A longtime elected official who’s dubbed herself a community advocate instead of a politician, Darlene Harris has no yard signs, no campaign finance reports and a one-page campaign website in her run for Pittsburgh mayor.
“It wasn’t that I planned on running for mayor,” Harris told The Incline in a late March interview. She said she wanted to do something about issues like low morale among city employees and across the city itself. Plus, she said, people asked her to run.
Harris later told PublicSource that at least one person in each city department encouraged her mayoral bid. “I don’t know if I need somebody to put a Harris sign in their yard to make me feel good,” she said.
Harris is up against Rev. John Welch and incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto — who she’s known for clashing with — in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election. (Here’s our Procrastinator’s Guide to the race, if you need it.)
In March, Peduto won the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s mayoral endorsement over Harris by a 372-245 margin. At the time, she hadn’t officially launched her campaign.
Harris’ supporters and those who work with her describe her as hard working and a familiar face who isn’t above tackling issues like filling potholes, pruning trees, towing abandoned cars and tending to full trash cans. She stands up for those in her district’s neighborhoods and has experience from previously leading city council and the school board, they said.
It’s an approach that her campaign said she’d keep as mayor.
Harris has emerged as the pro-police candidate, and when contacted via email by The Incline, union president Robert Swartzwelder responded with “FOP Lodge 1 supports Darlene Harris as the Mayoral Candidate!!!” But Swartzwelder didn’t respond to several attempts by The Incline to talk about the union’s support.
Other city employees who said they supported Harris were mum, too, and declined to speak on the record.
Barbara Burns, a former city council and school board member who lives in the North Side, is supporting Harris for mayor, but knows Harris faces a challenge.
The incumbent typically has a strong political base and an ability to raise funds, Burns said. “I was surprised that she sought against an incumbent.”
Burns said although she doesn’t have anything against Peduto, she is disappointed in his administration, because to her, things haven’t improved. She said the mayor and Harris have different leadership styles: He’s focused on the big picture, and she is more hands-on and detail-oriented. Harris has demonstrated her commitment to Pittsburgh and her constituents, Burns said, adding that she’s gone to Harris with more issues than she can list, and the council member is always responsive and helpful, even if resources are limited.
Both Burns and Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, said they don’t have a good sense of Harris’s support outside of the North Side. Fatla said even on the North Side, he’s not sure about the split.
“She is known across the city and is liked for her hard work,” Harris’s campaign said in an email to The Incline.
Students, teachers and residents across the city know Harris from her time on the school board and city council, her campaign said, adding that Harris has had “exposure to other neighborhoods throughout the city, working on matters that affects all residents.”
While Harris is known for helping with the little things, she can also address bigger issues, Fatla said, who added that he’s not endorsing a mayoral candidate, but speaking from experience working with Harris. She was a founding member of the Northside Leadership Conference.
“People assume that she can’t [tackle big issues] sometimes because she comes off as a yinzer housewife, because she is a yinzer housewife,” Fatla said, adding “You shouldn’t discount a yinzer housewife.”
‘Citizens Against Darlene Harris for Mayor’
Jeff Heil of Observatory Hill has lived in District 1 for 18 years and said the North Side hasn’t improved during Harris’ time on city council. He said business districts — like the one in Observatory Hill – are boarded up and not progressing. He’s also worried about crime and the lack of development in the district.
Her lack of yard signs and campaign finance reports are “unprofessional” and show she’s “not serious about being mayor,” he said.
So on a whim, he created the Facebook group “Citizens Against Darlene Harris for Mayor.” It’s more than North Siders in the groups, he said. There’s been so much press about her campaign, that people from other parts of the city (and areas outside of the city, but near the North Side like Ross and Millvale) are weighing in and watching what she says and does, Heil said.
He’s not surprised that she has fans on the North Side, adding that he has neighbors who are supporting her. “People know her. … They see her at the spaghetti dinner, the fish fry,” he said, adding that people will vote based on name recognition, but he still doesn’t think that’s enough.
Heil wonders if this race is a way to gather support ahead of her next city council election. If Harris loses Tuesday, she would be up for re-election in 2019.
And if that’s the case, Heil said, he’ll change the Facebook group to “Citizens Against Darlene Harris for Council.”