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City Council District 1

Two challengers take on a controversial incumbent

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In the city's District 1 North Side neighborhoods, two challengers are vying for Darlene Harris' seat. Harris, a former school-board member, won the seat in a special election last fall, when Pittsburgh City Council President Luke Ravenstahl vacated the office to become mayor after Bob O'Connor's death.

Robin Rosemary Miller has been president of the North Side Chamber of Commerce for the past seven years, and says that experience makes her an ideal candidate for the seat. She says that while the casino PITG Gaming will bring to the North Side could potentially increase crime, it's not a given that gaming -- if it's handled intelligently from the outset -- will make the area decay. As an example, she cites the relatively seamless insertion of a casino among Niagara Falls' family-friendly tourist traps.

On the other hand, she notes, "People are still talking about the back streets of Atlantic City being crime-riddled drug havens. That's a fear." Preventing that outcome means ensuring viable business districts in the North Side's 14 neighborhoods. Increased police presence and teaching kids civic pride early are important, she says. Miller is also considering legislation that would force absentee landlords to give up their property if they pile up too many violations.

But, she says, the district has a strong network of community groups and block watches -- groups she already works with. She says that the jobs the casino creates can help increase people's perception of the North Side.

Another way to invest, she says, is to reach out to the "braintrust" of university students who often leave the city after earning their degrees. "We should be marketing our neighborhoods to the students," she says, many of whom never leave campus or the immediate neighborhoods. "If anyone had not been to the North Side, they'd never know about our parks -- you can buy a house on the North Side and live next to a mini version of Central Park."

While Harris has been on council for only a short time, Miller has doubts about her. During Harris' tenure, the school board was marked by infighting -- to the point that area foundations actually withdrew their support of district programs until the noise quieted down. She also cites a recent flap over the fact that Harris' street was at the front of the line for repaving. (Harris did not respond to repeated calls for an interview for this story.)

Those concerns are shared by the other challenger in the race, Valarie D. Coleman.

Coleman currently works as a payroll specialist, and points to her work in ministry and on previous political campaigns as personal assets. She calls herself "the female Bob O'Connor" based on her common-touch approach to campaigning, one she says she'd maintain if elected. "By voting for me, you're hiring me," she says.

Her start in politics was solidly Republican, working for the campaigns of Rick Santorum and Melissa Hart. But she says that while the GOP shares her deep religious beliefs, she found the Democratic Party more welcoming to her as an African-American woman, and more willing to hear diverse viewpoints. Her switch, she says, was not timed to allow a realistic run in a city as hidebound in the Democratic Party as Pittsburgh.

Some North Side neighborhoods, Coleman says, get all the attention and all the help. "Brighton Heights is only a piece of the pie." She says that people in the less-glamorous sections of the North Side say their voices are seldom heard, and public officials only show up to glad-hand for votes. If elected, she'd put a premium on being accessible.

She also says they have not effectively tapped into faith-based organizations. "The politicians only come to the faith-based organizations when they need something," she says. She says she can help bridge that gap, coming to politics with a strong networking background with the faith-based organizations, which helps both be more effective.

The casino, she says, must solicit community input, guarantee a percentage of the jobs go to North Side residents, and invest money back into the community -- for example, by ponying up money for local rec centers, so kids have something to do to keep them out of trouble. "It's only right, it's only fair," she says.

Coleman says she looks forward to collaborating with councilor Tonya Payne in neighboring District 6, to make the area a "role model" for the rest of the city.

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