After years working as a medical researcher for Pitt, Bobby Wilson is putting his Pitt political science degree to another use. Wilson, who won the Nov. 5 general election for City Council District 1, said he wants to change the way politics are done on the North Side.
A fifth-generation North Sider, UPMC employee and Pitt graduate, he defeated 13-year incumbent Darlene Harris in the Democratic primary election in May. Wilson previously ran against Harris in 2011 and again in 2015 but was unsuccessful both times.
“The primary win was really incredible because it really showed the direction the North Side was gonna go,” Wilson said, “I was up against the same old ‘machine’ that existed on the North Side for some time.”
Wilson, a Democrat, faced independent candidates Chris Rosselot and Malcolm Jarrett on Nov. 5. Rosselot came in second in the race with about 35% of the votes and Wilson received 60% of the votes.
Wilson was endorsed in the primary by Mayor Bill Peduto, who has clashed with Harris in the past on multiple issues, including recent legislation to ban certain guns in the City. Wilson said he wanted to run for City Council to represent the North Side in a different way, giving the people who live there more input and building back some relationships that have been strained over the past years.
“I know [Peduto’s] been looking for a partner,” Wilson said. “It’s really important to have relationships with any elected officials so we can have those tough conversations. This upcoming year is really going to be about building back some of those relationships that have been destroyed.”
Wilson, who has also served as the president of his community group and on the North Side Leadership Conference Board, wants to make the North Side a better place for the current residents and for future residents.
“Being from the North Side and raising my kids there made me realize that there should be a change in leadership and I wanted to take that step.”
One of the main issues he’ll focus on during his time in office is equitable development for North Siders, Wilson said. He wants to stop North Side residents from being displaced by rising commercial and residential developments.
“I see equitable development as making sure that the community has a say and also looking at each improvement, each development and making sure that it will work for everyone,” Wilson said. “A lot of times I talk about it as building people alongside building developments.”
Wilson also wants to ensure that the people of the North Side have access to affordable housing by working with groups like the Urban Redevelopment Authority and focusing on ways to create more jobs.
“There’s been a lot of people who have been left behind. I want to focus on marginalized communities and how we can really uplift those areas,” Wilson said.
Throughout his time in office, Wilson said he aims to be very transparent.
“We’ve been through a good amount of years where we didn’t really know what was going on inside the office and now the public can play a better part in the process,” Wilson said.
City Council is not Wilson’s only career. He works at UPMC Montefiore in the emphysema research lab as head of the center for pulmonary function testing where he oversees quality assurance for 50 sites. His work includes training, certifying and grading the tests at these centers.
Wilson’s superior at UPMC, Dr. Frank Sciurba, said he thinks Wilson’s position at UPMC shows that he is capable of being an elected official. His work there requires skills that are useful not only in a hospital setting but also in a political position, Sciurba said.
“[Wilson’s position] requires technical talents to understand exercise testing and lung function testing but it also requires leadership. It requires the person to be flexible and coordinate with multiple different projects going on at the same time,” Sciurba said. “So I think in City Council it’s likely that he’ll have to balance multiple different things and he’ll have to do it gracefully and seamlessly.”
Another area Wilson plans to focus on is air quality — he said a lot of people don’t really understand the effects air quality can have on a person’s life and wants to continue the City’s ongoing efforts to improve it. Sciurba said that working in one of the top chronic obstructive pulmonary disease research centers has helped Wilson develop a sensitivity towards environmental issues such as air quality and its effect on human health.
“He’s met hundreds and hundreds of patients who have issues with their breathing so he has firsthand knowledge and experience of what the health consequences are,” Sciurba said. “He’s been a stable force, because at times, things can get pretty hectic in a research unit.”
Politics has been an interest of Wilson’s for a long time. He attended Pitt in the early 2000s for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, first studying political science and minoring in studio arts, then exercise physiology for his master’s degree.
JoAnna Commandaros, a professor in Pitt’s studio arts department, spent a lot of time with Wilson when he was an undergraduate student studying studio art.
While in Commandaros’ class, Wilson made a series of tennis shoe sculptures inspired by Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Although this was years ago, Commandaros still remembers his works because of their statements on capitalism. Commandaros said that Wilson thought outside of the box and can carry his innovative thinking into his run on City Council.
“He was a visionary,” Commandaros said. “Here he is running as a Democrat, wanting to speak out against this single-vision society.”
Wilson’s motivation in politics extends beyond his college education. Wilson has been involved in the Sarah Heinz House leadership programs like summer camps and after-school programs, he said.
“They really wanted to empower kids to be leaders in their own lives. I’ve really tried to take that in every step of my life,” Wilson said.
From the Sarah Heinz House programs to studying political science at Pitt to serving as president of his community group and the North Side Leadership Conference Board, Wilson said he’s learned what his community needs and how to support it.
“There were multiple steps along the way. I was running for office at the same time as getting very proactive in my community,” Wilson said. “I want to make sure the office works for everyone.”