Q&A With Lita Brillman, Candidate for City Council District 5

This is how I have come to describe my campaign: Community-focused, data-driven.

This is the next post of our 2023 primary election season series ‘Political Q&A’ with progressive candidates throughout Pennsylvania. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com. We welcome candidates at all levels of government across the entire Commonwealth.

By participating, candidates are saying that they

  • must be an LGBTQIA+ ally, specifically supporting equality and dignity for transgender persons
  • identify as pro-choice
  • must affirm that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that they accept the certified Pennsylvania’s election results

I connected with Lita on Twitter. She’s running for Council seat in District 5, formerly held by Corey O’Connor. It was filled by a Special Election (through 2022) and this Primary Election will determine who fills the next full term. I was impressed (of course) that she asked me about the Q&A. And then her responses are robust and nuanced. I was also struck that she’s both bisexual and Jewish, like a female candidate we recently sent to the State House. That gives me hope for a more representative political future.

District 5 is in orange

Your Name: Lita Brillman

Your Pronouns: She/her

The Office You Seek: City Council, District 5

How do you describe your identity? Bisexual

Tell us about your district. What is a hidden gem most people might not know about? District 5 is an extremely diverse community, with lots of small bites taken out of various neighborhoods so you can really get a snapshot of Pittsburgh as a whole just within its borders. Perhaps none of these are so hidden, but some of my favorite places in District 5 are Allegro Hearth Bakery on lower Murray which has vegan versions of the Jewish baked goods I crave, the Manor Theatre, and I find it very neat that the highest point in Pittsburgh is the Calvary Cemetery here, not Mount Washington! For bars, I’m a big fan of J. Gough’s in Greenfield, the Woods House in Hazelwood, and Zano’s in the Run. We also are lucky enough to have some great parts of Frick and Schenley, including Flagstaff Hill, the Schenley Oval, and the clay courts in Regent Square. Hazelwood as a whole has some great gems of Pittsburgh infrastructure, including a cool step network on Nansen Street. 

How has redistricting impacted your district? The latest redistricting didn’t much affect my District since much of it borders non-Pittsburgh boroughs so those lines can’t really change. However, in the last redistricting District 5 did lose a small chunk of Squirrel Hill North, which can make the average property values in D5 go down. This may not end up having an impact, but something to keep an eye on for future redistricting is attempts to consolidate wealthy areas into the same district, as that may grant them priority for investment of city funding, leaving lower-income districts behind. 

Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life? Using initials or pseudonyms is fine. In middle and high school a series of my closest friends came out to me as early as 7th grade. My parents weren’t the most progressive growing up, though they’ve really come around. My sibling is nonbinary and they have been very supportive. However, they never even gave me the notion to be homophobic. When my friend came out to me in 8th grade it just made sense. Since then, I think I really established myself as a person people came to with this kind of information, even though it would take me a little longer to come out as bisexual in high school. The impact of these friends and the LGBTQ community from a young age for me was immeasurable – going to Pride and the Rocky Horror Picture Show as early as 9th grade really enmeshed me in a culture that just clicked with me, and having friends come out to me young gave me that opportunity so I am so grateful to be immersed in the queer community that early. I remember my entry point to political engagement really being gay marriage since that was very controversial when I was starting to become politically aware, and from there it flowed into every issue I hold dear now. Observing the oppression of gay people helped me link homophobia to misogyny, which helped establish my deep commitment to abortion and reproductive freedom, and in researching that I learned about the racism in the history of birth control and reproduction which sparked my interest in Black feminism, and like dominoes I became entrenched in all of the struggles I fight against today. 

Almost any campaign event I’ve attended including endorsement interviews, committee meetings, etc., have not had ASL interpreters or captions.

How has your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region changed since you became politically active?  In a way I have always been politically active, even before I considered becoming a politician. However, since beginning my journey to City Council, I have noticed the ways in which certain forms of community engagement are sometimes prioritized over others in the establishment. Particularly in the endorsement process, there is a great deal of expectation to go to certain meetings, meet with certain committee members, get coffee with certain people, and I find that more informal community engagement is less valued. For me, I’m trying to find a balance between that formal and informal. I understand the necessary processes and engage with them as much as I can as a full time student running a first time campaign, but I’m also not willing to give up my day to day experiences with the queer community like going to drag shows because I believe that’s where you can often get the most authentic engagement and learn what people really need, since their voices are often marginalized and not offered a seat at the table. As I continue with my campaign, I’ve learned to see these moments as valuable and political, as well as extremely healing. 

Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for City Council? How will you respond to those priorities? In terms of concrete protections, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have passed local legislation that protects LGBTQ residents from discrimination, however, many of these do not extend to the state level. This means that if someone lives in Allegheny County but works in another county, they could be subject to discrimination since employment discrimination is based on where you work, not where you live. I will therefore prioritize working with neighboring counties and state legislators to ensure these protections are extended state-wide. We know, however, that legal protections aren’t always enough. According to the latest PA LGBTQ needs assessment, 35% of LGBTQ people feel that their healthcare needs are not adequately met or understood by their healthcare providers. This means that healthcare providers are not being adequately trained on gender-responsive care, and we must make this training a priority as early as medical school here in Pittsburgh. In terms of wider-reaching issues, LGBTQ people are often disproportionately affected by homelessness, an issue I plan to make a priority as councilperson. With stagnant wages and rising inflation, fair housing and good union jobs must be prioritized to keep our LGBTQ neighbors secure. I also go into more detail later in this questionnaire about protecting trans youth, which should be a massive priority for anyone seeking office at this time. Finally, I plan to promote more evaluation and accountability of LGBTQ nonprofits and resource centers in Pittsburgh to make sure they are spending responsibly and providing the resources they claim to effectively and efficiently. 

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Please give an example of how intersectionality has informed your work. From the academic to the practical, intersectionality is always at the forefront of my mind. I majored in women’s studies in college and am now earning a certificate in gender and sexuality from Pitt along with my MPA, and though I understand that the academy can only go so far in instilling these values, I feel that this formal training has helped cement an intersectional lens to be applied to all aspects of my life. Specifically, even in the campaign, “asking the other question” has helped me identify ways in which inclusivity can be expanded. Almost any campaign event I’ve attended including endorsement interviews, committee meetings, etc., have not had ASL interpreters or captions. I see nonprofit organizations with all-white boards making determinations about endorsements while they champion progressive causes. Additionally, I see political leaders responding to crises such as the Ohio train derailment without taking into account the ways that race plays into these responses. Environmental justice means understanding that the people most impacted by environmental catastrophes like this are Black communities, and infrastructure that hosts these disasters like railroads and highways are built intentionally through Black communities so that when disasters like this occur they are the ones that suffer. Mitigating these situations requires a hard look not just at accountability and evaluation of existing infrastructure, but also at where these are built in the future. Additionally, crisis management must prioritize relocating and taking care of the communities that are impacted by this in a responsible and culturally responsive manner, utilizing leaders from the community as the people impacted may be understandably wary of government institutions that ask them to evacuate. Finally, many leaders are conveniently not referencing the railroad strike and scabbing that occurred there that lead to this disaster. This is a clear example of union jobs and the environment going hand in hand, and our leaders ignoring it. Union jobs are a cornerstone of livability for Black communities, and cannot be disentangled from the identities that make union labor strong. The train derailment is just one example, but we see our leaders ignoring multiple identities all the time – ASL and translation services, childcare, and basic disability services like making sure sidewalks are usable with walkers and wheelchairs are absolutely essential to making this city work for all of our residents. 

Please give an example of when another person has persuaded you to change or adjust your perspective on an issue. I used to have many reservations about the push that happened in my lifetime for women/POC in STEM, and the funding directed toward that. I found it to be a bit of an “add women and stir” approach to equality, where if we just have female engineers then somehow misogyny in that sector and beyond will be solved. I also found it to be a tactic to elevate traditionally male dominated fields above the humanities, which I do not believe to be true. However, in one of my classes at GSPIA I learned from a professor about the very compelling evidence that Black patients having Black doctors can lead to statistically significant positive health outcomes, including lower mortality of Black infants. This prompted me to consider the social responsibility of investing in women and POC in STEM, as if this is true of doctors, what else could be true about having racial and gender concordance in other STEM fields? Thus my mind has changed and I am more convinced, based on the data, of the practical impacts of increasing representation in these fields. 

Your website describes policy around affordable home ownership.Please tell us about rental housing in your district. What are the barriers and challenges? What are your plans to ensure affordable, safe, and accessible housing options for renters, from students to lifelong residents? One of the challenges around housing in District 5 is the age of the homes. The average house in Hazelwood, for example, was built in 1912, which means there is a lot of available housing that is not up to code to be sold or rented. While Pittsburgh has as of late been very focused on developing new housing, particularly apartment buildings, it is much less of a carbon footprint to rehabilitate old houses, which we can subsidize through nonprofits and CDCs like the Hazelwood Initiative, who already has a program like this. This is more environmentally efficient and helps circumvent the broken Section 8 system, plus there is snot much room in Hazelwood for new building anyway as much of the neighborhood is landslide-prone. Crucially, these houses should be sold or rented with priority, and with a discount, to existing Hazelwood residents, and as councilperson I will work with the county to keep property taxes low enough so as not to be a threat to displacement once the home is sold. I use Hazelwood as an example because with the development of the Hazelwood Green there is the potential for rents to rise and for residents to be displaced, but using data-driven surveys we can identify other priority areas for housing rehabilitation and implement similar programs in hyperlocal contexts. Additionally, I will fight to halt evictions and make sure tenants are aware of their rights, and provide them resources to stay in their homes and apartments. 

When Bruce Kraus leaves office, there will be no out LGBTQ members of Council, depending on this election cycle results. That’s a significant loss for our community in terms of representation. Does it matter for a City like Pittsburgh to have a Council that’s entirely cisgender and heterosexual? Yes, it matters. Even the most pro-LGBTQ candidates don’t have the roots within the queer community in the same way that someone actually raised in it can. There is merit to having skin in the game, and to being entrenched in the community to bring the most vulnerable voices into the conversation. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are leaders for policy for the whole state, so we have an obligation to promote representation and diversity on City Council.

In September 2022, City Council recognized the first ‘Protect Trans Kids’ Day in Pittsburgh with a proclamation written by trans teens. Please review the proclamation and offer some concrete policy or program solution you would consider championing in response to their priorities. Per the proclamation, the city of Pittsburgh must work harder to recognize the “unique contributions and needs of trans kids,” which starts at school where kids spend a great deal of time. I will advocate for mandatory, paid, culturally responsive teacher, staff, coach, and guidance counselor training that recognizes the unique struggles of trans kids, particularly trans kids of color, and requires competency in sensitive and accurate interpersonal communication with trans students, including the necessity of appropriate gendering, awareness of how to navigate potential bullying or misgendering from other students, and familiarity with trans youth resources. This also requires mandating and enforcing schools to allow and encourage kids to participate in sports and other gendered activities that match best with their gender identity, meaning legally no trans girl can be excluded from playing on a girl’s sports team. While there is currently no law against trans girls participating on girls’ teams and trans boys on boys’ teams, an affirmative law would make it impossible for individual schools to try to stop these students from expressing their gender identity. This also includes not requiring kids to use bathrooms or locker rooms that do not correspond with their gender identity, as locker rooms and gym class can be a site of unsupervised harassment. Finally, we need to make absolutely clear that teachers are not required to report any sexuality or gender identity disclosed to them in confidence by a student to their parents, and teachers cannot be punished for keeping this information confidential, as telling the student’s parents may subject them to punitive repercussions at home. 

Potential mergers or collaborations with the County creates a dilemma for City employees who would lose access to domestic partner benefits. The County briefly offered them to same sex, non-unionized employees before rescinding them in 2015. The City offers domestic partner benefits to all employees. The former City 911 employees lost this benefit when merged with the County 911 Department. Would you commit publicly to require any potential partner for mergers and consolidations to ensure City employees do not lose benefits? Yes, of course. Discriminating both on sexuality and non-union affiliation is flat-out wrong and must be addressed. 

Observing the oppression of gay people helped me link homophobia to misogyny, which helped establish my deep commitment to abortion and reproductive freedom, and in researching that I learned about the racism in the history of birth control and reproduction which sparked my interest in Black feminism, and like dominoes I became entrenched in all of the struggles I fight against today. 

How do competitive primary elections benefit the residents of a community? Contested elections are a cornerstone of our democracy. I was not able to run in the special election in November for a variety of reasons, so I really want the voters to be able to choose. We are lucky in this election to have two qualified women candidates, so the voters really get to decide what’s important to them not just in how we will vote but how we will lead and what policies we will bring to the table, so voters really don’t have to settle. 

What are three reasons people should vote for you/support your campaign? 

  1. I have a strong data and statistics background combined with killer people skills that make me uniquely qualified to find lasting, accountable solutions. I will start all policy processes by talking with communities impacted, elevating historically marginalized voices, to get qualitative data and essential feedback, and then roll up my sleeves the research and hard numbers to craft policy that doesn’t just get effective outcomes, but crease effective and sustainable processes to continue addressing these problems for years to come. This is how I have come to describe my campaign: Community-focused, data-driven.
  2. I am more progressive on policing than the incumbent, and will prioritize community investment and infrastructural changes to address root causes of crime rather than increasing police presence and security. 
  3. I am not an establishment person – I have run a grassroots, community-funded campaign with an emphasis on the nontraditional. Electing a queer Jewish woman to council that comes with a fresh perspective, a willingness to disrupt and challenge, that also has a deep love and understanding of her district and Pittsburgh as a whole, will benefit not just District 5 but all of Pittsburgh as I push their councilmembers to think creatively and never settle. 

Tell me about your other endorsements and supporters. The endorsement process is long, expensive, and not friendly toward non-incumbents. I look forward to meeting with more individuals and organizations for their endorsements, but I am still at the very beginning of the process. 

Is there anything you’d like to add? Pittsburgh can be a wonderful place to be queer. It can also be a place that is fraught with conflict and harassment, particularly for trans communities of color. I will give these communities not just a seat at the table, but a megaphone to get their perspectives front and center on how to tackle these crucial issues.

Where can readers find your campaign on social media? I am @litaforpgh on Twitter, instagram, and facebook, and my website is litabrillman.com. I am also happy to connect via email, litaforpgh@gmail.com

Thank you, Lita

Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here. 

  1. Q&A with Rachael Heisler, Candidate for Pittsburgh City Controller
  2. Q&A with Abigail Salisbury, Candidate for PA State House District 34
  3. Q&A with Erica Rocchi Brusselars, Candidate for Allegheny County Treasurer
  4. Q&A with Bethany Hallam, Incumbent Candidate for Allegheny County Council, At-Large
  5. Q&A with Tracy Royston, Candidate for Pittsburgh City Controller
  6. Q&A with Lita Brillman, Candidate for City Council, District 5


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