On May 19, residents of Pittsburgh’s District 5 will select between political newcomer Kimberly Kaplan, 24, of Squirrel Hill and incumbent Corey O’Connor, 30, of Swisshelm Park in the Democratic primary for City Council.
The upstart Kaplan is attempting to position herself as the more constituent focused candidate against O’Connor, who occupies the same seat his father and former mayor once did.
“I want to represent the people, and I want their voices to be heard and brought to the spotlight,” Kaplan, who describes herself as Jewish, said in an interview. “I feel like almost no one is doing that, and Corey O’Connor is in that list of people not doing it.”
To date, Kaplan has knocked on more than 1,000 doors and visited each of the district’s nine neighborhoods (Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, Hazelwood, Lincoln Place, New Homestead, Squirrel Hill, Swisshelm Park and part of Regent Square).
She said she has learned much from speaking with constituents.
“People get outraged that the city is spending money on Squirrel Hill, and the other eight neighborhoods are largely ignored as a result,” she said. “People feel ignored and don’t interact with the city.”
As opposed to properly aiding its residents, the city places too much emphasis on “big pretty projects,” such as bringing in tech companies, she asserted. Simultaneously, the city continues to “hide the reality of many peoples’ lives which is not at all like these giant beautiful projects that we promote.”
Kaplan, the political tenderfoot, has attracted a similar cadre of neophytes.
“I hopped on board a few weeks ago. [I’m] not very involved politically, never done campaign work for anybody else before,” said Reese Dobins. “I thought she was just a great person.”
“[Kim] is just an awesome person,” echoed Michael Thompson, Kaplan’s campaign manager, who joined the insurgent campaign roughly a month ago. “As a cool person to hang out with, she’s normal, she cares.”
Kaplan, who was born in Israel and returned there in 2012 as part of a Birthright trip, freely admits her lack in prior governmental experience. She graduated from Chatham University with a degree in mathematics.
“My background is in activism, mobilizing people behind with a cause, just going straight to the source, straight to the people,” she said.
She believes that her values and platform will resonate with voters.
“Being Jewish myself I know from my parents and family and community … that education is one of the most important things stressed,” said Kaplan, whose mother is a South Korean native who grew up Protestant. “Get an education, work hard, do good, and life will be good to you; [that’s the] good Jewish culture that I’ve been exposed to.
“When I describe myself, I describe myself as a Korean American Jew,” she added.
In a separate interview, O’Connor countered the notion that either candidate was more in touch with their Jewish roots.
“I’m Jewish, my mom is Jewish, my uncle is from Israel, his side of the family is Orthodox Jewish, we know just as much about Jewish culture as anyone who is running,” he said.
Like his opponent, O’Connor has been appealing to residents.
“Six thousand doors have been knocked on,” he said. “[We have] a lot of volunteers, young volunteers. … [We] put up 300 yard signs. We’re putting out a positive message of where the neighborhoods are going.”
O’Connor, who has a record to run on, hopes to share this message with more than 11,000 households.
“We have stayed connected to constituents,” he said. “We’ve closed 92 percent of cases. We’ve done a great job of providing services for residents.”
O’Connor called attention to several projects benefiting Squirrel Hill, including revitalizing the merchants association, allocating city money to rebuild the Frick Environmental Center and aiding the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market.
In working with Uncover Squirrel Hill, O’Connor has attempted to enable the group to achieve its mission to “re-energize connections among business owners and the community to promote the eclectic nature of the Squirrel Hill business district,” he said.
Last year, O’Connor revived the group, which was first created as a task force by his father, the late Bob O’Connor, in 1992 while serving as councilman.
When discussing the Frick Environmental Center, O’Connor noted that $18 million have been dedicated to the project. He also called the Farmers Market, which began in 2014, a “big success” both in bringing fresh produce to Squirrel Hill, as well as economic development to the area.
“On City Council, [we] have brought a lot of resources back to the Squirrel Hill community and will continue to do that,” he said. “Revitalizing that community has been a forefront of our office and I believe we have done a very good job doing so.
“Representing Squirrel Hill is a great honor,” continued the incumbent. “It’s a diverse and open community and I think that by being that representative you have to be willing to work with everybody and anybody. I was born and raised here and [it] is a great community.”
Defeating O’Connor is a sizable task for Kaplan, admitted Thompson. “Corey O’Connor is a household name.” Nevertheless, “I believe in democracy and competitive elections. We’re on the ballot and it’s up to the voters, not Corey O’Connor.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.