The Special Election to fill the City Council seat for District 8, formerly held by Dan Gilman is many things. It is a contested election with Democratic, Republican, and Independent contenders. It is a race full of big ideas on everything from pothole repairs to clean water and rent control. It is also a genuine opportunity to elect a woman who is both experienced and competent enough on how a City government works to hit the ground running, a woman who understands the nuances of local, state, and federal law around issues like infrastructure funding, environmental regulation, and best practices for affordable housing.
That candidate is Erika Strassburger. You can read more about her at her campaign site. You can follow her on Twitter (and she how she artfully shortened her name for her handle) @erikastrassbrgr while her Facebook page is also useful to peruse. And you can share this Q&A with someone who lives in District 8, encouraging them to support Erika.
Early on, a mutual friend reached out to me to ask for some names of people who might be interested in meeting with Erika. Almost every name I suggested was either scheduled or on the list. And, dear readers, you know my list is not going to be potential rich white cisgender donors. Still, a list of names is not the same thing as a strategy to govern.
So I asked Erika to do a Q&A with me so you would have a chance to hear the same things I am hearing directly from her.
Your Name: Erika Strassburger
Your Pronouns: she/her
How do you describe your identity? White cisgender heterosexual woman
Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life? Having grown up in Northern California in the 80s/90s, one might expect me to have been surrounded by queer folks my entire life. While my high school did have an active Gay Straight Alliance, and I did attend the SF Pride parade several years, I remember the big deal it when my friend, the brilliant, cynical, introverted Boy Scout came out during his senior year government final presentation project, and how much I wished he could have come out sooner. I’m not proud to say that it took me until I moved to Pittsburgh in 2009 to befriend a genderqueer person a friend and family member who has taught me a lot without even intending to.
Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and beyond. Although members of the LGBTQ community are among the most vulnerable members our population given the lack of housing, employment and other protections from discrimination at the state level, I believe many of the LGBTQ district 8 residents are somewhat buffered against that due to the higher socioeconomic status that many of this district’s residents enjoy. I worry more about the trans or gender nonconforming person of color who might be unemployed or employed at a low-wage job who is less likely to live in district 8 due to higher housing costs.
Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for City Council? Although I think I’ve got a good sense of what issues concern the LGBTQ community in Pittsburgh and which of those issues should be prioritized, I think it’s incumbent upon me to listen to the voices of members of the community to make that determination, and then follow their lead. As a city council member, listening would be my first priority, acting on what I hear my second. I am particularly committed to listening to the voices of queer and trans people of color, because I believe they are among—if not the most—marginalized group in Pittsburgh.
How will you respond to those priorities? There’s a lot of good happening in this city, but I fear we’re also leaving whole groups of people behind, and we need to do better. Pittsburgh may be the most livable city for some, but we need to make it the most livable city for all. I’m committed to listening to the voices of queer and trans people of color, the LGBTQAI+ community at large, and making their concerns my top priority.
City Council is considering a zoning code change to create a more supportive environment for the art of drag and the performers & venues who support this art form. Please identify other areas where local municipal code and regulations have an impact on LGBTQ lives, perhaps without us even realizing it. While I’m happy to have seen strong Council support for the rezoning of drag performances, I’m sure there are many more examples of our code and our departmental policies that negatively impact or unintentionally favor straight, cisgender people. The City of Pittsburgh hiring processes could be improved to remove all indications of gender identity and expression or sexual orientation so as not to allow for any kind of unconscious bias on the part of the hiring manager. I also wonder how much our mandated Women and Minority-owned Business requirements around contracting could be expanded to include LGBTQ-owned businesses.
The threats of ‘religious liberty’ laws and exemptions target both LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. How does a City Council navigate this equivalency of personal religious freedom with systemic oppression and control of underserved people? It’s a false equivalency. We must always prioritize human and civil rights. As public servants, it should be our guiding mission to make government work for the people—all people. We must do a better job lifting up vulnerable populations at every level of government—this means passing legislation that provides affordable housing, enforces non-discrimination policies, affirms (and expands) civil rights, and fights systemic oppression in whatever ways we can. Let’s be clear that those who are fighting for “religious freedom” are predominantly Christian). Christianity is not under attack in America. LGBTQ persons are.
What are your plans to address affordable housing, clean water infrastructure, and public education within the constraints of City Council? There’s no doubt the city is changing, and in many neighborhoods, growing. While we need this growth to replace an aging workforce and to provide a tax base for infrastructure needs, it must not come at the expense of long-term or low-income residents. Safe, affordable housing is not a luxury. No one should have to choose between paying rent and feeding their family. I will work to implement incentives for affordable units in new housing developments, especially in the neighborhoods with the strongest housing markets; assistance for home repairs, rental rehabilitation, rental assistance, and closing costs; and will push for dense, mixed-income development closest to transit centers and business districts. I will place the highest priority on ensuring that community voices play a central role in making decisions about new development.
Everyone has the right to clean drinking water. Unfortunately, PWSA is dealing with aging infrastructure that suffers from a lack of investment. Black, brown, and poor communities in Pittsburgh suffer the most. Dangerous lead service lines must be replaced throughout the city. Stormwater and sewage overflows are polluting our rivers and flooding basements when it rains. Before serving as District 8 Chief of Staff, where I work regularly on water issues in the district and throughout the city, I spent a decade fighting for clean water as an environmental advocate. I have a vision and a plan to work with PWSA to survey and identify lead lines all over the city, ensure that our water utility remains publicly controlled and accountable to rate-payers, double down on green-first solutions like stormwater utility fees that will help pay for lead line replacement, and address our sewage overflow.
The success of our schools and the success of Pittsburgh go hand in hand. Investing in good schools is an investment in our neighborhoods, our communities, and our future. Excellent schools not only provide opportunities for students to excel, they also keep neighborhoods vibrant, attract and retain families in the city, and increase property values. City Council members must be able to work collaboratively with the Pittsburgh Public School Board, and I have a proven track record of doing just that. As Chief of Staff, I organize regular meetings with the principals of all the schools in District 8 to hear about their needs, share ideas, and provide resources from the City. I assisted with the expansion of the Backpack Initiative beyond Linden School, to ensure that kids who need it are going home with a backpack full of food on the weekend. I will fight for passage and funding of quality, affordable, inclusive, universal pre-k which will help level the playing field for all students. It’s critical that as a city we begin to address the ways in which poverty and racism have led to an unacceptable opportunity gap for too many Pittsburgh children. I will be a strong advocate for high quality, inclusive, and equitable schools for our community.
How are you remaining independent of the legacy of political dynasties while securing the support of the Mayor and his Chief of Staff, who was your former employer? I fully understand and appreciate the public perception of the legacy of this office. I’m proud to have garnered the support of Mayor Peduto and Dan Gilman and have learned a lot from them both. If elected, I would have no problem raising concerns or casting a dissenting vote if I disagree with an approach or policy decision coming out of the administration, or if my constituents voice overwhelming concern. For years, as an environmental advocate, I targeted Democrats and Republicans, friends and foes alike. I have no problem speaking truth to power and will do so if necessary.
Tell me about your other endorsements and supporters.
I’m proud to have the support of the following organizations and individuals.
Clean Water Action
Shadyside Chamber of Commerce
SEIU Healthcare PA
IBEW Local 5
Sheet Metal Workers Local 12
Iron Workers Local Union No. 3
Pittsburgh Firefighters Local 1
Fraternal Order of Professional Paramedics Local 1
International Union of Operating Engineers Local 95
Laborers’ District Council of Western PA
Senator Jay Costa
Representative Dan Frankel
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald
Mayor Bill Peduto
Former Councilmember Dan Gilman
Council President Bruce Kraus
Councilmember Deborah Gross
Councilmember Theresa Kail-Smith
Councilman Corey O’Connor
One of my first experiences of Pgh City Council was liveblogging a public hearing on domestic violence allegations and public servants in 2007. Eleven years later, we are still struggling with this issue and allegations of abuse by public servants of all orientations at all levels of government. How can City Council be more proactive in creating a culture that’s safe and free of harassment & abuse for City employees and the public? The City needs to ensure that there is an airtight internal policy and process as well as the right people in place to allow its employees to seek help in instances of partner violence against themselves or co-workers. Leaders from within City government sign the Western PA Says No More pledge each year, but we must not be afraid to revisit this issue frequently, more than once a year to be sure.
How does intersectionality inform your campaign and your work? Like so many other white, cisgender feminists, I admittedly still have a lot of work to do to make sure that my perspective and, as an elected official, policies and legislation I espouse is inclusive and equitable. I benefit from white privilege, from cisgender and heterosexual privilege, and even from class privilege. I will not be a successful member of any government body if I do not both acknowledge that privilege and work to dismantle a society in which I’m granted it. Both in my work and in my campaign, I am primarily motivated by the opportunity to lift people up, to fight systemic oppression and discrimination. I understand the way in which identities overlap, and plan to let that understanding guide my policy-making. We cannot achieve racial justice without achieving economic justice. We cannot achieve gender justice without achieving reproductive and LGBTQ justice. As an elected official, I will be committed to always thinking about and evaluating the ways in which white supremacy can and does benefit those in power, and I will work to dismantle it in whatever ways I can.
Thank you, Erika.
This blog is supporting Erika in this election. Pittsburgh deserves her experienced, competent leadership. If you live in District 8, please be sure to vote on March 6, 2018.
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