Update: On November 7, 2017, Marita Garrett won the Wilkinsburg mayoral race. A longer version of this story appeared in the Spring 2017 Chatham Recorder.
In 2010, Marita Garrett bought a house in Wilkinsburg, PA, a borough of about 16,000 people, right outside Pittsburgh. “The taxes were super high, but I kept coming back because I really liked Wilkinsburg,” she says.
Three years later, the Department of Education put the Wilkinsburg school district on the financial watch list. Residents, including Garrett, took note.
Her first thought was to help another candidate. “There were four seats open on Borough Council,” she says. “I thought maybe I’d pass out flyers or host an event. But the second time I went to an interest meeting, I asked who was running for our ward, and saw eyes looking at me.”
“I started doing door to door, and realizing no information was getting to our residents. They didn’t even know Wilkinsburg was its own municipality; they thought it was part of the City of Pittsburgh. I thought now wait a minute, I need to stay in this full force, because this has to change.”
She was elected to Council in the fall of 2013, and began her term in January 2014.
Fall 2013 was also when she enrolled in Chatham’s Psychology program. “It made me a good listener, and good at figuring out where people are coming from. That’s come in more than handy in Council, when nine people all want the best thing for the community but have different ideas of what that looks like.”
On my first day of orientation, I saw the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics table and said I was just elected to Wilkinsburg council! They were like, ‘You have to come to our office! and I was like, Yes!’ It’s been a great relationship.”
In September 2014, Garrett launched a series of quarterly community conversations. In 2015, she co-founded Free Store Wilkinsburg, a nonprofit that redistributes new and lightly used goods at no cost to community members to bridge times of financial stress and emergency.
Why did Garrett decide to run for mayor? Wilkinsburg has a “weak mayor, strong council” form of government. That means that the vast majority of decisions are made by the Borough Council.
If it sounds like Council is where the power lies, that’s what Garrett thought, too. That’s why when her friend Austin David, executive assistant to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, asked her whether she’d ever considered running for mayor, she was skeptical.
But then Austin made a very good point: Braddock’s John Fetterman is also “just the mayor.”
“I was like, Wow, you know what? That’s right,” Garrett says. “Fetterman has really taken that role of a figurehead and spokesperson and used it to do so much for Braddock. He’s brought in concerts, events, all these exciting things. I thought ‘You know what, okay. I’m going to do this.’”
“It was always my plan to announce the day after the general election. Then Hillary lost, and I did take a day of reflection. I thought, should I even try to run? Then I thought no—we’re moving ahead. I officially announced my candidacy in January.”
Wilkinsburg’s mayoral general election will be held in November.