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Changemakers: Chelsa Wagner

It’s a sunny Thursday morning on Brookline Boulevard, and freshman state rep Chelsa Wagner’s taking a meeting with a couple of medical research start-up guys, talking about how to spin some of that Jonas Salk Legacy Fund (read tobacco settlement money) into additional Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse bricks-and-mortar.

It’s the start of a typically long day for the twentysomething former bartender (at the same South Side watering hole that employed her grandpap some 50 years ago) and current marathoner (Marine Corps! 2005!) There’ll be more of this kind of thing today, leading up to an Innovators and Entrepreneurs meet and greet tonight, pressing the flesh, making the moxie, drafting the dialogue. It’s all about economic development, and The Honorable Chelsa Wagner of the 22nd District knows that in the downsized new century, the job wheel turns one cog at a time.

So what’s a nice girl like Chelsa Wagner doing at a swap meet like this?

Had you known better, you might think that between her father, uncle, and aunt, Wagner would be anywhere other than politics. After all, with her father Pete the 19th Ward Democratic Chairman; Uncle Jack a City Councilman, then State Senator, now State Auditor General; and Aunt Eileen County Council, now County Recorder of Deeds, Wagner grew up around the rough and tumble of political life -- the endless meetings, the endless demands. The endless language that, as Henry Higgins reminds us in My Fair Lady, “would make a sailor blush."

But oh no. Decidedly not encouraged by her family – because they knew exactly what she was in for – Wagner ran anyway. “I wanted to do something where I could have an impact,” she says. “The campaign wasn’t that big a sacrifice compared with what I could do in public office.”

Undaunted, she waged a tough fight to win her seat against the scion of one long-time political family – and the ghosts of another. Elected in November, ’06 to a two-year term, Wagner became (with Morningside’s Lisa Bennington) one of the first two Pittsburgh women ever elected to a full term in the state house. “There are certain approaches where gender diversity helps,” she allows.

There she was, armed with sheepskins from Chicago (public policy) and Pitt (law), entering the fray, changing the dialogue, working to re-set her home town’s future. Announcing her arrival in Harrisburg by helping organize the cross-party Freshman Caucus – a polite jawboning effort among the nearly four dozen new faces in the capitol – she impressed veteran and rookies alike with her ability to encourage dialogue, shape agendas, press economic development.

Relishing old loyalties – her father’s tavern, The Huddle, just may have served George Washington his first frosted Iron City on the young Virginian’s way to the Point -- and the city’s traditional charm, Wagner nevertheless considers herself a champion of the changing political and economic landscape. “I’m open to meeting with anyone,” she says.

Frankly, she has to be – because if nothing else, her own district literally wanders all over the map. Leading your typical a-camel-is-a-horse-designed-by-committee district, Wagner’s 22nd combines such disparate universes as Overbrook, Carrick, Brookline, Beechview, Mt. Washington, Baldwin, Whitehall, Sheraden, Esplen, even Manchester. Indeed, Wagner has her own version of the thousand warring duchies into which the region seems to be divided, the seemingly impassable divides – “disconnects” in the current argot -- between hilltops and hollows. To deal with it, Wagner’s no old pol trading under-the-table favors; instead, she casts her university-trained eye toward public policy.

“It’s a difficult issue,” she admits, “one for which there is no easy answer. The disconnect is the culmination of years of pitting community against community, of preventing residents to see that as a region we are united by many shared characteristics. As it relates to policy and regional planning, we must embrace our commonality.

“Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has yet to envision any sort of collective economic policy centered on regional identity. Instead, we’re caught up in duels over tiny morsels of the pie. We have to get past that; we must see that none of our communities – urban or suburban – exists in a vacuum. We are all interdependent. So it’s incumbent on elected officials, whether or not they represent the city, to be mindful that first we need a healthy city – as our center of gravity -- to keep the entire region moving forward.

“This kind of thinking requires foresight to help create our region’s future economic viability.” Wagner pauses for emphasis. “The future of policy-making must transcend increasingly inconsequential governmental boundary lines. So the sooner we embrace regional planning, the sooner Pittsburgh will chart its course as an undisputed leader in a changing economy.” To that end, she adds, “I am hugely supportive of legislation that encourages cooperation beyond community borders – both within and beyond the city.”

Back in her own little corner of the world, Wagner pushes at the disconnect by convening regular meetings with community leaders -- some not from her district. “Some criticize me for including persons who can’t re-elect me,” Wagner says, “but my approach benefits the region. Sometimes,” she smiles, “chipping away at the disconnect is as simple as creating a forum for discussion.”

She raises a finger for emphasis. “The disconnect between city and suburbs has no easy answer. But I hope that ideas I’ve proposed will start Pittsburgh thinking regionally. Because when it comes down to it, we all want the same thing: safe, stable communities. And jobs.”

Look at the time, Wagner gasps. She hasn’t even talked about how passionate she is about clean water. And greenways. And transportation – just about everybody’s hot topic these days. They’ll have to wait for next time. Right now, she’s due to meet with the League of Young Voters, “one of the groups that gives me a lot of hope,” she says. “It’s so important to have new people involved in the political process.

“I’m an optimistic person,” she says on her way out the door. “I’m excited about our changing political landscape. I’m excited about our future.”

Abby Mendelson’s numerous books include Ghost Dancer, a collection of short stories available at bn.com.


Chelsa Wagner working the phones in her office

Speaking to an audience at a Mt. Washington ice cream social

Thank you letters from local school children

Making the rounds and talking with seniors at the social ...

... as well as serving ice cream and helping to clean up

A PAT bus model in her office

All photographs copyright © Brian Cohen

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