GSPIA student Lita Brillman campaigns for City Council


Patrick Cavanagh | Senior Staff Photographer

Lita Brillman, a student in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, outside of the William Pitt Union.

By Adrienne Cahillane, Staff Writer

As a queer Jewish woman and Graduate School of Public and International Affairs student, Lita Brillman considers herself a “starfish candidate” while she runs for Pittsburgh City Council District 5. 

“There’s the old story of a kid on the beach and they’re all looking at the starfish and he picks one up, and they say why do you bother, there’s so many starfish, it doesn’t make a difference,” Brillman, a Democrat, said. “But, it makes a difference to that one, and that’s what it is to me. I don’t think that City Council is the place where I’m gonna change the world, but I think I can make life better for like, one person every day from City Council, and hopefully I will be that person.”

Brillman is a Pittsburgh native, born and raised in Squirrel Hill, and wants to make Pittsburgh a more livable city. Brillman is running against incumbent Barb Warwick for City Council in the democratic primary on May 16. The general election is on November 7. All odd numbered districts in Pittsburgh are holding elections, and District 5 is made up of residents from Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, Hazelwood, Lincoln Place, New Homestead, Regent Square and Squirrel Hill South. 

“What I like about living in Pittsburgh is that it’s big enough that we have an impact on the state level, the culture, things like that,” Brillman said. “It’s also small enough that elections can be competitive and you can reach your local electorate pretty easily. Change is scalable in that if the second largest city in Pennsylvania does something, it gets attention and we have attention from the state.”

Brillman attended the University of Michigan for undergrad and is currently a senior graduate student at GSPIA with a major in social policy and a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. She enjoys her classes at GSPIA due to their specialized nature and their relevance to her campaign. 

“All of my research interests have been very specific to District 5 and to Pittsburgh in promoting community development,” Brillman said. “I was able to do an entire project just on Hazelwood and economic development … they really let you kind of go wherever you want within the discipline. All my projects have been about Pittsburgh or District 5.”

Brillman’s campaign is focused on gaining more protections for queer people, improving infrastructure for the safety of marginalized groups and the connection between union labor and the environment. However, the most important issue in Brillman’s opinion is racial equity. 

“Black people have unique struggles everywhere, but it is worse here on so many dimensions,” Brillman said. “Pittsburgh is extremely segregated. It’s a massive disparity. It’s happening young and it’s happening in our schools, in our air, in our jobs, in our housing and our food access, all of these things are compounding.” 

Lucy Gabriel, a longtime friend of Brillman and medical student at Pitt, said she isn’t surprised by Brillman’s decision to run for office.

“[Brillman] is one of the most passionate people I know,” Gabriel said. “She is fiercely loyal and will always stand up for you … her grad studies fuel her motivation.” 

Brillman is able to balance all of her obligations with the help of her intern, partner and some volunteers from the community. 

“My team and my volunteers have been really, really great for that,” Brillman said. “We are a tiny team. It’s me, my partner is my treasurer, we’ve got an intern and then we’ve got some volunteers. I delegate I am not a control freak in my campaign. If I tell Madeline or I tell Kevin to do something I know it’ll be done.”

According to Brillman, her professors at GSPIA are incredibly supportive of her campaign. 

“Face to face interactions with people is the most important thing to me,” Brillman said. “So if there’s a community meeting, that’ll always come before class. As long as I get my assignments in and [am] communicative with my professors, it hasn’t really been a problem.”

Sabina Deitrick, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at GSPIA, taught Brillman in the fall of 2021 in a neighborhood and community development class. Deitrick also teaches an economic development class and a capstone seminar in local government. She believes GSPIA can set up a student well if they want to run for office. 

“GSPIA gives students good data analysis and a broad breadth of understanding the way things are and future-oriented,” Deitrick said. “[Brillman] was a very good student, active, engaged and very data adept.”

Before her campaign started, Brillman said she gained beneficial political experience elsewhere. She worked for Erika Strassburger, the representative for Pittsburgh City Council District 8, political nonprofits and on a few political campaigns.

When asked to sum up her campaign in a few words, Brillman knew the answer immediately.

“Community-focused, data-driven,” Brillman said. “That means asking people what they want, calling in as many voices and talking to people, while also backing it up with numbers and solutions. It’s how you get to actual problem-solving.”

Gabriel said Brillman is a good candidate for City Council due to her dedication and passion.

“She doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk,” Gabriel said. “She felt it was the right time to do this even though she is about to graduate. 

Brillman said regardless of the election outcome, she will have learned a lot and made progress.

“Even if I lose, a super far-left person who has a focus on trans people and racial equity has to get 10% of the vote before they get 51% of the vote,” Brillman said. “If I can show that I’m a serious candidate, that can be as far left as I am, be as loud and Jewish and gay as I am, that’s viable.”