Well, for starters, having a stint in the city's Public Works department on your résumé never hurts. Two current members of council, Dan Deasy and Jim Motznik, have both worked for that department. So has Jeffrey Koch, one of the candidates who hope to win former Council President Gene Ricciardi's seat in a special election this March.
But this isn't a legal requirement, of course. Neither is being a member of the Democratic Party -- although Democrats like to act as if it were.
In fact, it doesn't take very long to spell out the legal requirements for being city councilor. (A cynic might suggest that this fact is hardly surprising, given who actually sits on city council. But not if that cynic wanted city councilors to return his phone calls.) The city's home-rule charter, which spells out the basic framework for municipal government, devotes a mere 50 words to spelling out the qualifications necessary for a city councilor.
Basically, there are two requirements. First, you must be a resident of the district you want to represent for at least one year before your election, unless you've been absent on official state or federal government business. Second, you have to reside in that district throughout your term of office. Beyond that, the city code tells us, somewhat ominously, "Council shall be the judge of the qualifications of its own members." Not exactly setting the bar very high, is it?
In other words, if you have a pulse, and you're in the right zip code, you've got a shot. Come to think of it, there's actually nothing in there about having a pulse. Which is probably lucky for one or two of the eminences to have graced the office over the years. In any case, these impressive credentials entitle you to a salary of $53,687 a year.
Once elected, it's a simple matter of taking the oath of office, in which you pledge "that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of this State and the Charter of this City and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office to the best of my ability." Fortunately, nobody seems to monitor this very carefully.
Of course, you do have to get elected first. Space constraints -- and the tattered shreds of my own sanity -- prevent me from discussing all the intricacies of the state's election law. I'll just hit some of the highlights.
For starters, it is possible to run for office and not be a member of either political party. Each year, a few hapless souls try to run as an independent or third-party candidate. Basically, doing so requires you to secure an election affidavit, a statement of financial interest, and the necessary nominating papers by the Aug. 1 deadline. The first document requires you to identify your address and the office you're running for, and to promise not to break any election laws. The second provides summary financial information about you -- where you work now, any secondary sources of income, any outstanding debts you hold. The last requires you to solicit signatures from registered voters who live within your district.
How many signatures? Well, that depends on the number of people who voted in the last district election. To qualify for a spot on the November ballot as an independent, state law requires you to get a number of signatures equal to at least 2 percent of the total number of people who voted last time. In fact, you should get a few extra just to spare, because the odds are good that your petitions will be challenged. Do the signatures look like those on voter-registration cards? Are they not legible enough? Did the person signing write "Pgh" when they should have written "Pittsburgh"? If there were two people living at the same address, did one use ditto marks to show they lived at the same address above?
I've seen all of these challenges used. Sure, this is a democracy, but there's no sense in letting the people get carried away.
Does that sound like too much trouble? I haven't even gotten into the campaign-finance reporting requirements. But look on the bright side: You can always just try changing your last name to "Costa" or "Flaherty."