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Politics & Government

A Guide To Who's Running In Pittsburgh's District 8 City Council Race

Photos courtesy of the candidates and Kathleen J. Davis
90.5 WESA
From left to right: Sonja Finn (D), Marty Healey (I), Erika Strassburger (I) and Rennick Remley (R).

In December, City Councilman Dan Gilman of Pittsburgh's District 8 left his seat to become Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff. This was one month after he won reelection to another four-year term. 

Four candidates have entered the race to claim the open seat that represents Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze. The special election is on March 6.

Erika Strassburger of Squirrel Hill has been working as the caretaker of the District 8 office since Gilman left. She was his Chief of Staff, and has been moderating constituent services in his absence.

Before she entered city government, she worked at PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental advocacy group. Many of her political priorities are aligned in this sphere: clean water and clean air.

"We need to address the storm water sewage overflow issue," Strassburger said. "Every time it rains, our storm water and our sewage combine and then they pollute our rivers. We have ways to deal with that through green infrastructure projects."

She says replacing Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority lead lines is necessary to ensure clean water for the city, and is proposing a storm water utility fee to help pay for this.

Strassburger has the support of many higher ups in city government -- including Gilman and Peduto. But when it came time for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee to choose the party's nominee in January, she finished second, so she chose to run for the seat as an Independent.

The party nomination went to Sonja Finn of Point Breeze, the chef and owner of Dinette restaurant in Shadyside.

Finn says her lowest paid employee makes $13.50 an hour, nearly twice Pennsylvania's minimum wage of  $7.25. She says she's a strong advocate for raising the minimum wage for all workers in the city, public or private, though that power rests in the state legislature.

She's also an advocate for universal pre-K for 3- to 4-year-olds

"We keep talking about how we're this innovative city and we're putting ourselves up there with Seattle, but this is doable because Tulsa has universal pre-K," Finn said. "I feel like we could probably keep up with Tulsa."

Finn also says that investing to rehab water infrastructure needs to be an immediate priority, and the total cost should not be a hurdle. She says her background as a business owner gives her a new perspective not tied to the "Democratic machine."

Finn isn't the only candidate with a business background. Marty Healey of Shadyside is another Independent candidate who was vying for the Democratic nomination in January. He's the chief financial officer at his family's construction company.

Healey is a big proponent of protecting Pittsburgh's LGBT population. He says, as a gay man, it's important for him that the city is an inclusive place.

He's invested in Pittsburgh's future coming out of state financial oversight, Act 47, and says he thinks his knowledge of fiscal responsibility will make him an asset.

"The decisions we make today coming out of Act 47 over the next couple years will affect Pittsburgh for the next ten years at least," Healey said. "The first folks that are affected by our bad decisions are the underserved in our community."

He says he supports the Mayor's handling of the PWSA crisis, and if elected he will help the city continue on that path.

Credit City of Pittsburgh/Open Streets Map
Pittsburgh's District 8 includes the neighborhoods of Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.

Another candidate with a background in LGBT advocacy might be the hardest sell, because he's the Republican candidate in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than four to one. The last Republican on City Council left his seat in 1939.

Rennick Remley, also of Shadyside, describes himself as a moderate Republican -- he was the face of a pro-Israel ad campaign that highlighted his identity as a gay man. He's a member of the Young Leadership Council of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, and says he voted for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

He's the manager of corporate relations at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater.

Remley says his priorities stick to the basic tenants of livability.

"First of all, I'd like to be able to drink the water .. and I'd like all of Pittsburgh to be able to drink the water," Remley said. "But basic services in general, being able to drive down the street, clearing the roads in a timely manner, and holding those accountable that can't get it done."

He also wants to lower Pittsburgh's Realty Transfer Tax, which went up by half a percent last year to help fund affordable housing. He says this increase discourages home buying individuals from settling in the city.

Remley says this unexpected Council seat vacancy presented an opportunity that was as good as any to run for office -- a sentiment shared by the other candidates as well.

All four say they support an overhaul of the PWSA. They want safe and accessible streets, and believe that Pittsburgh should grow in a way that includes everyone.

Whoever wins the March 6 special election will represent more than 65,000 Pittsburghers in City Council for nearly four years.

UPDATED: 9:15 a.m. March 2, 2018 to correct the date the last Republican served on City Council and again at 5:10 p.m. the same day to include a map of District 8.