Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Could a county treasurer race be ... interesting? Democrat Erica Brusselars hopes so.

Erica Brusselars is vying to run in what could be the first competitive Democratic primary for county treasurer in decades
Brusselars campaign
Erica Brusselars is vying to run in what could be the first competitive Democratic primary for county treasurer in decades

In a year that shows every sign of being a landmark local election, this may be the biggest change of all: Allegheny County may have a competitive primary for county treasurer — a position John Weinstein has held for almost a quarter-century.

Erica Rocchi Brusselars is launching her bid for the office Tuesday, and if she gets onto the Democratic ballot in May, it will likely mark the first time in the 21st century that there has been a primary contest for the race.

“We have not been looking at this office in a long time,” said Brusselars. Even this year, she concedes, “The county executive race and the DA’s race, I expect would be the bigger draw. [But] I decided to run because we need to make this change. And I think as someone who’s independent and more new on the political scene, I can face an incumbent.”

WESA Politics Newsletter

Stay on top of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania political news from WESA's reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

This would be Brusselars’ first run for elected office, though she chairs the Allegheny County Democratic Committee chapter in the 23rd Ward of Pittsburgh. The office she’s seeking is charged with collecting, investing and spending county money. It collects county taxes, including property taxes and local business taxes like levies on alcoholic drinks and hotel rooms. It also issues dog licenses. Weinstein, a force in county politics even if his post lacks the visibility of other countywide offices like controller or county executive, has held since 2000.

Brusselars thinks it’s time for a change in leadership, one that would put office budgets online, make it uniformly possible to pay county taxes online and lower other payment barriers. A new set of eyes, she said, would be more likely to start “exploring ways to make [processes] fairer, or asking questions as to why they’re that way.”

Brusselars, who grew up in California and moved to Pittsburgh to study at Carnegie Mellon University, works as a consultant with expertise in pensions and retirement plans.

“The bulk of my career was as a corporate pension plan consultant, and so that involved looking at long-term solutions,” she said.

Not surprisingly, she’s taking a close look at the county’s own pension plan, which is overseen by a pension board that Weinstein chairs.

Brusselars called the plan “significantly underfunded” in past years, and surmises that a difficult year for the stock market didn’t help in 2022 either. “No one’s talking about how we’re going to pay for that,” she said.

Last year former county controller Chelsa Wagner warned that it was barely over one-third funded — half the rate she said was healthy — and that efforts to make up the difference were “a mere tourniquet” over the problem. Other calculations of pension funding paint a more optimistic picture, but Brusselars said unless current trends changed, the picture would get worse. The first step the county should take was to “look at what is the cost to responsibility fund” county pensions.

As WESA first reported last week, Weinstein has a fundraising event scheduled for Thursday at which he is expected to announce a bid for county executive, even as he seeks re-election to the Treasurer post. He’s an accomplished fundraiser who went into his 2019 re-election bid with nearly $600,000 on-hand — an amount bolstered by support from area unions.

Such factors, combined with relatively low voter interest in the treasurer’s office, have meant very little competition in the past two decades. Weinstein arguably hasn’t faced a serious challenge since 2003, when his Republican opponent, John Pierce, trotted out a volunteer in a chicken suit called “Reformo the Chicken” (a criticism of Weinstein for declining to debate). Weinstein at one point threatened to sue Pierce for defamation but won the election easily. In the four cycles since then, he has faced only one opponent, who he beat in the 2011 general election by a margin of two-to-one.

But Brusselars said the political climate may give her a boost. A self-described progressive Democrat, she said that in recent years, “We’ve seen a shift in the county and the electorate towards more progressive candidates and towards more independent people running and being successful.”

She cited Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s win in 2021, Summer Lee’s election to Congress last year, and the formidable campaign of Sara Innamorato for county executive. Brusselars herself has taken part in that movement, having been involved in a “court watch” program to monitor county judges’ handling of criminal cases.

How much that movement buoys Brusselars’ prospects is an open question. Progressive Democrats will be active in a number of races this year, starting with the county executive contest. However, Weinstein and some county council progressives have at times had overlapping agendas.

”I like solving problems,” she said when asked why she wants the job. “I am good at looking at the whole scheme of things and figuring out how it all interacts.”

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.