PITTSBURGH (AP) – Sophie Masloff, who rose from a tax clerk to become Pittsburgh’s first female mayor, died Sunday. She was 96.
She died at an area nursing home, said Joseph Mistick, Masloff’s longtime friend and former top aide.
Masloff took office in May 1988 after the death of Richard S. Caliguiri, and she served until January 1994.
She good-naturedly described herself as an “old Jewish grandmother” and promised when she took office to be at work by 8 a.m. every day except Tuesdays when, she said, “I get my hair done.”
Her tenure was marked by two reductions in the city wage tax, a move designed to keep residents from fleeing to the suburbs, and a complete overhaul of a controversial disciplinary system for police officers. Masloff faced enormous challenges when she took office because of the recent collapse of the steel industry, but Mistick recalled that she used a combination of humor and steely resolve to silence critics.
When angry citizens who opposed the reduction to the city wage tax filled a public meeting, Mistick said she walked in, stared the crowd down and said, “Shame on you. I did this for our children and grandchildren.”
Then she walked out of the room, to stunned silence.
The Masloff administration mounted an assault on the tax-exempt status of the city’s profitable hospitals and prodded banks to channel more loans into city neighborhoods, some of which were increasingly crime-ridden.
Masloff also had a legendary sense of humor.
When Bill Clinton was trying to stir up support in his 1992 presidential campaign, he telephoned the mayor to let her know he was coming to Pittsburgh. She was not convinced the caller was Clinton and told him, “Right, and I’m the Queen of Sheba.”
She described followers of the rock band Grateful Dead as “Deadenders,” rather than Deadheads, and mangled rocker Bruce Springsteen’s name to “Bruce Bedsprings.”
The mayor also played a part in foiling an apparent burglary in her apartment building when she accosted two men making their way down a stairwell with a safe. Masloff began her career in public service in 1936, when the Democratic Party took power in Allegheny County politics and the young Democrat, then Sophie Friedman, was given a job in the county tax office.
She stayed in government, working three decades as a county court clerk before winning a special election to City Council in 1976. She won re-election the following year and in 1981 and 1985. In her final term, she was Council president, a role once considered a caretaker position.
The post took on great significance early on the morning of May 6, 1988, when Caliguiri died in office of a rare illness. Masloff became the city’s first female mayor and its first Jewish mayor.
The new mayor called that day “the worst moment of my life” and refused to occupy the mayor’s office for several days.
She served the remainder of Caliguiri’s term and won election in her own right in 1989. She decided early in 1993 that she didn’t want to run again.
Masloff was born on Dec. 23, 1917, and was a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh. Her parents were Romanian immigrants, and Masloff spoke only Yiddish until she began attending school. Her husband of more than 50 years, Jack Masloff, died during his wife’s term in office.
Masloff is survived by a daughter, a granddaughter, a grandson, a great-granddaughter and a niece.