Latasha Mayes sits outside the Southside Steaks sandwich shop, delighted there is somewhere in Pittsburgh where she can get an authentic cheesesteak with cheddar Cheez Whiz. In most Pittsburgh restaurants -- unlike those in her native Philadelphia -- the default cheese is white provolone.
Mayes, 24, is also chewing on the possibility of Pittsburgh ever having a black mayor. The mayor's office is alluring, she says, and a possible run isn't "outside the realms of possibility." She's certainly building a suitable profile. She works with the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, a professional career development program for which she's consulting. Later today, she'll help the Center for Victims of Violent Crime program their Black and Blue Symposium, to raise awareness about domestic violence in the black community. She's also been hired to program the upcoming 10th anniversary conference of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for African American and Urban Studies and the Economy.
Then she'll go to work. Mayes is a special assistant to the chair, Ruth Byrd-Smith, of the county's Department of Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise. She's also a board member for Planned Parenthood, Pittsburgh's Black and White Reunion (an annual summit to combat racism and social injustice) and the human-rights advocacy group Rights and Responsibilities.
On top of it all, she's a grad student at CMU's Heinz School for Public Policy, finishing this year with a self-designed master's degree in reproductive-health policy.
She might make a good mayor someday, in some city -- just maybe not in Pittsburgh. Mayes is just barely a Democrat -- "On a scale of one to 10, my commitment to the Democratic Party line is a whopping two, sadly," she says. And if the city's historical preference for mayors continues to hold, it may never be led by a young black woman like Mayes -- let alone someone from a city of colored cheese.
Since the city was incorporated in 1816, Pittsburgh has had 53 mayors. All have been white. Many have been of Scottish or Irish descent, and all but Sophie Masloff (who served from 1988 to 1994) have been men.
Is electing a black mayor outside the realm of possibility for this city?
Pittsburgh may already have passed its best chance to elect a non-white mayor. Both County Executive Dan Onorato and the city's likely next mayor, Bob O'Connor, have spoken in favor of merging the city and county merge in some manner. Doing so would dilute the black vote: Blacks make up 27 percent of the city's population, but would be just over 12 percent in a merged city-county.
Black candidates who have attempted to break the color barrier haven't fared well. Louis "Hop" Kendrick ran in this year's Democratic primary but only mustered 1,818 votes, placing fifth among eight candidates. Kendrick wasn't able to win some of the city's predominantly black wards, not even in the East End where he lives: Ward 12 (East Liberty) and Ward 13 (Homewood) were both dominated by O'Connor.
"Unless something drastically changes in this city, not from the white perspectives but the black perspectives, I don't ever see a black mayor happening," says Kendrick. "An overwhelming number of blacks told me no black can win in this town; they blamed it on racism, a lack of cohesiveness among us, the Democratic and Republican parties not giving a damn about us, but too frequently we don't give a damn about us."
The black candidate closest to winning the mayor's seat was probably attorney and political activist Byrd Brown, son of Homer Brown, Allegheny County's first black judge. Brown came in fourth in a close five-way race in 1989, losing to Pittsburgh's first female mayor.
Brown was built for leadership: He was born to a prestigious family with instant name recognition (his father also served in the state legislature), was a Yale grad, presided over the city's NAACP from 1958 to 1971, and was a highly esteemed lawyer and business broker.
"But in the end that was the ol' Pittsburgh dealing with the racial facets," says Warner Macklin, 29, a Pennsylvania Democratic committee representative who once ran for state Senate, and could run for mayor himself.
For Macklin, the idea of a black mayor still isn't farfetched. He believes a city-county merger would be a "big hindrance to a person of color becoming mayor" but says now is still a good time to strike.
"After O'Connor serves his time, I think it will open a doorway for this next generation who's been doing the things they need to do to prepare for such a large run," says Macklin.
Macklin is quite close to two blacks who'd make good candidates, even in a merged city/county: Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts and District 13 County Councilor Brenda Frazier (D-Stanton Heights). Frazier is Macklin's mother-in-law and the first black woman elected to county council. McDonald Roberts is the first black elected to a county row office; Macklin helped drive her campaign. The county voted to axe the Recorder of Deeds office in last month's referendum on county row-office consolidation. Unless given an appointment by the county's chief executive, McDonald Roberts may need a job come next mayoral election.
Frazier says she was approached to run this year, but it wasn't the right time.
"I probably could have done pretty well, but I probably wouldn't have outdistanced the frontrunner," says Frazier. However, she adds, "someone who is Hispanic could be mayor of Pittsburgh. It just depends on what they're bringing to the table. People are looking for quality more than color and a lot of it is personality and vision. And it takes money also."
McDonald Roberts believes that a merger, however, will lead to the diminution of black political power.
"There's always been a good chance of having a black mayor if you have a good candidate with a broad base of support," she says. "My concern is if the mayor's role is weakened with the restructuring of government, would that position be as strong politically in the future as it is now?"
Until recently, many observers believed Pittsburgh's first black mayor would be City Councilor Sala Udin (D-Hill District). Before the primaries, his name was invoked many times as a possible mayoral candidate. Udin decided against facing O'Connor, though, choosing instead to try holding onto his District 6 seat. Udin lost in the primaries to his former employee, Tonya Payne.
Now the city's first black mayor could be any one of a number of ex-Udin associates:
~Jake Wheatley: He once held Payne's old position as Udin's community liaison and could descend from his current elected post as state Representative to steer the city. That was the approach taken by mayor Tom Murphy.
~Marimba Milliones: The CEO of Milestone New Media Group, Inc. is the daughter of a deceased city councilor Jake Milliones (who held Udin's current seat) and renowned educator/activist Margaret Milliones, who has a middle school named after her in the Hill District. Marimba Milliones' successful Web development and marketing firm helped plan and develop the city's Web site. She's also a board member of the Hill Community Development Corporation, Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, African American Chamber of Commerce and the black young professional group Onyx Alliance, which she helped form.
~Daniel Lavelle: Lavelle currently occupies the seats Wheatley and Payne once held, as Udin's executive assistant of community affairs. The Lavelle family runs a bank in the Hill District and a real-estate company with properties throughout the county. Lavelle worked on Wheatley's campaign for state rep as well as Udin's recent unsuccessful re-election bid. He also was a regional director for the America Coming Together so-called 527 group, a voter-registration organization active during last year's presidential race.
Other suitable candidates range from the obvious -- like Ed Gainey, a "special assistant" to Mayor Murphy, North Side ward leader Khari Mosley or City Councilor Twanda Carlisle -- to the not-so-obvious, like Justin Strong, who has been able to consistently draw a diverse mass of next-generation Pittsburghers for cultural and political matters to his five-year-old East Liberty haven, Shadow Lounge.
Could Pittsburgh even imagine a leader of these hues and genders?
"No!" Mayes thunders. "Not in the steel city of Pittsburgh, and it has nothing to do with qualifications and everything to do with identity. So if you're outside the monolithic norm, you have no choice but to find alternative ways to affect public policy."