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Darlene Harris Challengers Say Change Is Needed On The North Side

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

In recent years, Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris has frequently opposed Mayor Bill Peduto's agenda. But if she's sometimes alone around the council table, she is now in a three-way race for reelection in City Council District 1, north of the rivers.

Most recently, Harris opposed controversial legislation to ban certain firearms, accessories and ammunition in the city. Gun rights groups are now suing over the legislation. 

"I make it very clear to read whatever laws it is," she said. "If people think I'm just trying to disagree, I make sure that I say here's where it's at." 

Harris said that the gun laws violate state law, which bars local officials from regulating firearms. She says the city could have written a resolution to the state, asking for gun laws to be changed in Harrisburg.

"The police can not uphold this piece of legislation," she said. "This are laws that sit at the state level. We can always ask the state to do something, but we cannot vote on it." 

Harris is one of three candidates running in District 1, which includes northern neighborhoods like Brighton Heights, Troy Hill, and portions of the North Side. Harris lives in the Spring Garden neighborhood and has been in the seat for nearly 13 years. She prides herself on her animal rights work, including bringing free spay and neutering programs to the city.

She said she is also proud of her work in helping save the pension fund. In 2010, the city had a bid to lease its parking facilities for $220 million. The money was supposed to go to the pension fund, but Harris said parking rates would have soared; council rejected the measure. 

Harris says as councilor she has always focused on what her residents need and want. 

"Whatever I do to help, I'm open, whether it's an individual person who needs help, or it's a community that needs help," she said. 

These days Harris focuses on her district and environmental issues like landslides, which have become frequent occurrences around the city. Another environmental concern includes running "double stack" trains through the North Side, which she opposes. Harris noted fears that increased rail traffic could mean more pollution from engines, and she points to a derailment that happened last year near Station Square. 

"One of the double stack trains had fell off the tracks, and thank God that wasn't in one of our neighborhoods," she said. 

Harris says if she is re-elected she will continue to pass more legislation for animals' rights, though she declined to discuss specifics.

Right now, though, she is currently facing two opponents on the May 21 ballot: Bobby Wilson and Mark Brentley. 

This race marks Wilson's third time running. Wilson said more residents need access to the councilor's office and he would hold more office hours on the North Side.  

"Currently there's just not many people that really have a say in their neighborhood or have as much access as others," Wilson said. 

Wilson has been endorsed by Peduto, which has drawn criticism from other candidates. One former office-seeker, Chris Rosselot, suggested that Wilson would be a mayoral "puppet." When asked if there were things that he didn't agree with Peduto on, Wilson said he would like to see more action advancing "complete streets," which would create a traffic grid that welcomes drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. 

"I mean that's also a two-way street though," he said. "You need the councilperson to be willing to make sure that these projects are done." 

Wilson said he would have voted to support the gun legislation. He said he doesn't think the current councilor "holds the values of what the North Side is now and in the future." 

"There was the opportunity to do the right thing and it wasn't done," he said. "We need someone who is going to be an elected official that's actually going to stand up and do the right thing." 

Brentley lives on the North Side and said that while he's seeing growth in the district, not everyone is benefitting . He said "everyday folks" don't have access to the opportunities in the area. 

"We have to find a way to continue to create affordable housing," he said. "So my challenge is also fighting for affordable housing." 

Brentley, too, has run for city council before. He previously served on the school board, alongside Harris, and the two often disagreed on district issues. Brentley said he is tired of seeing fighting between the councilor and mayor. But Brentley himself faults the current administration for firing him from his job as a public works laborer earlier this year.

"I think there's some strange coincidences that happened, even if it wasn't related to my candidacy," he said. 

The city said Brentley's termination did not have to do with his run for councilor, but with his failure to adhere to city works rules. Officials also said his firing was handled by the independent Civil Service Commission, and that the Peduto administration had nothing to do with it. 

Harris is backed by a number of unions including firefighters, plumbers and electric workers. Wilson has received support from Peduto, unions friendly to Peduto like SEIU 32BJ, and other supporters. 

District 1, like the rest of Pittsburgh, is heavily Democratic, but the race could continue after the primary. Rosselot and another former candidate, Quincy Swatson, have suggested they could run as independent in the fall.  

This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. to clarify that Wilson was not financially supported by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.