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Community advocate to challenge for Corey O'Connor's seat — whether he remains in it or not

Barb Warwick plans to compete for the City Council seat in District 5
Barbara Warwick
Barb Warwick plans to compete for the City Council seat in District 5

Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O’Connor could very well be appointed to the post of Allegheny County Controller next month. Or not. Either way, Greenfield community advocate Barb Warwick plans to run for his District 5 seat whenever it becomes vacant.

Warwick, who plans a campaign kick-off event for Tuesday, acknowledged that declaring her candidacy before it’s even clear when a seat will be up for grabs is a "very unconventional approach.” But she said that change is coming to her community very quickly — most notably the massive Hazelwood Green development taking root nearby — and that residents need to have their voices heard now.

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“With everything that's going on in the district, we really can't afford to let this seat go to a political insider who kind of pops up out of the woodwork,” she said.

O’Connor said it was premature to think he’d be going anywhere, let alone to cast about for replacements.

The county’s former controller, Chelsa Wagner, stepped down after winning an election to the Common Pleas Court bench last fall. Her former deputy, Tracy Royston, has served as acting controller since then.

Gov. Tom Wolf must appoint a replacement to fill out the remainder of Wagner’s term, which would expire next year, and that appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate. While O’Connor has widely been understood as the favorite for the post, such appointments are handled during the legislature’s budget season, which will reach a fever pitch next month.

Still, on Friday, the governor's office said O’Connor had not been nominated and cautioned against assuming he would be.

“Obviously, I would be honored if the governor and the state Senate believe I can do that job, and I believe I could,” O’Connor said. “But at this point, there have been no nominations, and I know other names have been submitted.” He said that if he weren’t appointed to the post, he would run for re-election on his record next year.

“We’ve been on the right side of a lot of really good issues,” he said. “We’ve passed a paid sick leave bill, fought for affordable housing and early childhood education. I still plan on being a council member.”

If O’Connor is named to the post, the city charter requires an election to replace him not more than four months after the fact. But Warwick says that she plans to compete for that seat whenever it comes before voters — and whether O’Connor is still in it or not.

Warwick lives in the Four Mile Run area and moved to Pittsburgh in 2014. She works in IT and said she was galvanized by the fight over the Mon Oakland Connector, a controversial and since-discarded proposal to create a roadway for a shuttle-bus system between Oakland and Hazelwood. Residents opposed the program as a likely boondoggle that would jeopardize green space and other uses in the area.

Warwick says the project showed her the need to advocate for residents inside city government.

“District five is a microcosm of the whole city,” she said. It includes portions of Squirrel Hill as well as neighborhoods that include Regent Square, Hazelwood, Greenfield and Lincoln Place. “We have some of the most powerful and influential people in Pittsburgh, as well as some of the poorest and most vulnerable — and everything in between. … So we really need someone on City Council who is active in the community, who has their ear to the ground and who’s ready to stand up and advocate for the needs of residents, especially when big money and special interests are involved.”

She said she began laying the groundwork for the campaign in the past few months and that her efforts included reaching out to residents from across the district, as well as Democratic committeepeople, who would be responsible for picking their party’s nominee in the event of a special election.

She said she would campaign on being accessible. “There seems to be sometimes in Pittsburgh an issue of access when it comes to city government," she said. "It’s very hard for people to get things done when they don’t have connections.”

And she said that too often, council members deferred to the mayor on key issues, where she felt they often “act[ed] as a rubber stamp.” While she said she volunteered to help on Mayor Ed Gainey’s successful election campaign last year, she said, “Where I disagree with the mayor’s position, I’m going to be an independent voice on council for my constituents.”

O'Connor said that Warwick told him about her plans to run and told him, "I should run for higher office, so I think that says I'm doing a good job here."

Warwick acknowledged saying that but said the point was that she wasn't looking to run for another spot. "I want to be the city council person for my community. This is the office I'm running for." And in any case, she added, her bid wasn’t really about O'Connor.

“I don't want my whole campaign to be a referendum on what is or isn't going to do. He's a friendly guy, and he's been in office for 11 years. I've worked with him.” But she said residents needed a more forceful advocate in their corner, and “if he decides that he wants to continue in the city council seat, then yeah, he will definitely be running against me.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.