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'Jewish Grandmother' Takes Reins in Pittsburgh, Chicken Soup and All

December 25, 1988|CATHERINE DRESSLER | Associated Press

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Sophie Masloff, Pittsburgh's first female mayor, describes herself as an "old Jewish grandmother" and is known to push her homemade chicken soup and cookies on visitors to her house.

Despite Pittsburgh's hardball ethnic politics, she refuses to be one of the boys.

"The average ethnic man doesn't believe that women have anything on the ball," said Masloff, 70, a Democratic loyalist for 50 years and a councilwoman for 12. "Now they're all watching me. They're watching this old Jewish grandmother and everything I do. I'm going to be suspect."

As president of the City Council, next in line to succeed the mayor, she was sworn in May 6, hours after Richard S. Caliguiri, one of the city's most popular mayors, died of a rare disease at age 56.

Weekly Hair Appointment

She promptly announced that she would report to the mayor's office by 8 a.m. every day except Tuesdays, when, she said: "I get my hair done."

She wasn't kidding. For 20 years, the same hairdresser has styled Masloff's hair every Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. at a downtown department store.

One of her first acts as mayor was to demand that several neighborhoods be spruced up, saying the housewife in her saw the need for spring cleaning.

"My friends all say: 'That's enough of this old Jewish grandmother bit.' But it's a fact," she said. "I am a grandmother and I am a housewife too. I can't say I'm a 35-year-old hotshot. This is what I am and I just feel that I should acknowledge it right at the start."

She also acknowledges holding some old-world superstitions.

In January, for example, with City Hall abuzz about Caliguiri's illness and the forthcoming council president selection, Masloff said that amid the political intrigue she was concerned about "kayn aynhoreh," or "the evil eye" as loosely translated from Yiddish.

Avoids Ladders, Black Cats

"I fear for a black cat and I don't walk under a ladder," she said. "The old folks believed in the evil eye, and while I don't altogether believe it, I don't altogether not believe it."

Masloff said some aides believe that she would command more respect if more people would just call her mayor.

"I'm Sophie to everybody," she says. "Nobody says 'mayor' and nobody says 'Mrs.' "

Government by Jewish grandmother may be an asset, said Michael Webber, Duquesne University professor of urban history and a specialist on Pittsburgh politics.

"She's projecting this image that she has of this sort of kindly old lady, but I think that underneath there is a kind of toughness that occasionally surfaces," he said.

But Councilwoman Michelle Madoff, one of Masloff's most vocal critics and a political opponent, says the mayor's image hurts women and the city.

On a talk show, Masloff said that, if she ever met British industrialist Brian Beazer, who was launching a hostile bid for Pittsburgh-based Koppers Co., she would "scratch his eyes out."

'Ranted and Raved'

"What does it do for the image of women when she says: 'I'm going to scratch his eyes out?' " Madoff asked. "She went on and ranted and raved. She set the women's movement back 50 years."

Masloff later said she was joking when she made the remark, but Madoff says the incident was just one of many gaffes by the mayor.

The mayor chose the theme "Sophie's Choice" for an anti-litter campaign, saying the slogan was just a catch phrase when critics familiar with the novel and the movie of the same name said the theme was in poor taste. The book told the story of a Polish woman forced by Nazis to choose which of her two children would be killed.

Masloff says bringing cable television to the city was her greatest achievement as a councilwoman. Madoff says the mayor accomplished little else and rose through the ranks mostly because she followed party dictates without question.

The mayor's supporters say Masloff's loyalty to her constituents is her strength.

'Works on Every Little Thing'

"She goes out of her way to help a lot of people," said Rita Wilson Kane, Allegheny County's register of wills. "No matter what anyone calls about in her office, she works on every little thing that people ask her to do."

Madoff announced Sept. 6 that she would run for mayor. Masloff will be mayor until Caliguiri's term expires in January, 1990, and she expects to enter the race, although she has not made a formal announcement.

Madoff, 60, said the similarity between their last names has benefited both at election time.

"She gets elected and I get elected on each other's votes," Madoff says. "Every time I'm not running, people say: 'Honey, I voted for you.' "

As mayor, Masloff has adopted Caliguiri's top priorities of cutting the city's 4% wage tax and advancing Pittsburgh's transformation from a steel-making center to a corporate and service-oriented city.

Tough Act to Follow

She says it has been difficult to follow Caliguiri, a friend and a political mentor.

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