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Four hopefuls seek Democratic nomination next week in City Council special election

pittsburgh city council council chamber sign.JPG
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Four candidates met a Tuesday afternoon deadline for informing Democratic Party leaders that they want to replace Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O'Connor in District 5. And while the special election to replace him won't take place until November 8, change already seems to be on the way.

Of the hopefuls who want to be the Democratic nominee, none live in Squirrel Hill, which has dominated the district for decades.

The candidates include two Greenfield community advocates, Kristi Heidel and Barbara Warwick. Heidel is an ethics investigator for the University of Pittsburgh who until recently served on the board of the Greenfield Community Association. Warwick works in IT and was active in a successful bid to fend off an unpopular transit project.

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They are joined by Reverend Michael Murray Jr. of Hazelwood, and Swisshelm Park's Jeffrey McCafferty, who is perhaps best known as chair of the city's St. Patrick's Day parade.

The candidates will have a chance to introduce themselves tonight at a community forum arranged by Democratic leaders. That event is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. It will be livestreamed.

Democratic Party leaders will gather September 15th to choose their nominee at the Pittsburgh Firefighters union local in Hazelwood. As is typical for special elections (which have no primaries) the choice will be made by Democratic committeepeople, who represent each voting precinct in the council district, with the top vote-getter being the party nominee.

Other candidates could enter the race as independents or representatives of other parties, and there has been speculation that former councilor Doug Shields, who pondered a run as a Democrat but then withdrew, may yet do so. (Shields did not respond to a query from WESA after his withdrawal.) But being the lone Democrat in the race will be a big advantage in the heavily Democratic district.

District 5 includes portions of Squirrel Hill as well as neighborhoods that include Regent Square, Hazelwood, Greenfield and Lincoln Place. The fact that the candidates hail from outside Squirrel Hill is notable. O’Connor, who stepped down from his council post after more than a decade in office to serve as county controller, was a native of the area. His father was also a Squirrel Hill resident who represented the district during the 1990s and into the 21st century. Shields, another Squirrel Hill resident, served most of the period between them.

The rise of candidates outside the neighborhood may reflect increased political ferment in Greenfield and Hazelwood especially. The area has seen both a rise in large-scale development on the site of a former steel mill, and controversy surrounding the Mon-Oakland Connector, a transit project bitterly opposed in Greenfield.

A wave of new Democratic committeepeople were elected this spring to Democratic Committee posts in Ward 15, which overlays much of that territory. They will be able to weigh in on the District 5 nomination next week. Addy Lord, who is the new vice-chair of Ward 15, said that opposition to the transit project built new social and political networks, and has inspired some residents to “make sure that the interests of Hazelwood and Greenfield are elevated.”

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.