Colorful former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff dies

PITTSBURGH - Sophie Masloff, a no-nonsense pathfinder with a common touch and a voice all her own, rose from the Hill District home of immigrants to the seat of power in Pittsburgh, a place no woman has occupied before or since.

Ms. Masloff, who helped the Democratic party establish its dominance in Pittsburgh, died of natural causes at 8:55 a.m. Sunday in the Center for Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon, family spokesman Frederick Frank said. She was 96.

"She came from an era in which great politicians engendered unfailing personal loyalty," said Joseph Sabino Mistick, Ms. Masloff's longtime friend and former chief of staff. "That's something you have to earn and something you don't see much anymore. You earn that by being loyal and fair to your people."

Gov. Corbett issued a statement calling Ms. Masloff "the quintessential daughter of Pittsburgh: an outspoken, direct and honest character who embraced her work with a sense of service and a spark of joy. This daughter of immigrants helped to shape the city's culture and persona, with a voice and flair that were unmistakably Sophie and essentially Pittsburgh."

He noted "it was Sophie who first envisioned what became PNC Park, and it was Sophie who also led the way in promoting equality of opportunity, both by word and by her own example as both the city's first female and first Jewish chief executive."

Ms. Masloff was born Dec. 23, 1917, to Romanian immigrants who settled in Pittsburgh to be near relatives. The city's only Jewish mayor, Ms. Masloff spoke only Yiddish until she began attending school in Pittsburgh.

"It's an extraordinary American story," Mistick said. She got involved in local politics in the 1930s, helping David L. Lawrence create the party organization that wrested control of city government from the Republican Party and established Pittsburgh as the Democratic stronghold it remains today.

"No one else has spanned the number of mayors and presidents that Sophie Masloff did. She was active in politics when Franklin Roosevelt was president," said Common Pleas Court Judge Tom Flaherty, the former city controller, who lost to Ms. Masloff in the 1989 Democratic mayoral primary.

"She was pretty much on the ground floor with Dave Lawrence and Joe Kane," titans of the local Democratic Party for much of the 20th century, Flaherty said. Ms. Masloff won a seat on City Council in 1976 and became the first woman to serve as council president in 1988. Mistick said then-Mayor Richard Caliguiri, a close friend of Ms. Masloff's, helped orchestrate her election to the post, which is next in line for the mayor's office.

Caliguiri had fallen ill with a rare protein disorder that would eventually kill him, and he spent several months helping Ms. Masloff prepare to take over, Mistick said. During long, private meetings, he would lie on a couch in the mayor's office, covered in an afghan, while he and Ms. Masloff talked about city politics and how to pull Pittsburgh out of its post-industrial decline, Mistick said.

"They had these extraordinarily private, personal conversations about the future of the city," Mistick said.

After Caliguiri's death on May 6, 1988, the sight of that empty couch, which Ms. Masloff viewed from behind her friend's former desk, haunted her early days as mayor.

She took office at age 70, and her administration immediately faced growing economic problems. The city's residents were fleeing as the steel industry, long the centerpiece of the region's economy, collapsed.

She started efforts to privatize several costly city assets such as the zoo, aviary and Phipps Conservatory. She was the first public official to recommend building a stadium to help keep the financially troubled Pittsburgh Pirates in the city.

"She really had a deep understanding of what makes Pittsburgh tick," said Lew Borman, Ms. Masloff's mayoral press secretary. "I think the record will show she did a good job steering the city at a time that was economically difficult." Ms. Masloff ran for her first full four-year term as mayor in 1989, beating four opponents in the Democratic primary, all of whom were men.

"She coined the phrase, 'Four guys and a gal. Vote for the gal,'" Flaherty said.

Ms. Masloff decided against seeking a second four-year term in 1993, saying that she had had "enough."

"Sophie Masloff personified Pittsburgh - she was kind and approachable, but you dared not underestimate her," Mayor Bill Peduto said. As mayor, Ms. Masloff was disdainful of receiving flowers. "Pity the politician who thought he could curry favor with her by sending her flowers. They always got sent elsewhere," Mistick said. "It was natural they thought they could do that, because she was a woman mayor. She always thought flowers were a waste." She sometimes wondered out loud why people send flowers to a funeral "when what the family really needs is a pot of good beef stew."

Ms. Masloff's family asks that, in lieu of flowers, people donate to the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Center of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where Masloff served as a board member, or to another charity. Sentiments like that embodied the common touch that endeared her to voters, said another former press secretary, Al Neri. Neri, who died in 2011, said she became known as the city's "little Jewish grandmother."

"And she pretty much treated her five and half years as mayor as that - being the matriarch of the large family that she considered the family of Pittsburgh to be," Neri said.

But visitors to Masloff's mayor's office would be in for a surprise if they mistook her kindness for softness.

"She was a no-nonsense mayor," said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola. He described Masloff as an old-school politician whose support meant more than a mere endorsement. If Masloff said she supported a campaign, as she did Zottola's 1993 race for judge, she backed it up with personal phone calls to supporters, donors and voters.

"She was a great woman - one of a kind and one that I'm not sure will come again," Zottola said.

City Councilwoman Darlene Harris still has the $100 bill Masloff gave her for Harris' first school board race. Harris couldn't bring herself to spend the money, she said, "because Sophie gave it to me, and I just thought so much of her."

"The city lost a great woman, someone who really cared," said Harris, of the North Side. Long after leaving office, Masloff continued to serve on boards and commissions, Harris said. "To the very end, she did what she could for the city... She was just the best."

Masloff's raspy voice became one of her trademarks - along with the quips and malapropisms she delivered with it.

During a political debate when she was running for mayor in 1989, one of her opponents criticized negative campaigning in a thinly veiled jibe at Masloff.

"That's like being called ugly by a frog," she responded.

Some political observers believe the comment sealed her victory.

When a Communist party official from the Soviet Union visited Pittsburgh, Masloff joined him at a public function.

"Madam Mayor, I have a great feeling of harmony in this city," the official said.

"We don't have any secret police here," Masloff responded.

The translator looked at her, then at Mistick, then at her again. Mistick, with a shrug, told him, "Translate it."

There was a pause after the translation, and then the visitor "burst out laughing," Mistick said.

In another international incident, Masloff, while posing for photos with communist Yugoslavian officials in the mayor's conference room, said, "You know, I've never been to Czechoslovakia."

One of the officials guffawed at the slipup, and said, "Of course, you know that we are from Yugoslavia."

"Oh, I know," Masloff replied. "But I've never been to Czechoslovakia."

Her aides pushed back against some political professionals' suggestions that she change her demeanor to act more disciplined and mayoral, Mistick said. They decided to "let Sophie be Sophie," gaffes and all.

"And people will love her more for that," Mistick said, "because she's just an average person - just an average Pittsburgher." Ms. Masloff is survived by her daughter, Sue Busia, granddaughter Jennifer Busia, grandson Michael Busia, great-granddaughter Scarlett Busia and niece Elayne Harris. A public funeral service will begin at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, Frank said.