In 2003 I visited recently departed ex-Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff at her apartment in Squirrel Hill and wrote this column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Sophie is still something special
Aug. 3, 2003
She’s 85 now, so she’s lost a step or two.
She no longer drives at night. And it’s been a while since she’s been invited to the White House, a place she first visited during FDR’s final term and last saw during Bill Clinton’s time.
But as I found out Wednesday when I visited her at her Squirrel Hill apartment, Sophie Masloff is still up to speed on city politics and still a very recognizable institution about town.
In case you’ve forgotten, Sophie Masloff — the funny old lady in those TV spots for Gateway Clipper Fleet and Appliance Warehouse — was once mayor of Pittsburgh.
She ruled during what now seems like Pittsburgh’s good-old days, 1988 to 1994, when the city wasn’t openly bankrupt and begging for state funding.
“Mayor Sophie,” as everyone naturally called her, was a major civic hoot, an editorial cartoonist’s dream, a TV sitcom mayor come to life. But today, with her native city $60 million in the red, her relatively responsible, competent and uneventful reign looks better every day.
It’s been eight grim years since Sophie the Accidental Mayor turned the keys of City Hall over to Mayor Murphy and his wrecking crew of amateur economic developers.
The former county courts clerk and stalwart party worker bee would be the last to toot her own horn or criticize the Democrats now in charge of her sickly city — for the record, anyway. And she reminds that as mayor she had plenty of help from administrative sharpies like Joe Mistick (now a regular Sunday Trib columnist) and Jim Turner.
But Sophie is not shy about praising what her administration did and didn’t do well. In her first week in office, she said, she had street signs put up throughout the city. She ordered four new street sweepers and put them on a regular cleaning schedule. She cut the city wage tax by half a percentage point.
Asked what her major accomplishments were, she listed the Crawford-Roberts housing plan on the Lower Hill. Also, she said, her administration privatized four city-owned assets that were costing the city money — the zoo, the aviary, Phipps Conservatory and the Schenley Park golf course.
It’s easy to criticize what’s going on now, Sophie said, declining to do so. But, she noted, “I left office with a balanced budget and a triple-A bond rating. I don’t know what happened. It all fell apart.”
Sophie is worried about Pittsburgh’s chronic ailments — its continuing population decline, shriveling tax base and need for more new jobs. She knows the city has too many fire houses and is being robbed by the firefighters’ union, whose greed and political power she admits she could not tame.
Still, she’s optimistic about the city’s future. She’s not against using gambling proceeds to bail it out. And, ever the good big-city Democrat, she thinks higher taxes could save the day. If the state lets the city raise its $10 occupational tax to $52, she said, “We’ll be able to pull it off.”
Several times on Wednesday, as she showed me photos of herself with everyone from the Pope and Pavarotti to Bill Clinton, a man she “loved dearly,” Sophie fretted that it seemed egotistical to be talking about her life, which she insists is nothing special.
She’s wrong, of course. She’s had a truly amazing career in Democrat politics. It was launched at 17 when she saw Eleanor Roosevelt dedicate the Bedford Dwellings housing project and ended with her becoming mayor at age 70.
The scariest thing is, if Sophie Friedman Masloff ran again, she’d probably get elected. Half the people she meets on the street still think she’s their mayor. In some ways, she will always be.
Sophie sent me this nice note — the nicest one I ever received from a Democrat mayor.