It was late in the afternoon on Nov. 6, 2013, and I was sitting in the Crazy Mocha on Fourth Street with Barbara Daly Danko. She was pissed and confused.
"Charlie, it's a park!" she told me, incredulous that anyone would think drilling under Deer Lakes Park was a good idea. But that was the plan then being put in motion by Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Even "people who are in favor of drilling generally, are still against the idea about drilling on or near our parks," she said.
It was just one of many issues that the progressive Democrat from Regent Square fought for — regardless of the opposition — during her nearly four years on council. Sadly, the 61-year-old Danko died May 6 after a 10-year battle with cancer.
It goes without saying that her death is an immeasurable loss to her husband, George, and her children. But her passing is also a huge loss to the citizens of Allegheny County.
A longtime fixture in 14th Ward politics, she was appointed to county council in 2011 to replace Fitzgerald, who was running for county executive. By all accounts, the two were longtime friends, but that didn't make her a rubber stamp for his plans and policies.
Nowhere was that more obvious than on drilling issues. She voted against his plan to drill at the Pittsburgh International Airport and was the most vocal critic of the proposal to drill under county parks. That's what led us to meet for that pre-council-meeting coffee in November 2013. The previous September, she had introduced a three-year moratorium on drilling in county parks. But two months later, the bill languished in committee, unable to get a fair hearing. She suspected Fitzgerald had something, if not everything, to do with blocking the bill, and she was frustrated. But she refused to stop fighting.
That spirit is the reason that, despite her health struggles, she decided to run for re-election. She faced a stiff challenge from Caroline Mitchell, a chemical engineer and lawyer from Squirrel Hill running with the support of Fitzgerald. Despite that, however, she received endorsements from the county Democratic committee and the 14th Ward Independent Democrats club. And despite her passing, her name will appear on the ballot for District 11 council representative on May 19.
Vote for her. A posthumous election to county council would be the perfect tribute to a public official who wasn't afraid to stand alone in the face of policies she believed to be wrong.
Barbara Daly Danko was one of the few unapologetically independent voices on Allegheny County Council. Maybe the only independent Democratic voice who was seeking a new term, as county council has tended to follow Fitzgerald's lead on, well, most everything.
Her opponent could be that voice; I don't know. Here's what I do know: When no one else would stand up and fight, Barbara stood and fought. When dozens of anti-fracking activists and West Deer residents spent hours at every council meeting for months speaking straight about the folly of drilling under a public park, she stayed and listened to each one of them. When it came time to stand up for her principles even in the face of her friend, Fitzgerald, she did.
In her final weeks, Daly Danko penned a letter to her constituents that included this request:
"It was previously explained to me that my name will remain on the primary ballot later this month. If my nomination and/or election is vacated, it is my understanding that the Democratic Committee members from County Council District 11 will elect someone to fill the void. I hope that they will carefully consider all interested candidates and support someone who will study the issues and always vote based on the best interests of the citizens of Allegheny County."
That's what Barbara Daly Danko did, and that's why she still deserves support. The post-primary process to fill Danko's seat could result in Mitchell getting the job anyway. But it will be Barbara's term, and hopefully whoever is chosen to replace her will share her independent, fighting spirit and won't be afraid to stand up for his or her beliefs regardless of the opposition.