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Sala Udin faces stiff challenges

2 foes for his council seat woo average constituents

Monday, May 07, 2001

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Council District 6 knits together the brightest promises and most grinding disappointments of urban America.

It includes the postcard vistas of the Golden Triangle and the transforming developments of the Cultural District and the North Shore. It also encompasses vacant lots and drug-plagued blocks barely touched by the adjoining prosperity. Designed to be one of two council districts with dominant minority constituencies, it extends from the Hill District through Downtown and over to the near North Side.

Since 1997, the district has been represented by the sometimes combative figure of Councilman Sala Udin. He was first elected to fill out the unexpired term of the late Councilman Christopher Smith. Udin faces two challengers in this month's Democratic primary, Uptown consultant Richard G. Portis and North Side business owner James A. Williams.

Udin has compiled an active track record on council. He has been a leading voice in the creation of the Citizen Police Review Board and Pittsburgh Works, which directs that city residents receive 35 percent of the jobs at larger, city-funded development projects. In both cases, the efforts of Udin and his allies were frustrated in council deliberations, but they prevailed by placing the measures on the ballot for successful review by the voters.

Portis, who finished a surprisingly strong second to Udin in the endorsement vote of the Democratic Party's committee members, dismisses Udin's record, arguing that the incumbent has accomplished little to ease the everyday burdens of his constituents. Williams is less biting in his criticisms of Udin, but also asserts that he would be a better representative of the man in the street. In particular, Williams joins Portis in contending that Udin has paid too little attention to the North Side during his tenure on council.

Portis claims that Udin has paid too much attention to the major developments Downtown and on the North Shore, and that he has become the servant of entrenched interests. Udin responds that the Portis campaign is the special interests' revenge for his willingness to take them on.

On the campaign trail, Portis charges that Udin has not worked for his constituents but has pursued "power for power's sake."

Portis indicts the incumbent in particular for the fact that minority and female participation in the stadium projects has fallen far short of the administration goals.

"It is a disgrace," he said of the record on such contracts. "It's an indictment of the current leadership," he added at a recent NAACP forum.

Similarly, Portis depicts Udin's efforts to mediate a solution to the stalled Fifth and Forbes development effort as an attempt to salvage the interests of out-of-town developers.

Udin, on the other hand, portrays Portis as a pawn of established interests by noting that Portis was endorsed by the Allegheny County Labor Council. When Portis, a business consultant, emerged as a candidate, Udin charged that the challenge represented labor's retribution for his role in pushing through the Pittsburgh Works measure.

"They want to send me a message, teach me a lesson," Udin said. "They are trying to tell me and the minority community and women that we are not welcome in construction, and [that] if we try to force our way in, they will teach us a lesson."

Udin sees another reason for Portis' candidacy in the fact that he has served as a consultant for the developers promoting a parking garage and low-speed maglev system.

The garage would be situated on land between the Mellon Arena and Crawford Square, and Udin is adamantly opposed to the plan.

"We've taken on maglev; we've taken on the parking garage profiteers," he reminded a recent audience.

Udin supports Mayor Tom Murphy in the Democratic mayoral primary. Portis has not formally endorsed anyone, saying that he has his hands full with his own contest. But Portis is a contributor to the campaign of Murphy's rival, Council President Bob O'Connor, and O'Connor and Portis share in the financial support of the promoters of the maglev project.

Portis has also criticized the progress of the Citizen Police Review Board, whose creation was championed by Udin. Portis said he supported it in principal but maintained that the follow-though had been inadequate.

"It's all about grandstanding," he claimed.

Udin calls the review board "a modest success," a work in progress, but notes that the fact that it exists at all is an opportunity for progress in police-community relations and one that would not be there were it not for his work and that of his allies.

Williams is not in favor of the police review board, suggesting that on the whole the police have done a good job in recent years. Williams is a veteran of Operation Dig, the civil rights initiative of a generation ago that was one of the first efforts to pry open the doors of the local construction industry to African Americans. He ran unsuccessfully for council in 1975 in a citywide election.

Williams has described the incumbent as out of touch with some neighborhood concerns, but his criticisms have been less barbed than those offered by Portis.

Williams, who gained the nickname "Swamp Man" as a teen-ager because of his disheveled appearance from sliding down muddy hillsides on his way to high school, owns an auto cleaning and detailing business on the North Side. He says the insights he has gained in business can help him attract more commerce and development to the district's neighborhoods.

Williams says a new economic development council is needed to share ideas on how businesses can be started and nurtured in the neighborhoods.

"We need some new ideas in this town," he said.

Williams, 56, attended the Community College of Allegheny County. Portis, 56, is a graduate of Gladstone High School and attended Point Park and the University of Pittsburgh. Udin, 58, attended the McAllister School of Business.

This contest may be heated, but the winner of the May 15 primary is likely to have a free ride in November. No Republican has filed for a spot on the District 6 ballot.

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