Overcoming obstacles as not only an African-American, but as an African-American woman, is no stranger to Valerie McDonald Roberts. She has managed to turn what would be trials for others into triumphs.
Roberts was not only the first African-American woman to be elected to the Pittsburgh City Council, but more recently, she was the first African-American woman to be elected president of the Pennsylvania Recorder of Deeds Association.
VALERIE McDONALD ROBERTS
The Wilkinsburg native is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where she received a B.S. in medical technology and an M.S. in forensic chemistry. But it is her political career that she is known for. She is the current Allegheny County manager of Real Estate and former county Recorder of Deeds. She began her political career in 1989 when she ran and won a seat on the Pittsburgh Public School Board.
“I stumbled into politics even though I grew up with it around me with my father being in politics,” she said. “But he always encouraged us to focus on school. He said politics was not something that he wanted his daughter to get into.”
Euzell “Bubby” Hairston, Roberts’ father, was a former Democratic chairman of the 13th Ward and a Homewood constable. As a ward chairman he was one of the most powerful men in western Pennsylvania politics.
Roberts said her time on the school board was a learning experience. It helped her learn the life of politics and the importance of being “real” with constituents, which she said is lacking in today’s politics. “People want the truth and want you to look them in the eye and that is what is lacking. It’s all about political viability for (the politician’s future not the constituents).”
After seating on the school board for four years, she decided to run for Pittsburgh City Council of District 9 in 1991 against Rev. Duane Darkins, but lost. “It was the best lesson I had in politics. He out maneuvered me. ”
He died while in office and a special election was held. The slate had a large number of candidates. Roberts said during one of her major speeches, she decided to put the notes away and speak to the people from her heart which she credits for the win. Her district was made up of Homewood, Lincoln-Lemington, East Hills and a portion of Garfield and East Liberty.
“I was there to get things done. People often did not like what I had to say or do, but it was what was needed. The key issues for me were development, shutting down gangs and violent activity in Homewood (and injustices within the police department),” Roberts said.
When it comes to the senseless violence in our communities, she said, “We as a community need to make a self-examination of ourselves within the community. Everyone has choices, for instance, one cannot blame others for the crimes they commit. A person has a choice whether or not to pick up a gun and use it.”
In 2001, while Roberts was still in city office, she was approached by a senator who suggested she run for a county office. She thought about it, decided to do it, and in 2002 was sworn in as the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds.
“It was a tough campaign. Sometimes I was the only Black person in the room, but I always remained myself,” she said. “It was a true honor to be elected. I love my office. It’s hands on and I am blessed to have this experience.”
But her campaign trail did not end there. In 2006, she ran for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania but was unsuccessful. She came in second behind Catherine Baker Knoll.
From 2008-2009 she was the elected president of the Pennsylvania Recorder of Deeds Association. She was the first African-American to hold that position.
Recently her elected office became an appointed one and she became the manager of the County Department of Real Estate.
Although she loves her job, she also reaches for more. She is unsure what the next stop in her journey will be. Roberts said she has been asked by several people whether or not she will run for Allegheny County Executive when Dan Onorato’s term ends either next year or if he is elected in November for governor.
“I’ve thought about it (running for county executive) and people have asked, but I won’t say yes and I won’t say no. I just do not know,” she said. “I am enjoying where I am at.”
She is also focusing on the November race for U.S. senator where she has been working hard for Democratic candidate Joe Sestak.
“Joe gets 100 percent from me. It is twofold. I see it as helping two good men. By helping Sestak, I am helping President Obama. Because when you support him, you support the president,” she said. “And this election is not to be taken for granted. Every vote counts.”
While she has accomplished so much, she also has regrets. She said her greatest regret for more than 30 years was not accepting a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh’s medical school.
“I was offered a four-year scholarship and I did not take it because I wanted to graduate and get married. That was probably the biggest mistake and by not going, who knows what I would be doing today?” Roberts said. “But maybe God had something else planned for me. “
She said her advice to women is not to compromise and say what you cannot do. Things can always be worked out. A woman can be accomplished and still take care of her family.
When she is not on the political trail, Roberts enjoys spending time with her husband Theodore “Ted” Roberts Jr., three children and their six grandchildren. “They keep me going and I enjoy them.”
She also enjoys attending church at St. Paul Baptist Church in Point Breeze, where she has taught the children’s church and Sunday School for more than 20 years, along with traveling and exploring new cultures; cooking and her newfound love, golf. While she has not decided if her newest goal is county executive, she knows she wants to take some kind of plunge. “I want to do a solo jump out of an airplane,” she said. “And not just once.”
While she may never know where she is going next, Roberts said, “I stumble into things. I do not order my steps, my steps are ordered by the Lord, so until then, I just help others and try to do my job well.” And she will follow her personal motto, “Be excellent where you are at.”