Sophie Masloff still looms large in the imagination of Pittsburghers, even as her days as mayor (1988-94) fade into the distance.
Like Myron Cope, she had a personality — everybody’s unofficial yinzer grandma — that was so Pittsburgh it almost seemed like a parody. Everybody, it seems, has a story about her, or a favorite quote. Often it’s something charmingly goofy, like when she called Bruce Springsteen “Bruce Bedspring.”
Sophie (that’s what everyone called her) is recalled with a smile. How many other politicians can you say that about?
But beyond being well-loved, author Barbara S. Burstin makes the convincing case in her new book, “Sophie: The Incomparable Mayor Masloff,” that Masloff also played a key role in Pittsburgh’s history. We spoke with Burstin about this iconic Pittsburgh leader — here are condensed excerpts from our conversation:
What made you want to write about Sophie Masloff?
Some people had discouraged me from writing about her. But she was the first woman, the first Jewish mayor of the city. She was a woman and a subject whose story needed to be told.
What do you find so compelling about her?
She really rose through the ranks through her own wits, her own determination, her own ambition, her own skill. She was a people person, and she was really passionate about helping people — public service. Politics was not just a job for her, it really was her passion.
One of the strikes against her was that she was a woman, but she had guts and chutzpah and real conviction about what she could do and bring to the city.
What are the misconceptions that people have about her?
Her family couldn’t afford a college education — Sophie had to go out and get a job. So there were a lot of people who didn’t think she was very smart or capable. Taking office at age 70, Masloff didn’t speak the king’s English, and was never slick or carefully packaged. Also, she had very capable staff around her.
People assumed that these were her ‘handlers’ who really led the city and Sophie was the titular mayor who wasn’t really in charge. But to these staff members, Sophie was very smart. She listened to the staff and their suggestions, and then she made the decisions.
Ironically, some of these were the same people who worked for Dick Caliguiri, the former mayor. When they worked for Dick Caliguiri, they were his ‘assistants.’ But when they worked for Sophie, they were seen as her ‘handlers.’ Clearly a putdown and not at all the reality.
She was mayor at a crucial time in Pittsburgh history. What were the biggest problems that she faced and how did she address them?
The economy was a disaster. Federal funding, state funding had dried up. The steel industry was collapsing. Major corporations were leaving the city. The city’s population was drastically being reduced … it was a time of real economic crisis. But Sophie managed to earn a Triple-A bond rating for the city not only by cutting expenses, but by forcing the privatization of various regional assets that were draining the city — the Aviary, Phipps Conservatory, the Zoo.
And she was ultimately behind the whole RAD District that Pittsburghers now take for granted. This addition to the county sales tax was a huge revenue generator and required the state authorization. Thanks to Masloff’s charm and persuasiveness, the state went along with that. That was huge.
There were, of course, many people involved, but Sophie’s involvement on the state level was crucial to get it going.
Do you have any particular favorite sayings or anecdotes about her?
One day soon after becoming Mayor she went shopping at Giant Eagle, and didn’t have any cash. She went to write a check, and the employee there asked for her ID and place of employment. She said, ‘Well, I’m Sophie Masloff and I’m the mayor of the city.’ The cashier yelled out to his buddy, ‘Yeah, and this old broad thinks she’s the mayor of the city of Pittsburgh.’
Of course, she was. She took this all in stride. She got a kick out of these things.
Another one was when Bill Clinton was campaigning in 1992. He called Sophie. She was just incredulous. When he said, ‘Hi, this is Bill Clinton,’ she said, ‘Yeah I’m the Queen of Sheba,’ and hung up the phone. He had to call back two more times.
What’s her legacy?
First, her legacy is that women can overcome the male-centered political world. She’d be thrilled with the number of women now going into politics. She knew that being a woman was a hardship in terms of being accepted by the elite, the business elite. She also modeled a kind of leadership that we are sorely in need of. She was empathetic, she tried to unify people, she didn’t care what your background was, she wanted to help if she could. She was committed and devoted to serving the public, not herself.
How do you think she’s best remembered?
For better or worse, she’s best remembered for her voice, which was distinctive. And for her smile, for reaching out to people. She asked about people, and people just enjoyed chatting with her. She was just a really likable woman who you knew you could trust.
Sophie literally went from rags to riches, without the riches. She was the breadwinner, and her salary was very modest. Even the commercials she did afterward, she gave the money to charity.
She was the daughter of immigrant parents and lost her father when she was a child. As her family struggled to get by, all the kids had to work. It’s an inspiring story: Here’s this immigrants’ kid who becomes mayor of the city of Pittsburgh.
This interview was edited and condensed.