It’s a gray Sunday in Brookline, and Ashleigh Deemer is weaving her way through a secluded patch of town homes on the northeastern edge of the South Pittsburgh neighborhood.
She knocks on the first door. No answer.
Eventually, someone answers. Deemer introduces herself, explains that she’s running for City Council and asks if the resident has any concerns or issues, her usual pitch. No, the resident replies, and Deemer moves on to another home after handing over campaign literature.
She knocks on the door of a home that overlooks Saw Mill Run Boulevard. A man answers and informs the candidate that she’s parked in his “wife’s space.” It’s not clear whose car he’s talking about on the public street, but she moves anyway.
Deemer’s campaign has already done an entire pass of District 4 and is starting again, canvassing the houses of likely voters in targeted areas. Deemer and her campaign manager, Jacob Redfern, each take a home as they make their way up and down the hills of Brookline, Beechview and Carrick. The campaign boasts 50 volunteers who have done the same.
Dozens of doors and about an hour later, Deemer finds a supporter. He’s heard of her, volunteers that he likes bike lanes and agrees to let the campaign send him a yard sign. A small victory in a campaign that has become Deemer’s life outside of her job as chief of staff to sitting Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who announced in December that she wouldn’t seek reelection. Even Deemer’s 34th birthday was a campaign and fundraising event.
“If it’s good enough for Barack Obama to do …” Redfern jokes.
Deemer’s only opponent for the Democratic nomination — which in a blue town like Pittsburgh essentially means the seat — is 50-year-old Anthony Coghill, who’s making his fourth run for the position. Cletus Cibrone-Abate is the lone Republican who filed papers to run in the general election.
So far, Deemer has the public backing of her boss and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Coghill’s endorsement bench is deeper and includes County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, City Controller Michael Lamb and state Sen. Wayne Fontana. He also has the endorsement of the county Democrats, a $3,500 stamp of approval Deemer didn’t seek.
With the field cleared of other challengers thanks to a successful petition challenge, Coghill and Deemer are ramping up their campaigns with offices just blocks from one another on Brookline Boulevard ahead of the May 16 primary.
And in a race decided by just 288 ballots in 2013, each vote is worth moving your car for.
‘Back to basics’
“Back to Basics” is written all over Anthony Coghill’s campaign headquarters at 954 Brookline Blvd. and regularly peppered into a conversation with the candidate.
For Coghill, back to basics means a focus on public works and public safety. “Addressing the things we all pay taxes for,” he says.
“I was born and raised here, Sarah. Lived here my entire life,” says the Beechview native, who will also frequently call you by your first name while talking. “I think some of the basic services have been neglected.”
He’s got a prop ready to prove it. Coghill grabs a poster board with more than a dozen photos of trash in the streets and graffiti on buildings and other structures in neighborhoods like Beechview and Carrick.
“I see our neighborhood through the lens of a contractor,” says Coghill, who owns his own roofing company. He estimates that he does around 60 to 70 percent of his business in the neighborhood, and the way he runs his business is one of the reasons he thinks he’ll win: “They look at that as, ‘That’s the way he’s gonna run City Council.’ And it’s true. That is the way I’m going to be at City Council. Same premise. Different business.”
The trash and graffiti would be addressed on day one, he promises. “This is really what you would not see,” he says.
“If my daughter wanted to move into Beechview, and I was riding on the T with her down Broadway Avenue and I saw that,” he says, referring to one of his photos of graffiti, “I would have second thoughts, I’ll tell ya, because I’d think, ‘Why is that? Does the current administration not see this?’ I don’t understand.”
One of the photos, he claims, shows graffiti Deemer can see from her front door. “I know she sees that every day,” he says. Coghill was in the same situation, he says, with graffiti visible from his home. He painted the offending wall himself.
This is Coghil’s fourth run for the District 4 seat. In 2001, he lost a special election for then-Councilman Michael Diven’s seat to Jim Motznik, who’s now a district judge. He lost again to Motznik in a mud-slinging 2005 race by around 150 votes.
His 2009 run featured a mayoral endorsement and an at-times contentious battle against Patrick Reilly, a staffer for then state Rep. Chelsa Wagner. It ended in defeat to now Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who he notes he supported in the past.
When asked if he thinks Rudiak hasn’t prioritized concerns like litter and graffiti as a councilwoman, he turns the question around: “Let me pose the question to you. What do you think?” he asks with his poster board. “Doesn’t that say it all to you? If I’m the councilperson, honestly, Sarah, I could not have this in my district.”
‘The best job I’ve ever had’
Rudiak won her first term without the support the county Democrats, thanks in part to Coghill and Reilly’s vote splitting, and did it again in 2013. Her decision to leave office was difficult to a point, she says. Being a City Council member is an all-consuming job that doesn’t end when you leave the City-County Building. It was also one made easier by Deemer’s interest in running for the seat.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ ” Rudiak says. “I would not feel comfortable leaving if I wasn’t sure it was going into good hands, and I’m doing everything I can to get Ashleigh Deemer elected.”
Deemer grew up in Cranberry, attended Chatham University, waitressed in Shadyside for a bit then worked at Clean Water Action as a program organizer to reduce diesel pollution. She campaigned to get filters installed on vehicles like Pittsburgh public school buses and joined the Clean Air Task Force to organize similar campaigns around the country.
When her grant ran out there, she was approached by Rudiak’s chief of staff about applying for the position of constituent services manager.
“It wasn’t an easy interview, by the way,” says Deemer, who didn’t know Rudiak at the time. She started in March 2011 and was later promoted to chief of staff.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had, because I get to work on something different every day, and I get to work with people,” Deemer says.
Issues like diesel pollution don’t have many wins. But there are little wins in her work now, she says, from getting a pothole filled to connecting a constituent to the right person. Deemer’s also worked on the issues Rudiak is interested in, like passing paid family leave for city employees and budget reforms that mandated more community involvement.
“You get both the incremental wins and use the community organizing toward actual law, which is really fulfilling,” she says.
If she’s elected, Deemer wants to keep working to get universal pre-K established in Pittsburgh, a movement Rudiak kicked off with legislation that studies the feasibility of doing so.
“Paying for pre-K is often more than a mortgage and childcare, too,” says Deemer, who has a toddler son with her husband. It’s good for the kids and good for the city as well, she notes, since these children graduate and go on to have a career.
“We need someone who’s going to prioritize getting the funding for that and see it through,” she says.
But Deemer’s other goals are what her opponent would probably call “back to basics.”
“The city is still playing catch up from years of disinvestment. It’s not sexy, but we haven’t been painting stuff at the park, you know what I mean?” Deemer says. “There’s really simple things that we need to do to make our assets safe and healthy and nice-looking. That goes for roads and everything else the city touches.”
She points to a campaign to improve Moore Park in Brookline that “blew up” in a neighborhood Facebook group last year. Deemer went out with people who use the park and a public works representative, talked about what improvements could be provided for in the next budget and held a volunteer day to paint. Rudiak’s office later secured $300,000 in city funds for the park.
This approach is why Rudiak thinks voters should back Deemer.
“All of the things Anthony is talking about, we literally haven’t had money to do. They would be done if we had the money to do them,” Rudiak says. “If it was easy, it would be done by now. This job isn’t easy.”
A win for Deemer would also mean Council would maintain its five man-four woman split. It’s not why Deemer’s running, she says, but “everybody is better off when there are people with different perspectives representing the city.”
Her job now means people coming up to her in the grocery store or at the hair salon with a concern like a lightbulb out on the flagpole at the war memorial. And that’s what she enjoys.
“Women run because they want to do things,” Deemer says. “That’s what I want to do. I want to do the things people need done.”
The race to watch
Besides District 4, there are three City Council seats up in 2017: District 2, District 6 and District 8. Those incumbents — Theresa Kail-Smith, Daniel Lavelle and Dan Gilman, respectively — are running unopposed in the primary.
While Deemer points to the work she’s done inside the City-County Building to make the case for her candidacy, Coghill highlights his time as chair of Pittsburgh’s influential 19th Ward Democratic committee. It was a dramatic rise to power that pitted Coghill against his former ally, Pete Wagner, who stepped down.
“I have transformed the Democratic party in the 19th Ward. The system was, I felt, broken,” Coghill says.
His proudest accomplishment was recruiting a slate of candidates to serve as committee members who are “well-respected, well-known and want to make a difference,” he says.
Between his runs for office and work with committee, Coghill says he’s “continually been canvassing these neighborhoods for 15 years now.”
“That’s why I tend to know people,” Coghill says, as he walks down Brookline Boulevard stopping to shake hands and looking into shops.
“That’s my uncle’s place,” he says.
“Being a ward chair doesn’t mean you’re involved in your community. It means you’re a ward chair. You were elected by a small number of people and that’s it,” Deemer says. “Every Democratic committee around the city is different. And some ward chairs might be very involved in their communities, and he’s not.”
Coghill also worked part-time as Fontana’s constituent liaison when the state senator was elected in 2006. It’s a relationship, he says, he’d leverage to direct funds toward projects like revitalizing Broadway Avenue in Beechview.
“This thing should be turned around overnight, and it will be with me working with our state senator, Wayne Fontana, and with other elected officials,” he says.
Deemer also believes City Council members could do more to lobby legislators in Harrisburg.
“They mostly agree on many things,” she says of City Council. “I know that many of our state legislators here in Allegheny County get it. We need to make the case to other people in leadership who can get things done.”
This race has not been without some drama.
After Tony Griffith, a staffer for Sheriff Bill Mullen, dropped out of the race and endorsed Coghill, Deemer’s campaign released a statement accusing Coghill of making a backroom deal without providing any evidence.
“Nothing could be further from the truth, and my committee is a prime example of this,” Coghill says. “People are supporting me because they know me and trust me.”
That’s one way to view why Coghill has secured the endorsements of former opponents Griffith and vape shop owner Gary McBurney, as well prominent Western Pa. Democrats. But the question can be viewed through many lenses.
Coghill’s campaign did not release a statement from the county executive on why he’s backing the candidate, and Fitzgerald couldn’t be reached for comment. Coghill says he supports Fitzgerald’s and Mayor Bill Peduto’s vision for the city.
The elected officials who’ve endorsed him “support me because they have confidence in me. And I’ve been working with them for years and years now,” Coghill says. “They know that I’m a good leader, and I think they know I’m going to bring good leadership to City Council, something that’s sorely needed.”
But some see sexism at work, as elected officials publicly throw their weight behind Coghill instead of Deemer — who’s arguably more qualified to start on day one.
“The problem I have is that many of these very men talk a good talk about wanting to see more women holding elected offices. As do their friends, supporters and donors,” Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents wrote of the race. “But when the rubber hits the road, they endorse and support a man who is less qualified and less experienced.” (Kerr does not live in District 4.)
Fontana doesn’t see it that way.
“Does she know more? What you’d want to do is go by their record,” Fontana says. “There’s a lot of stuff to get done in both Beechview and Carrick, in those communities, that hasn’t been done.”
Like Coghill, Fontana doesn’t think Rudiak’s office has been responsive to constituent calls. “I have an office on Brookline Boulevard, so I get a lot of city complaints because the response wasn’t good out of the city councilwoman’s office, and the chief of staff reflects that,” he said. “I think it’s time for a change. She’s part of what happened in the past. … That screams that there should be change.”
Coghill has shown through his committee work that he has the ability to work with others and organize, Fontana said.
“Does that person know any more? I don’t know,” Fontana said of Deemer. “Anthony grew up in the neighborhood. He’s 50 years old. He’s been around for 50 years. He certainly understands the neighborhood and what’s needed.”
“When I’m talking to voters, they don’t care about that stuff,” Deemer says of endorsements. “They care about experience and who knows how to get stuff done for them. … They care about the person who’s at their community meetings and block watches, who they know. And that person is me.”
Politics do come into play with donors, she says, but Deemer thinks that will matter less as the race continues.
Kyle Stewart, Coghill’s campaign manager, says voters respond to his candidate’s genuine approach to relationship building. That Coghill is now endorsed by Fitzgerald and other elected officials shows that they believe he’s done the work to earn their support.
“When we’re walking the streets, I hear it,” Stewart says. “It’s his time.”
Editor’s note: Ashleigh Deemer was nominated for and recognized as part of our Who’s Next: Politics class, as were the chiefs of staff to several other members of City Council.