By Harriet P. Gross
My hometown, Pittsburgh, has had only one woman mayor in a history dating back to the Revolution, and she was a beloved Jewish grandmother. The whole city wept when Sophie Masloff was laid to rest in mid-August at age 96.
Truly a legend in her own time, Sophie was born in December 1917 to Romanian immigrant parents. She spoke only Yiddish until she went to school; her English was forever delivered in a distinctive raspy voice.
Politics always interested her; she first became active on the local level in the 1930s. Today’s mayor, Bill Peduto, would often meet her at a Starbucks near her home for coffee and advice.
At her death, he summarized her history: “A woman who was on the ground floor of the Democratic movement in a city that used to be Republican…A woman who started out as a teenage volunteer and became a political leader…A woman who built a career on her own and, in the process, changed the dynamics of Pittsburgh forever…”
Sophie was first elected to City Council when she was 60 years old; a dozen years later, in 1988, she was the first woman ever to be its president. Then-Mayor Dick Caliguiri was a young man with a rare blood illness that took his life that same year. Her friend and mentor, he spent his last days in Sophie’s office, preparing her for the big job that she would inherit for the balance of his term after he passed away, and encouraging her to run on her own in 1989’s regular election.
She did, winning her four-year term over a quartet of male candidates. Her campaign slogan was humorous: “Four Guys and a Gal. Vote for the Gal.” But her personal focus was always on doing what was right. “The first question out of the gate on every policy discussion was ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” said her former chief-of-staff. “She started it all with that. She was our conscience.”
A local judge called her “an old-school politician, a no-nonsense mayor” who brought to her office the common touch that endeared her to the city as its “little Jewish grandmother.”
According to her former press secretary, “She pretty much treated her five-and-a-half years as mayor like that — being the matriarch of the large family that she considered Pittsburgh to be.”
Colin McNickle, a columnist for one of Pittsburgh’s two daily newspapers, penned an essay that ran on the day of her funeral service at Temple Sinai. “To many on the outside, Sophie Masloff was a most improbable mayor for Pittsburgh,” he wrote. “A woman. A grandmother. Jewish. And, oh, that voice! But for Pittsburghers, she was a natural, a never apologetic ‘one of us.’ Compassionate and inclusive? Of course. But this ‘old Jewish grandmother,’ as she was wont to characterize herself, was no pushover. She became the best ambassador the city ever had. And when she died, more than a bit of each of us died with her.”
Sophie didn’t run for a second term, but she left a huge legacy. Among her accomplishments: pitching the idea and backing construction of a new baseball stadium to keep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the city, starting efforts to privatize such costly city assets as the zoo and what is now the National Aviary, and creating a five-member citizens’ ethics board to hear complaints from the common people against city officials and employees. After leaving elected office, she continued to serve on boards and commissions.
Darlene Harris, a Pittsburgh City Councilwoman today said, “We’ve lost a great woman, someone who really cared. To the very end, she did what she could for the city.”
Once, Bill Clinton telephoned Sophie in her mayoral office. “This is the president of the United States calling,” he said. The little old Jewish grandmother replied: “Yes? And I’m the Queen of Sheba.” And she hung up on him.
The legend lives on.