Sophie Masloff: ‘She was the conscience of our city’
Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff applauds an address by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a Pittsburgh
rally on April 2008. Masloff, the city’s first female and first Jewish mayor, died Sunday at the age of 96. REUTERS/David
Sophie Masloff: ‘She was the conscience of our city’
Mayor Sophie Masloff would often
open an appearance with the greeting:
“It’s great to be here. But at my age, it’s
great to be anywhere.”
That was typical Masloff, an unassuming,
self-deprecating Jewish grandmother
who knew how to turn a phrase
to connect with the people of Pittsburgh
while making it her life’s mission to
“She had a remarkable gift for understanding
how people think and what
they were up against,” said Sen. Bob
Casey [D-Pa.], who first met Masloff
several years before he ran for office.
It was her “authenticity” that defined
her, said Casey, adding that Masloff
“knew who she was, and she acted with
integrity. And she had a lot of strength.”
Masloff’s story can be read as the
quintessential realization of the American
dream. The daughter of Romanian
Jewish immigrants, she began her career
as a civil servant while still in high
school, worked her way up the political
ladder and, improbably, became mayor
in 1988 — the first Jew and the first
woman to hold that office here.
Masloff, a resident of Squirrel Hill,
died of natural causes at the Center for
Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon on
Sunday. She was 96.
She was in her early 20s when Eleanor Roosevelt came to Pittsburgh
in 1940 to dedicate the city’s first public
housing facility, Addison Terrace, and it
was the first lady who inspired Masloff
to enter politics.
“I was so enthralled by Mrs. Roosevelt,”
Masloff told The Chronicle in a
2008 interview, “I decided that’s what I
was going to do. So I joined the Democratic
Party, and I never left.”
Masloff was born in Pittsburgh’s Hill
District on Dec. 23, 1917, to Louis and
Jennie Friedman. Her father died when
she was just 2 years old, and her mother,
who couldn’t read, write or speak
English, was left to raise four young
children on her own.
Masloff graduated from Fifth Avenue
High School in 1935, then found employment
as a secretary in several county
government jobs. Within a few years,
she had worked her way up to becoming
assistant chief clerk in the Allegheny
County Court of Common Pleas, supervising
jury selections, a position she
held for 38 years.
“Sophie was a political pioneer,” said
Dan Cohen, who served on the Pittsburgh
City Council when Masloff was
mayor. “She worked her way up from
the bottom, politically speaking. When
she became mayor, she earned it.
“She was a tough cookie,” he added.
“She kind of had to be to succeed in a
In 1976, Masloff won a seat on Pittsburgh
City Council in a special election.
When Pittsburgh Mayor Richard
Caliguiri died in office in 1988, the then
70-year-old Masloff succeeded him, after
having been elected Pittsburgh’s first
female City Council president just
She served out Caliguiri’s term and
was re-elected in 1989.
“When she had to take over as mayor
under tragic circumstances, she knew
she had a lot of responsibilities, and she
never flinched as to what was put before
her,” said Masloff’s attorney and
friend, Frederick Frank.
Still, she was “probably more prepared
than she realized,” according to
Casey. “She had great leadership skills,
and she had dealt with public officials
and public matters for years.”
It was her rare combination of tenacity
and compassion that made her “a remarkable
political leader and government
official,” according to Joseph
Sabino Mistick, Masloff’s friend and
former deputy mayor.
“She could alternate between toughness
and kindness within an instant,”
She led her administration and her
constituents by example.
“She was the conscience of our administration
and the conscience of our
city,” said Mistick.
Her accomplishments during her
years as Pittsburgh’s top executive were
many, but all had a common theme: She
always put the needs of Pittsburghers
first, according to Mistick.
She backed developments such as
Washington’s Landing, the Pittsburgh
Technology Center and the Hill District’s
Crawford Square, “building a
new neighborhood in her old neighborhood,”
She non-profitized the Pittsburgh
Zoo, the National Aviary and Phipps
Conservatory, taking the burden of sustaining
these cultural resources off taxpayers.
On her watch, the Allegheny Regional
Asset District was created to provide
grants to distressed communities.
Twice she reduced the city wage tax.
“The common theme was that she
looked out for the people,” Mistick
said. “She put the people first.”
And she was not afraid to act on the
courage of her convictions, he added,
noting that in 1992, Masloff intervened
in the Port Authority bus strike that
was having a deleterious effect on the
city’s poor and infirm.
“She intervened even though the city
didn’t really have a dog in that fight,”
said Mistick. “But people couldn’t get
to their dialysis treatments, and healthcare
workers couldn’t get to work. It
took political courage to do that.”
She did not seek re-election when her
mayoral term ended in 1994, but she remained
involved in the community, serving
as a trustee of Allegheny County
Community College, as a member of the
Stadium Authority and as a board member
of the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading
Center of the Carnegie Library of
Pittsburgh, among other civic organizations,
and continued to attend the Democratic
National Convention until 2004.
She was also happy to give advice to
“I had the honor of getting advice from
Sophie from the time I was chief of staff
for Dan Cohen at City Council until two
weeks ago,” said Mayor Bill Peduto.
While visiting his brother, who was
being treated in the same hospital as
Masloff, the former mayor sent a message
to the current mayor.
“She said I’m doing a good job, but I
still have to prove myself,” Peduto said.
After State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny),
was elected, he often received
phone calls from Masloff, he said.
“Usually I was doing something
right,” he said. “Or she would call urging
me to do something important. The
last time she called, she wanted to talk
about gun violence.”
Her personality, Frankel said, was
“larger than life.”
“She was very unique,” he said.
“Some might say she was eccentric, but
I would say she was genuine and authentic,
which is important for a politician.
She had authenticity in spades.”
During her 1989 campaign, she was
widely underestimated, which proved
to be her “ace in the hole,” said Cohen,
who was on the campaign trail with her
when he was running for City Council.
“When I would attend campaign
events with her, I saw she connected
with people in a way that others didn’t,”
he said. “She spoke their language
in a vernacular in a way the other candidates
didn’t. She was very self-deprecating
about her age and the fact that
she was a woman, and that served her
well. She had a great sense of humor.
“She was humble,” he continued.
“She came from humble beginnings,
and her head never got too big.”
Part of her success can be attributed
to her skill in assembling the right cohort
of advisers, according to Cohen.
“She got herself around strong, talented
people,” he said. “She knew her
strengths, and she knew her limits. But
she had strong people who were able to
put together a public policy agenda for
her to implement. A lot of politicians
think they know pretty much everything
and think they can make decisions
unilaterally, but she sought advice from
Local, state, and federal officials,
family and friends, as well as Pittsburgh
citizens wanting to pay their respects,
filled the pews of Temple Sinai’s Leebov
sanctuary on Tuesday for Masloff’s memorial
service. Temple Sinai’s Rabbi
Ronald Symons delivered an introduction
to the service in the absence of
Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who was out of
the country. Sara Stock Mayo, Temple
Sinai’s cantorial soloist and chaplain,
led the congregation in singing “America
the Beautiful.” Masloff’s coffin,
draped in an American flag, was carried
in, escorted by Pittsburgh police officers
Symons read letters of condolence
from former President Bill Clinton, and
President Barack Obama and first lady
In his letter, Clinton recalled the first
time he called Masloff on the telephone.
The mayor was not convinced Clinton
was who he said he was. After identifying
himself, Clinton wrote, Masloff
replied: “Right. And I’m the Queen of
Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader of
Rodef Shalom, recited selections from
the Book of Ruth, and eulogies were delivered
by Frank, her friend and attorney;
her former campaign manager,
John Seidman; and Mayor Peduto.
“She remembered the poverty of her
youth,” said Seidman in his eulogy.
“People in need, without a word being
spoken, knew she was their friend.”
Mayor Masloff was preceded in death
by her husband of 52 years, Jack, who
died while she was in office. She is survived
by her daughter Sue (Nicholas)
Busia, her granddaughter Jennifer Busia,
her grandson Michael (Krystan) Busia,
her great-granddaughter Scarlett Busia
and her niece Elayne (Harold) Harris,
among other nieces and nephews.
Memorial contributions may be made
to the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading
Center of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh,
c/o Carnegie Library, 4400
Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at