The Mayors of Pittsburgh: 1946 to 2014

David L. Lawrence (1946-1959), Democrat

In 1945, David L. Lawrence, an Irish Catholic Democrat, was elected mayor of Pittsburgh by a slim margin.  At the time, Pittsburgh was not a pretty place.  The smog was so thick that it was not unusual for men to change their white dress shirts in the middle of the day because they would become dirty from the air.  It also was not unusual for the street lights to burn in the middle of the day for the same reason.   The industrial pollution was ruining the rivers, making the air unhealthy to breathe and was forcing many companies to consider leaving the Pittsburgh area.

Within days of taking office in 1946, Mayor Lawrence created a seven-point program to help with the city’s urban renewal.  Since Republicans were still very much in control of the city, Lawrence, a Democrat, had to find a way to form alliances with the other side.  Lawrence and Richard K. Mellon, a staunch Republican and chairman of one of the largest banks in the United States, found common ground as early environmentalists and an interest in reviving the city.  The projects completed during his four terms as mayor, along with the help of Mellon, became known as Pittsburgh’s “Renaissance I.”   The first task Mayor Lawrence took on was to free the air of smog.  With that accomplished, he moved on to building a collection of skyscrapers in the city, new bridges, airport, parks, medical centers, expressways, public housing units, a civic and cultural center, and expanding the universities.  

By 1957, Pittsburgh was cited as one of the 10 best-governed cities and Fortune magazine named Lawrence one of nine outstanding mayors in the United States. Lawrence served four terms as mayor of Pittsburgh from 1946 until 1959 when he resigned after being elected Governor of Pennsylvania.  He is the only mayor of Pittsburgh to go on to be Governor of the state. Lawrence, it is said, was instrumental in the nominations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and the 1960 nomination of John F. Kennedy.  This earned him the title “maker of kings.”   He served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as the Chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Housing.

While attending a campaign rally for gubernatorial candidate Milton Shapp in Pittsburgh on November 4, 1966, Lawrence fell ill and collapsed.  He died 17 days later at the age of 77.  David L. Lawrence was a personal friend of Bishop Wright, who officiated his funeral mass.  Bishop Wright told of the times he would often go along with Lawrence to visit the children of unwed mothers at the Rosalia foundling home. Even though he was a powerful and influential man, he would go there to interact with the children and give them the attention they needed.  There was no one to impress there.  Bishop Wright said that then and there he knew Lawrence was with a great man.  David L. Lawrence is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Thomas Gallagher (1959), Democrat

Thomas Gallagher was the President of the City Council when Mayor David Lawrence was elected governor of Pennsylvania.  He filled the mayor’s post until Joseph Barr was elected just nine months later.  Thomas Gallagher was Pittsburgh’s oldest mayor taking the office at the age of 75.  During his brief tenure as mayor, Thomas Gallagher met Nikita Krushev, the head of the Soviet Union, at the Pittsburgh airport.  It was during his time in office that the Fort Pitt Bridge opened, giving anyone coming to the city through the Fort Pitt Tunnels a stunning view of the city.  After his position as mayor ended he returned to serve on City Council. One of the overlooks on Mount Washington is named after this mayor.  Thomas Gallagher is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Joseph M. Barr (1959-1970), Democrat

Joseph Barr was the youngest man up until that point to be elected as a State Senator in 1940.  He stayed in the State Senate for 20 years before looking to the mayor’s office.  Mayor Barr had a calm demeanor which served him well during the turbulent times he was in office.  He worked hard to create additional office space in Pittsburgh and also promoted Pittsburgh as the ideal home for any corporation.

Mayor Barr focused on better street lighting and improving the city’s water plant.  It was during his term that the Civic Arena was built, a crown jewel for the city at the time.  Joseph Barr is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Peter F. Flaherty (1970-1977), Independent/Democrat

Pete Flaherty first served his nation as a navigator in the Army Air Corps in WWII.  Afterward he graduated from the University of Notre Dame Law School and served as an Assistant District Attorney for Allegheny County and served on City Council before reaching the mayor’s office.  Pete Flaherty campaigned as a democrat for mayor by promising to return the mayor’s office to the neighborhoods instead of the special interests.  His main focus as mayor when he took office in 1970 was on the infrastructure of the city and the tax burden which had been increasing every year over the previous ten years before he took office.

National headlines were made by Mayor Flaherty when, during the strike of the refuse collectors, he and his administrative staff used rental trucks to collect refuse during the strike.  In addition to the strike of the refuse collectors his first year in office, he had to deal with the telephone operators’ strike and postal workers’ strike, as well as the Blue Flu of the city police force.

During his tenure, Mayor Flaherty balanced the city budget each year without increased or new taxes and was the one to turn on the new fountain at Point State Park in 1974  The fountain at the Point became the city’s signature attraction and is a great place to relax and cool off on a hot day in the mist.

When Flaherty left office in 1977 he left the city with a substantial budget surplus and the residents with a lower tax burden.  He utilized the city employees to improve the city roads, collect refuse, and staff the first city emergency ambulance system.  He reduced pollution in the city by converting some coal furnaces to gas heat throughout the city and increased the efficiency of the Water Department by putting in a modern centralized water filtration system.  Under his leadership, the City of Pittsburgh was the first city in the state to adopt affirmative action programs for minorities and women.

While Flaherty was in office the Steelers won two Super Bowls, 1974 and 1975, and the Pirates won the World Series in 1971.  Right after leaving his post as mayor in 1977 he went on to be appointed as Deputy Attorney General of the United States under the Carter Administration.  He returned to Pittsburgh and was elected County Commissioner in 1983.  He died at the age of 80 in 2005.  Peter Flaherty is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Richard S. Caliguiri (1977-1988), Independent/Democrat

After Pete Flaherty took a position in President Carter’s administration in 1977, Richard S. Caliguiri was appointed interim mayor.  Caliguiri won elections for the mayor’s office in 1977 and continued serving and winning elections until his death in 1988.  Picking up where David L. Lawrence left off, Caliguiri started “Renaissance II” for continued urban renewal and city revitalization.  His efforts were hampered in large part due to the city’s economic downturn.  Up until that time, steel was huge business in Pittsburgh.  The economy took a large hit when the steel industry declined and hostile takeovers of both Gulf Oil and Koppers were successful in removing several thousand corporate headquarter jobs from the Pittsburgh region.  Westinghouse, another powerhouse in Pittsburgh, fell on hard times with a bankruptcy and an eventual move to New York.  The “Steel City” was left without a single major steel mill in the city.  Pittsburgh, once able to boast of having many Fortune 500 companies headquartered here was down to less than ten.  Given the loss of the companies and the industries Pittsburgh once depended upon, it is amazing that Caliguiri was able to accomplish as much as he did.

Sadly, in the late 1980s, Mayor Caliguiri was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare and often fatal protein disorder.   Fighting to the end, Caliguiri lost his battle with the disease in 1988 at the age of 56.  Richard Caliguiri is not to be forgotten though.  Every year in September there is a Richard S. Caliguiri Great Race in the city.  Today a statue of Caliguiri, sculpted by Robert Berks in 1990, stands on the steps of the downtown Pittsburgh City County Building on Grant Street.  Richard Caliguiri is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Sophie Masloff (1988-1994), Democrat

The city’s only female and first Jewish mayor is Sophie Masloff, who grew up speaking only Yiddish until she started school in the city.

Sophie worked her way up the local political ladder starting at the age of 18 as a secretary at City Hall, to city council president, city councilor, and eventually mayor.  She worked with Mayor David L. Lawrence to create the Democratic Party organization that took control of the city government from the Republicans, an organization which remains strong to this day.

Sophie Masloff assumed the office of mayor at age 70 after Mayor Richard Caliguiri died while serving.  Sophie was well known around Pittsburgh and was easy to identify.  She was short in stature, unpretentious, had a raspy voice and beehive hairstyle and spoke Pittsburghese rather well, all of which made her an easy target for the political cartoonists.

When Bill Clinton was running for the office of President of the United States in 1992, he called the mayor’s office and introduced himself.  Sophie, thinking she was dealing with a prankster, responded by saying “Yeah, and this is the Queen of Sheba” and hung up on him.  Luckily for her, President Clinton laughed about it years later.

Sometimes Sophie would start her speeches with the line:  “As Henry VIII said to each of his wives, don’t worry, I won’t keep you long.”  Mayor Masloff was hard not to like, with her grandmotherly ways of endearing people to her, even those who disagreed with her politics.  It wasn’t all fun and games though.  Sophie and her administration had to address urban decay and crumbling infrastructure.  Sophie completed Caliguiri’s term and was reelected in November 1989.

Sophie focused on running a fiscally responsible office.  She worked to privatize the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, the National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory, and the Schenley Park Golf Course, all of which were very costly assets to the city.  She ended a 26-day walkout by the Port Authority employees in 1991 by getting a judge to force them to go back to work.  She created an ethics board to hear complaints from citizens against city officials and employees.  She suggested that the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates should each have their own stadiums, not a popular idea at the time. This was back when both shared Three Rivers Stadium.  This dream was made a reality years after she left office.

During Mayor Masloff’s term, the city of Pittsburgh was named as the “Most Livable City.”  This title gave many Pittsburghers great pride but as we already knew, it was a city that was great to live in long before that recognition.  She decided not to run for a second full term and retired to her home in Squirrel Hill in 1994.  At the age of 90, Sophie was honored by the city with a street near PNC Park named after her.

Thomas J. Murphy (1994-2006), Democrat

When Tom Murphy took over leading the our city in 1994, the city was not in great shape.  The finances were at a $32 million deficit, young college-educated professionals were leaving for employment elsewhere, and the riverbanks were littered with rusting and abandoned steel mills.  The city needed a leader who would change the physical landscape as well as give it the psychological boost it desperately needed.  Mayor Murphy was just what Pittsburgh needed at that time.  He directed the revitalization of Pittsburgh by cleaning up city neighborhoods, cutting the city’s workforce, and turning budget deficits into surpluses.  He invested $4 billion into the city with new office towers, professional football and baseball parks and the expansion of the downtown convention center in the largest certified green building in the country.  The brownfields and the abandoned industrial sites were turned into beautiful exclusive residential communities, and bikes trails were constructed through the city and along the riverfronts.  Even the crime rate dropped under Murphy’s leadership.

Tom Murphy was the longest-serving mayor of Pittsburgh, serving from 1994 to 2006.  His leadership was not free of controversy though.  The new initiatives, while adding beauty to the city, brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy and earned Pittsburgh the title of a “distressed” city by the state.  To help make up for some of the losses, city employees were laid off and the parking tax was increased.  Before the 2001 election for mayor, Murphy apparently entered into questionable dealings with the Pittsburgh City Firefighters Union in exchange for their vote.   He won the election and, to avoid prosecution, he entered into an agreement with the Federal government.

Bob O’Connor (2006), Democrat

Bob O’Connor got into politics a little later than most when in 1991, at the age of 45, he was elected to City Council.  Prior to entering public life, Bob O’Connor was a Vice President for Pappan Enterprises, a franchise of the Marriott Corporation. He was responsible for managing 36 restaurants in the Pittsburgh area and over 1000 employees.  True to form, Bob practiced good public relations.  The day after the election, he stood outside on a busy street corner holding a sign that said very simply, “Thanks.”

Bob had sought the job of Pittsburgh mayor for a decade.  He finally reached his goal of being elected mayor in 2006 and was sworn into office as mayor in front of the City-County Building on January 3, 2006.  He spent the rest of the afternoon shaking hands and posing for pictures in the mayor’s office.  One of the first things O’Connor did was to launch a “redd up” (the Pittsburghese term) campaign designed to spruce up the city for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game that July.

He opened up the mayor’s office, which had become somewhat isolated during the Murphy years, to local and city officials.  He walked long neglected neighborhoods with department heads and reporters on what became known as “Bob-a-thons.” During those walks, problems were addressed and attended to.  Sometimes the problems were taken care of on the spot.  O’Connor was quoted as saying, “I’m a very good listener…When you listen, you can learn a lot.”

City Hall’s priorities began to focus on the basic services needed in the city rather than some grand plan, something that helped the average Pittsburgher.  Alley cleanups were initiated and abandoned homes were demolished.  He took care of things that made life a little better for those living in areas that previously went unrecognized.

On the 185th day of his administration, just six short months in, Mayor O’Connor was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with cancer.  Bob was diagnosed with a rare variant of an unusual cancer of the brain and spinal cord.  O’Connor continued to work throughout his hospital stay all the while being showered with cards, flowers, and prayers by the people of Pittsburgh.  Sadly he died only two short months later at the age of 61.

A place that was near and dear to Mayor O’Connor’s heart was “The Caring Place”, which is a special place for children to go to receive support after losing a loved one.  According to his son Father Terrence O’Connor, that was one of the most fulfilling projects he had the opportunity to be a part of in his career.  While in the hospital, Mayor O’Connor was told of a mother who asked Father O’Connor to extend her thanks to him for the Caring Place.  She was planning to take her two surviving children there after losing her teenage son.  Even though Mayor O’Connor was so ill that he couldn’t keep his eyes open, when told of the women’s story a tear formed at the corner of his eye.  He knew he made a difference.

He was loved very much by the people of Pittsburgh.  Mayor O’Connor was a mayor who liked to come in the main door, with all the regular folks, and when approaching a crowded elevator he would ask, “Got room for one more?”  He was never one to act like he was entitled; he was a great Pittsburgher through and through.  Pittsburghers cheered when Bob became mayor and felt a tremendous loss when he died.  Bob O’Connor is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Luke Ravenstahl (2006-2014), Democrat

Just one hundred minutes after the death of Bob O’Connor on September 1, 2006, City Council President Luke Ravenstahl was sworn in as the 59th mayor of Pittsburgh. Because of Mayor Bob O’Connor’s death, a special election was held in 2007. Mayor Ravenstal won with 63{0d5dd585d9b39b579093aa9482eb8a5d8629194f7aeab9d63fd29672a0772753} of the vote.  Mayor Ravenstahl took office at age 26, making him the youngest man to hold the office of Pittsburgh Mayor and also one of the youngest mayors of any major city in the United States.

Mayor Ravenstahl worked to keep Pittsburgh on the cutting edge of being a “green” city and a national leader in green building initiatives and clean energy businesses.  He was a co-creator of the Pittsburgh Promise, an initiative to invest in the future of children that graduate from the city of Pittsburgh public schools by providing funds to help with their college education. In addition, Mayor Ravenstahl continued the “Redd Up” campaign started by Mayor O’Connor and installed a 311 Response Line for the city.

In February 2013, after announcing his plans to run for re-election, Ravenstahl withdrew from the race, citing personal reasons.

The years Luke Ravenstahl served as mayor of the City of Pittsburgh were good years for the city’s economy.  Some say that he and his team were responsible for the city’s prosperity during that time.  Others feel that his group just rode the economic wave.  And still others believe it was probably a bit of each.

 

Written by Diane Gliozzi

 

 

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