Carl Redwood
Carl Redwood, Jr. is a self-described "community organizer, social worker, teacher, union member, intersectional feminist, a revolutionary Black nationalist and a socialist." Photo courtesy of the Redwood for Council campaign.

The Allegheny County Council District 10 seat currently held by Democrat DeWitt Walton is not considered a jump ball seat. Walton, who has gotten used to the view from his office since 2016, dispatched two rivals in the spring primary to hold onto a seat representing Oakland, the Hill District, Bloomfield and other East End neighborhoods.

Though the primary is behind him, Walton, considered a dependable ally of outgoing Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, faces a formidable opponent in the scrappy, independent campaign of Carl Redwood, a self-described socialist who has campaigned against injustice in the construction trades and other Pittsburgh institutions for decades.

Redwood is a charismatic and serious-minded activist-turned-politician who knows it is an uphill battle to unseat an incumbent, especially one who hasn’t done anything to tick off many voters.

Neither Walton or Redwood are battling for the District 10 seat for the salary, which consists of an annual stipend of $10,939. Whoever wins and agrees to serve for so little is, by definition, a public servant.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NEXTpittsburgh/Tony Norman: You’ve been endorsed by many of the most prominent members of Pittsburgh’s progressive political coalition. If you’re able to win Walton’s seat, are there enough like-minded allies you can work with on the Allegheny County Council to achieve the goals you talk about during this race?

Carl Redwood: Absolutely. As you mentioned, I have endorsements from some of those people already, namely County Councilwoman At-Large Bethany Hallam and County Councilwoman Anita Prizio, and I look forward to working with them and with my fellow candidate Sam Schmidt in council towards our shared goals. 

Carl Redwood speaks to supporters at his campaign kickoff. Photo by Daeja Baker.

Because of the organizing of many community groups, and others on council, we’ve seen Allegheny County Council increasingly ready to take a stand to put people over profits, even some that maybe might agree with me on a more radical agenda. 

For example, the multiple overturns of Rich Fitzgerald’s vetoes on critical issues and Pat Catena’s pressure and questioning at the latest Jail Oversight Board meeting show that council members are doing their best to hold the right people accountable and I only see that getting better if I’m elected.

Norman: What are some issues that define your campaign and explain why you’re running for office?

Redwood: First, I’m running for office because the rents are too damn high. We need to start by reversing the process of gentrification in our region, by advocating for policies that lower the cost of housing for people without housing, renters and homeowners. 

Second, I’m running for office because I believe in building the power of poor and working-class people and unions for all. 

Another central part of my campaign is the right to clean air and water in our county. We must hold polluting corporations accountable and get justice for ratepayers who go without clean water, and make both things a basic human right in our county. 

Norman: Given your incredible track record as an activist, why go into politics now? The cost of rent has always been a big part of daily life here, so what makes 2023 different? Is it primarily the exodus of so many Black people from the region in the last two decades?

Carl Redwood, an Independent candidate and longtime activist, is campaigning for the Allegheny County Council District 10 seat held by Democrat DeWitt Walton. Photo by Daeja Baker.

Redwood: The crises we face — from the climate crisis to the housing crisis to poverty —are public health crises, caused by the rich and powerful’s ever-growing need to extract profit from every aspect of our lives, to horde and protect wealth and power, and to prevent the working class from uniting, building power and building a world of collective care. 

Between 2010 and 2020: 10,000 Black people were forcibly pushed out of Pittsburgh. Over 2,000 Black people were forcibly pushed out of Wilkinsburg. The poverty rate for Black people in Allegheny County is 28%. That’s double the rate for white families.

Today we can see the housing crisis continually push more people out into housing instability and being unhoused, while our county has actively worked to worsen the crisis rather than help. 

Our county jail is committing human rights abuses routinely and in violation of county law, the U.S. Constitution and voter referendums. 

Meanwhile, we face the growing threats of climate crisis, crumbling infrastructure, widespread union busting, poverty, and far too incremental steps to address these problems. 

What we have today is a big gap between what we all agree would be a public good, and what our government does to make that possible. The vast majority of people in Allegheny County believe in the ideals of housing for all, clean air and water for all, a livable climate for all, and health and safety for all. 

But very little of Allegheny County’s billion-dollar budgets get used in any effort to try to make that a reality, and in fact, far more of it funds efforts that deny our most vulnerable populations those very things we believe all should have a right to. 

The problem at the very heart of it all is capitalism — an economic system that commodifies every part of our lives and says that we only have a right to it if we have the money to pay for it. … Capitalists charge you for the right to live, using the power derived from their massive wealth, and that wealth was created by the labor of the working class. 

To build an Allegheny County for the poor and working class, we must begin a transition to a truly democratic government and economy. 

Carl Redwood at a meet-and-greet event at the Hotel Indigo in East Liberty. Photo by Daeja Baker.

That is why I’m running now. I’m ready for there to be change in my district and I know that I am a person who can use the office to work on initiatives and a vision, use my platform to organize beyond the office, and center the community’s needs. 

Norman: DeWitt Walton isn’t a pushover. He’s a fairly savvy Democrat and former labor activist with name recognition even if the Democratic machine that endorses him is sputtering. What are the issues you most disagree with him about and how would you handle those issues if elected? 

Redwood: I am running for District 10 and a different path forward to improve the lives of the people of District 10 and everyone in Allegheny County by putting people over profits. I am not running against DeWitt Walton, but I am absolutely running against a history of the political establishment putting the profits of corporations over the interests of the people, of which he has too often been a part.  

For example, I supported the bill to raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour for county employees, and I believe it should be extended to those incarcerated at ACJ. I believe we should go further and fight for a $25 minimum wage for everyone in Allegheny County. 

I support raising wages for workers at the Community College of Allegheny County and meeting our county’s legally required funding levels for CCAC. I support raising wages for public defenders. 

I support paid sick leave for working people in Allegheny County. 

I support the fracking ban in county parks, and I would’ve voted to overturn the county executive’s veto on it. I believe we should go further and ban fracking in the entire county. 

I support banning county police use of “less than lethal” lethal devices like rubber bullets and tear gas that can often have lethal consequences and are commonly used for brutalizing protesters. 

I would have voted for requiring the county to perform Covid-19 tests for all residents at Kane hospitals, ACJ prisoners and county employees. Voting against doing even a one-time round of Covid-19 testing in May 2020 is something I cannot understand. 

The current council person voted against these things. I will cast votes that support the interests of working-class and poor people. 

I can continue a long list of specific issues, but at the core I believe that we have different views on the purpose of government, how elected officials should make decisions, what the problem we face even is, and what our goal should be. 

Allegheny County Council candidate Carl Redwood by Daeja Baker.

Norman: You point to economic issues that have contributed to the loss of the Black population in this region since the loss of the steel mills and blue-collar jobs over a 30- to 40-year period. Some would say that there are cultural issues as well. Black women feel especially alienated here. Can you speak to that? 

Redwood: I don’t think that you can separate the cultural issues from the economic ones. Black women in this region experience the most wage theft and are paid the lowest wages. Black women in this region also have the most deadly interactions in the medical field.

Black feminists have been clear on how the oppressions of racism, sexism and class intersect and how it causes suffering not just for them but for everyone. I am a feminist and I believe that until Black women are free none of us will be free. I also understand that freedom for Black women and other Black people can never be achieved under capitalism.

Norman: You recently spoke to the New Pittsburgh Courier about creating a Renters Bill of Rights for Allegheny County and a People’s Assembly to hear the appeal of those being evicted. What’s your vision for this initiative and how would it be funded? 

Redwood: The Renters Bill of Rights should include the creation of an Office of the Tenant Advocate that is funded by real estate deed transfer taxes in the county. This office would provide legal counsel and organizing assistance. 

The vision for the People’s Assembly is a Black-led, neighborhood-driven organizing collective of our residents who will work to advocate for themselves at the county level and accomplish goals to find solutions to the needs and problems in their neighborhoods. Without the voices of the people, there is no way to have a vision for the future of the county. This puts the future of our residents in their own hands.

Norman: Folks think of you primarily as an activist in the building trades and affordable housing advocacy space, but you’ve been involved in much more than that. Give our readers a sense of your span of interest over the decades. 

Redwood: I have been an activist for justice for more than 50 years. In the 1970s I was a member of the African Liberation Support Committee supporting the fight against colonialism. I was active in the Prison Rights Movement protesting conditions and treatment of people in Western Penitentiary. In the 1980s I was active in the National Black Independent Political Party and the local Jesse Jackson for President campaign. I was a co-chair of the Coalition for District Elections when we passed a referendum to change how Pittsburgh City Council was elected from at-large to by-district. I was also active in the Free South Africa movement. 

Carl Redwood holding his petition papers at the Allegheny County Elections Division. Photo by Daeja Baker.

In the 2000s I served as a chairperson of the One Hill Community Benefits Coalition to negotiate the first Community Benefits Agreement in the state of Pennsylvania. 

Norman: As you go about campaigning in District 10, have you found it necessary to constantly explain what a socialist is or are voters more interested in what you can do for them as an elected official? Are voters less intimidated by labels than they used to be? 

Redwood: I understand that the root cause of most of the problems we face in society is capitalism. That is why I am a socialist. Now, I don’t need everyone to be a socialist. I need them to agree that we need to work toward a society that puts people over profits and helps everyone to meet their basic needs. 

But it doesn’t take much explaining for people to agree that it is unjust that your ability to have a home, food, health, clean air and water, and so much more is dependent upon the money you have. Most people see that and are harmed by it regularly. 

And it is becoming clearer to many how the capitalist system will not provide or allow for solutions to the biggest problems we face. 

Norman:  What’s one fun fact about Carl Redwood that would surprise and delight someone who only knows you by your public profile? 

Redwood: I’m in the ThunderBowlers bowling league with an average in the 150s and I like to bowl as often as I can.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.