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Rachael Heisler, top aide to outgoing City Controller Michael Lamb, seeks to replace him

Rachael Heisler hopes to replace her boss, Michael Lamb, as City Controller in the 2023 election.
Heisler campaign
Rachael Heisler hopes to replace her boss, Michael Lamb, as City Controller in the 2023 election.

The top aide to outgoing City Controller Michael Lamb hopes to replace him when he steps down from office next year.

Deputy Controller Rachael Heisler, who joined Lamb’s staff in early 2021, announced her bid for the job Wednesday morning.

“I believe wholeheartedly in good government, and making sure that people have equal access to the government that they pay for,” she said in an interview. "I’m running because I believe that I’m the best person to continue the work of advocating for taxpayers [and] connecting problems with solutions.”

Heisler has handled communications for Lamb and been directly involved in office functions, which provides financial oversight for the city and carries out performance audits of its operations. The department also provides some oversight of city schools, and Heisler said that an audit of city-funded crossing guards this fall began when a guard told her about concerns that guards weren’t being properly equipped.

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“I love to talk to people and I love to hear about how they view city government,” Heisler said.

Lamb will be running for county executive next year rather than seeking another term in city government. But not surprisingly, Heisler said she would continue the course Lamb has charted since he was elected in 2008. She cited the importance of maintaining Open Book Pittsburgh, which provides a searchable database of city contracts, lobbyists, officials’ financial disclosure and other information.

“I think the ultimate legacy of Controller Lamb’s tenure is bringing government online and advocating for transparency,” she said. “It’s of utmost importance to have that trust with city residents, just so they can see where their money is going.”

Heisler also lauded Lamb for helping City Council to shore up the city’s chronically underfunded pensions by committing a portion of parking tax revenue to the funds. But as the country tries to recover from the coronavirus, “We need to make sure that our recovery continues to be equitable and durable.”

While the pandemic showed a need for investments in food security and affordable housing, she said, revenues are expected to drop as federal COVID aid dries up. That meant the city needs to “look ahead and [make sure] we’re not creating programs that people rely on and then we can’t fund them two years later.”

Heisler joins former acting county controller Tracy Royston in the race, and other candidates are likely to enter as well. But what separates her from other potential office seekers, Heisler said, is that “I will be ready to go on day one. I have been Michael’s deputy, and I will also point to [the] 10-plus years I’ve had working in public finance and [advocating] for good government.”

Indeed, Heisler came to city government by way of a career path that blends politics and policy. She worked on election campaigns for Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and former U.S. House Rep. Jason Altmire, a “Blue Dog” Democrat from outside Pittsburgh. She also served as Altmire’s communications director before working for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an advocacy group focused on the federal debt and issues that include the solvency of Medicare and Social Security.

Heisler chairs the Democratic Committee in Pittsburgh’s 22nd Ward, on the North Side. This is her first run for a non-party office.

If elected, she said, a top priority would be reviewing the accessibility of city services. Especially since the pandemic, many city operations are handled remotely. But “some people don’t routinely use the internet,” she said. “You have an entire generation of people who still want to deal with somebody in person. I think it’s really important that all departments, all branches of government meet people where they are.”

During his tenure, Lamb often warned about the city’s tax structure, and the need to have it reflect the changing economy. He was often critical of large tax-exempt nonprofits, who make up some of the region’s biggest employers. Conversely, he took a limited view of his office’s ability to oversee the performance of the school district beyond narrow clerical functions.

Royston, for one, has said the controller’s ability to audit the schools may need updating, but Heisler takes a dimmer view of the prospects for doing so. Without action by the state legislature to change the school code, she said, “unfortunately, our hands are sort of tied” even though “collaboration between the city and the school district is essential.” And she said she would continue Lamb’s work to scrutinize the size of the hole tax-exempt employers have punched in the city’s balance sheet.

In any case, she said, “This primary is always an opportunity to have a conversation. I love talking about the city comptroller's office. It's the thing that people don't know that they need in city government.”

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.