On the fifth floor of the Pittsburgh City-County building downtown, there sits a comfortable office with dark wood furniture. This is the office of Councilman Bruce Kraus, who has served on Pittsburgh City Council for 15 years as the city’s first openly gay elected official. Earlier this year, he shared with the public that he would not be running for re-election.
Kraus, a native of Pittsburgh, has been active in the community for decades. From being a part of the South Side Chamber of Commerce to being elected to City Council, Kraus’s activism spans over many years. His activism in the community stems from his experience growing up in the city.
“I’m one of those Pittsburghers that live in the house that they came home from the hospital in,” he shares.
His South Side home used to be his godmother’s house. Kraus bought the house from her in 1983 and has resided there ever since.
“The South Side is in my blood,” Kraus says. “It’s impossible for me to divorce who I am from the fact that I live in the South Side, it’s that interwoven.”
Kraus joined the South Side Chamber of Commerce in the early 1980s when East Carson Street was beginning to transform into a food-and-drink neighborhood. He shares that while protesting the merger of the Zone 3 and Zone 6 police stations in 2003 by then-Mayor Tom Murphy, he met several people who were influential in his future understanding of the foundation of activism in the neighborhood. Kraus eventually became the President of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, where he focused on revitalizing East Carson Street.
In 2006, a special election was held due when Councilman Gene Ricciardi left City Council to be a magistrate. While talking to close friend Lee Phillips, Kraus was wondering aloud who would be a good replacement for Ricciardi. He was shocked when Phillips responded that he would and that he should run for the seat. Ricciardi later agreed, and Kraus began to seriously consider it to be a possibility.
“We all come here out of some form of ‘neighborhood activism,’” Kraus says. “We get engaged in our communities, and we care passionately about certain things that affect our communities. And one of the best ways to see those bear fruit is to be in a position to actually cast the vote, or actually allocate the money to see those things come to be.”
Kraus says that it began to make sense for him to run for the seat, but he had no idea how much he had to learn. He describes campaigning for the 2006 election as being a very rough period in his life. Kraus has been an out gay man since 1972, and while he was mostly met with support, he still faced rampant homophobia from others during the election.
“We had opposition that passed flyers out on Sunday mornings at Catholic churches,” Kraus says. “They were bright, fluorescent pink flyers. And they would say, ‘If you vote for Kraus, you can’t support Catholic values, because he’s gay.’”
He describes another experience he had, in which a polling location had his campaign sign displayed for voters to spit on as they went inside to vote. He went to this location himself and witnessed it firsthand.
Kraus ended up losing that election by 174 votes, which sent him spiraling into a depression. Despite having friends check in on him, he stayed in his house without seeing anyone for about a month. However, when Mayor Bob O’Connor died only several months into his term, Kraus began to realize that he needed to pick himself back up and try again. He then began to campaign for the four-year term.
“I had to go back out and do it all over again, raise all the money again, from the same people that gave me money the first time, and I had to say ‘I know I can win, you have to give me the money again because I know I can win,’” he says. “And they did. I will never ever forget the kindness of people in those two elections and what they did to support me.”
This time, Kraus focused on knocking on doors “religiously,” and recalls once knocking on a woman’s door who was ecstatic that he was on her porch. He shares the story with amusement, saying, “Like, oh my god, what? Maybe we are actually making an impact.” Kraus shares that this election was still rough, from accusations of campaign interference to bricks being thrown through his office windows. However, Kraus ended up winning the four-year term, and found out he was the city’s first openly gay councilperson.
Additionally, Kraus served as the President of the City Council for 6 years from 2014 through 2020. While he loved the camaraderie and opportunity to lead, he loved being a councilman more.
So, why leave?
“I think it’s selfish to overstay,” Kraus says. “It’s such an honor to be given the opportunity to be here. But you know, like house guests and cheese, it starts to smell in three days. You can only stay for so long. It’s selfish to not provide opportunities for someone else to have the experience that you did.”
Kraus wanted to be sure that when he left, he would be able to feel confident that there was someone he trusted to take over. He has found this in Bob Charland, his Chief of Staff.
“The big picture of the seat being in good hands is the big work of the city as a whole,” Kraus shares. “The smaller vision of that is the constituency that we represent. And you cannot interact with people on a personal level for 16 years, and not become friends. They’re not constituents, they’re friends. I’m invested in their lives, they’re invested in my life.”
Kraus believes that the constituents would be in capable hands with Charland.
“He’s got a really good heart, and it shows, and he’ll make for really good leadership,” he says.
Now, at the end of his time in City Council, Kraus looks back on what he thinks his biggest accomplishment was. He states that he hopes it is what he has learned about himself throughout the entire process.
“I have done things that I didn’t ever think I was ever capable of doing,” Kraus says. “I came out of it, I hope, a better human being than when I came in. That’s been the real blessing of this journey.”
For others, Kraus hopes that he has given people a different point of view of what it means to be a gay man.
“I hope there aren’t any more preconceived notions or ideas that they may have had, about who they thought I was,” he says. “I hope I was able to dispel that. Not actively, but rather passively, by showing the way that I live my life, who I am, what my values are, and what’s important to me. I hope their viewpoint of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, queer people, is completely different than when we began this journey. I hope there’s an increased level of acceptance, understanding, and tolerance, and love for the community.”