At just 31 years old, she’s Wilkinsburg’s new mayor
A group of residents, concerned about their Wilkinsburg community, said enough is enough.
Fed up with the school district, school taxes, elected officials, and the borough’s negative perception, they put a call out online and on social media for anyone who wanted to be part of turning Wilkinsburg around.
Wilkinsburg resident Marita Garrett answered that call in 2013.
Today, she is Wilkinsburg’s mayor.
“2013 was a pivotal year, I didn’t see any progress or anything happening in the borough,” Garrett said. “I wanted to get involved in the community. It was time.”
Garrett had been living in Wilkinsburg for three years at the time, and decided to run for a seat on the Wilkinsburg Borough Council. And she was elected, officially taking office in January 2014.
Two years later, in 2016, Garrett became vice president of Wilkinsburg Council.
And despite not being endorsed by a Democratic committee, despite no state or federal elected officials who came out to support Garrett in her run for mayor by Garrett’s count, “you keep going because you see what the community needs,” she said. “I am part of the community, I live in the community.”
Garrett, in an exclusive interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 2, said perseverance was her greatest quality. That perseverance may explain why when it was time to officially swear-in the person as Wilkinsburg mayor, Jan. 2, that person was Garrett.
“I’m here just for that, it’s a time for celebration,” said Valerie McDonald Roberts of the swearing-in ceremony for Garrett held at the Wilkinsburg Municipal Building. McDonald Roberts knows a little something about politics—she was the first Black woman elected to Pittsburgh’s City Council, in 1994. “We can celebrate (Garrett’s) accomplishment, but ultimately it’s about the service and it’s about the deeds that you perform, where God has put you. I’m going to be accessible to her to make sure that she succeeds.”
Garrett defeated James Truedell Hayden, Michael A. Johnson and Andre L. Scott in the May 2017 Democratic primary. That victory, in effect, was the de facto mayoral election, in the heavily-Democratic borough. She succeeds John Thompson, who was mayor since 2006.
“This is a small municipality, but this is something big,” McDonald Roberts continued. “The politics of winning this kind of race is no different than the politics of a larger setting. It’s, how do you do this when you may not be the endorsed candidate? You may be the newest person on the block, you may be young, and female and Black…how do you do this? The same methodology, the same strategy and the same perseverance has to be in place. There’s a lot to celebrate, the fact that she did it.”
Michael Rose, a current Wilkinsburg Council member, said he wouldn’t even be in his current position if it weren’t for Garrett. She told him his presence was needed on Council, as the majority-Black borough didn’t have any Black male members on Council. Rose ran for office, was elected, and was sworn-in two years ago.
“Her zeal for finding allies outside Wilkinsburg to partner with, her dexterity, her command of a room, and to keep everybody on target when we’re communicating so we don’t digress into other things, that’s what I think we’re going to gain from her,” Rose told the Courier.
Now a week and “some change” into her first term as mayor, “change” is what Garrett is seeking. She wants Wilkinsburg’s perception to change, this negative perception that perpetuates in the minds of those who live inside and outside the borough.
“Everyone wants to always assume there’s a killing happening every day,” she said. “We’re not this haven of crime that people paint us out to be.”
Homicides totaled 110 in Allegheny County in 2017; just two in Wilkinsburg—24-year-old Lamont Carey, near Wood St. on Nov. 25, and Kelly Gunn, 24, near Maple and Hunter streets on June 24.
“When you step into our community, you’re not going to feel like, ‘Oh I need to duck these bullets,’ you’ll see neighbors walking their dogs, friendly business owners, longtime businesses,” Garrett said. “You have a lot of places that are pretty much a part of the social fabric.”
In recent months, Wilkinsburg has beefed up its presence on social media, promoting events like a holiday Christmas parade, Dec. 9, established a “Flyboy” inspirational mural near the East Busway, painted by renowned artist Hebru Brantley, and held its annual back-to-school outdoor bash before the start of the 2017-2018 school year. The borough also hosted a Senior Day in December for its residents, and added a sizable welcome landmark on the corner of Penn and Trenton avenues, a huge red “W” welcoming those into the new Wilkinsburg.
Garrett also wants to better the borough’s internal communication between departments. She said she’ll be the more proactive person, and combined with her energy, the borough can reach new heights.
“We have a great borough staff, but making sure everyone is working together, including the police department, finance, code, administration staff…we have a great community here, it’s only going to get better…to really make sure we are serving the needs of residents,” Garrett said.
Who knew that an Akron, Ohio native, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2007 with a bachelor’s in psychology, who spent years working at the Alzheimer Disease Research Center, would end up in politics, in public service?
Garrett’s response was simple. “There was a need that I saw that needed to be fulfilled, that hadn’t been fulfilled.”
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