of the women on council, like Theresa Kail-Smith, she said. But beyond that?

"Mmm... I don't know," she said. "It hasn't been the same as it was with the older councils." 

Duquesne Law professor Joseph Sabino Mistick said Harris' departure reflects a changing Pittsburgh. 

"Darlene Harris represents Old Pittsburgh to the extent that she's been around to see the changes," he said. "That gives her some invaluable insight and institutional memory that is hard to replace." 

He added that while on council, she would also question the mayor's administration and force it to explain itself. 

"We're going to lose that dissenting voice, that person that calls other public officials on the carpet," he said. 

Some critics have said Harris' "Old Pittsburgh" mentality can sometimes represent a more intolerant city, but Harris has pointed out that she is more likely to hire black staffers than her white colleagues. And she's never forgotten her working-class roots, she said, which is why she is proud of never voting to raise taxes on residents. 

"I grew up very, very, very poor. My mom took us to neighbors to eat, and my [grandmother] would make my clothes," she said. "I know what struggling is: I lived through all of that as a child. And I guess I think of those people that don't have much and what you're doing to them." 

Another part of Harris' childhood explains her love for animals. She said she always had different types of pets growing up, a rustic experience in the heart of a major city.

"I had two little raccoon pets, a baby groundhog," she said. "Always had turtles because turtles were always around the house. Frogs, we always had nice-sized frogs." 

A spokesperson from Animal Friends, a pet advocacy organization, said Harris was "fantastic" to work with. She passed several animal-welfare laws, including offering pensions for police dogs. Her last accomplishment followed a spate of incidents in which alligators were reported loose in the city last summer. She introduced legislation that would require owners of venomous snakes and reptilian animals to register their pets with the city, and to have secure living quarters that would prevent the animals escaping. Her colleagues unanimously backed the bill -- except for Kraus. 

After decades in the public eye, Harris said now she's going to spend some time keeping an eye on her five grandchildren. 

"I had a lot of good years and I enjoyed it," she said. "I probably stayed a little over what someone would do but, eh ... it's time to give that time to my family."