After Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s announcement last month that City Councilman Dan Gilman of District 8 would be his new chief of staff, two candidates quickly emerged to vie for Gilman’s seat: local restauranteur and community activist Sonja Finn and Erika Strassburger, who has served as Gilman’s chief of staff since he took office four years ago.
Gilman will replace Kevin Acklin, who is returning to the private sector to practice law.
District 8 includes the neighborhoods of Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside and north Squirrel Hill.
Finn, 38, and Strassburger, 35, are both progressive Democrats, yet if elected, their areas of focus may differ. In separate interviews with the Chronicle, Finn said that — although her platform is not yet complete — she is passionate about the strategic development and growth of Pittsburgh, quality public education and employee welfare and workers’ rights.
Strassburger, who has been endorsed by Gilman, said she would focus on “issues surrounding clean water and strong infrastructure and healthy environment.”
The Allegheny Democratic Committee has not yet announced how it will select its candidate, or if it will hold a primary. No date has yet been set for the general election, although it is expected to be held in March, 60 days after Gilman assumes his new position with Peduto on Jan. 3.
Finn has owned and served as chef at Dinette Restaurant in East Liberty since 2008 and is the consulting chef at Cafe Carnegie in the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. In 2015, Dinette was the first restaurant to be recognized as a “Sustainable Restaurant” by Sustainable Pittsburgh and is one of only four restaurants in Pittsburgh to achieve top sustainability designation.
Finn has a degree in sociology with a focus on urban planning, and although she has always been civic-minded, running for office was not always on her radar.
“It was one of those things where everyone knew before me,” Finn said. “People would ask, ‘Are you planning on running for office?’”
When Finn launched Dinette, “I was very vocal with putting my money where my mouth was, in terms of having a stand-up business and building one that contributed to the community — not just a community and family restaurant, but one that paid a living wage and was sustainable in all ways,” she said.
I’m somebody who was in Pittsburgh starting in the early ’90s, and I really want to make sure that everyone belongs in Pittsburgh.
She was one of the founding board members of Pittsburgh’s Sustainable Restaurant association and has engaged in “advocating and lobbying in Washington, D.C., with Food Policy Action and the Environmental Working Group,” she said, concerned with issues such as providing quality school lunches and the terms of the proposed Farm Bill, on which the future of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is dependent.
“When this council seat became available, I knew this was an opportunity,” said Finn. “In 10 years with Dinette, I’ve done what I want to do with that restaurant, I made it a model and made my voice known on workers’ rights and sustainability. And doing the Carnegie, I’ve contributed to the community like that. But I’m a big believer in policy and that you can’t just do grass-roots, but policy has to match it.”
Finn moved to Pittsburgh with her family when she was 13 and calls herself “a District 8 native.” She left the Steel City for college at Columbia University and the Culinary Institute of America, both in New York, before heading out to San Francisco to cook. She decided to make Pittsburgh home again in 2008.
“I saw what was happening in East Liberty, and I was just really excited to be a part of that, and to try to really move it in a direction that was less corporate development,” Finn said. “I saw it as an opportunity to be an independent restaurant in what I feared had the opportunity to be just a bunch of chain stores and not very welcoming to the community. Useful maybe, but not necessarily welcoming.”
As a business owner and a mother, Finn said, she will bring a lot to the table as a member of City Council.
“I’m somebody who was in Pittsburgh starting in the early ’90s, and I really want to make sure that everyone belongs in Pittsburgh,” she said, adding that development in Pittsburgh must be “strategic” to be inclusive.
While Strassburger was “never totally convinced” she would go into politics, she said she has always known that she “would be civically involved in one way or another, making my community a better place.”
“Civic-mindedness is always who I was,” Strassburger said.
Following college at Bucknell University, Strassburger became interested in “environmental advocacy as a way to serve people in the community.” She worked as an environmental advocate “organizing and empowering communities” for about 10 years, first at Environment New Hampshire, then at PennEnvironment.
“I was working on clean air and clean water and clean energy issues,” Strassburger said. “But I always knew I wanted to be part of an effort to make Pittsburgh a better place, and that could come in any form — working for a nonprofit, or a philanthropy, or in the private sector.
“I went toward politics when I had the opportunity to work for Dan and then it was really the 2016 election that really politicized my intention to run for office when I did get the opportunity,” she said. “I felt clearly we needed more women in government, more women to run for office, and not just that, but more progressive women like me.”
Spending the last four years meeting with and talking with residents, I think I have even unintentionally absorbed some of the concerns they have. I think I really understand the district and what people think about.
Strassburger was raised in Northern California and came to Pittsburgh in 2009, following college and four years working in New Hampshire.
“My now-husband is from Pittsburgh, and when we were still dating, I thought I’d give Pittsburgh a chance, and it won me over immediately,” she said.
Her background in environmental issues has made her keenly aware of the challenges Pittsburgh faces in terms of water and sewage and other problems connected to infrastructure.
“It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Sewer and Water Authority faces some pretty critical challenges,” Strassburger said. “Major changes are needed.”
“But infrastructure is not just about water,” she said, citing issues with roads and bridges and a “commitment to powering the city with a 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2035.”
Like Finn, Strassburger is also concerned with the challenges associated with Pittsburgh’s growth.
“Growth is a good thing; we want to see it,” she said. “Our population is less than half of what it was of 700,000 at its peak in the 1950s, so we need to grow and we need to draw population here. But in the East End in particular, we are starting to see the growing pains — traffic, congestion, parking issues. And if we can’t find a way to address those responsibly and efficiently, it will hurt our business districts, it will hurt workers.”
Working alongside Gilman for the last four years has given Strassburger an insider’s perspective on the needs and challenges of the district, she said.
“Having the experience both outside of government, as an advocate in Pittsburgh on environmental issues and spending the last four years meeting with and talking with residents, I think I have even unintentionally absorbed some of the concerns they have. I think I really understand the district and what people think about.” PJC
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated where Finn attended college.This article has been updated to reflect that Finn attended school in New York and then moved to San Francisco to cook. The Chronicle regrets this error.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at