True Grit: Homestead Mayor Betty Esper Just Won't Back Down
Homestead’s first and only woman mayor has worked tirelessly for her hometown during her 35-plus years in public office. As she faces reelection unopposed next month, the 84-year-old contemplates her role as the symbol of a gritty town fighting its way back.
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photos by Martha Rial
Betty Esper has never ridden a motorcycle before. But the trim 84-year-old mayor of Homestead doesn’t hesitate for a second when a 365-pound, bearded professional wrestler arrives to pick her up. She hoists herself on the back of a Harley-Davidson and grabs onto the black leather vest of the driver, who goes by the name T. Rantula.
Vrooming along the Monongahela River, while Esper’s shock of white hair flies free in the wind, the unlikely pair swerves left under the Homestead Grays Bridge and makes a dramatic entrance to the Brawl Under the Bridge.
Esper is part of the main event of the annual Brawl, a wrestling event staged in July across the river from The Waterfront retail and entertainment complex. The finale is dubbed “The Battle of the Mayors,” and Esper is facing “Mayor Mystery,” a masked local wrestler wielding a cane.
The crowd of several hundred roars with delight as Esper nimbly dismounts from the shiny blue Harley. Dressed in white jeans and a hot pink top, she glares up at her opponent in the ring. He immediately throws shade on Esper’s advanced age.
“She’s 137 years old. Mayor, you are sticking your old nose in the wrestling business. I have to warn you, if you get too close, we are going to knock your face off with this cane. Hashtag: ‘Not My Mayor.’”
Esper doesn’t back down. After cheering on her partner T. Rantula to victory in his match, the mayor climbs under the ropes, enters the ring and throws a plate of cheese-slathered nachos smack into the face of Mayor Mystery.
As the spectators erupt into laughter, her opponent falls to the canvas mat, and the force of the impact causes Esper to fall backwards as well. She hops back up like a teenager and straddles him, fake-punching him on his masked head and pinning him, WWF-style. The ref counts to three and declares her the winner.
When Esper raises her arms in victory, the crowd goes nuts over the hometown girl who worked in the mill, became mayor and helped her community weather the collapse of the steel industry.
A wrestling star is born. Kids line up to take photos near her. Adults go gaga.
“Oh my God, I love you so much,” says Megan Abraham, a woman from Swissvale. “You made the whole show.”
Lance Woolheater, 43, a wiry truck driver from Munhall, puts his praise more bluntly. “She’s a beast.”
Betty Esper has always known how to fight.
She was just 18 in 1951 when she walked into U.S. Steel’s smoke-belching Homestead Works. The third youngest of 13 kids in a Syrian-American family, she applied at the mill where her father, Sam, and brother, George, worked. She started as a messenger and was soon promoted to a clerk. Thirty-six years later, she was part of the clean-up crew during the final days of the Homestead Works. When she walked out the gate for the last time, there were only a handful of people left.
The sprawling steel mill on the Mon River was the economic engine of Homestead for almost a century, as well as the storied site of the bloody 1892 battle between striking steelworkers and Pinkerton guards. It was a major contributor to “The Arsenal of Democracy” that won World War II and employed tens of thousands of well-paid workers. But by 1986, with the domestic steel industry collapsing, the mill was shut down, its 265 acres of land a ghost of its past.
Homestead’s rich industrial tax base had rusted away. Its population of 3,165 was less than half of what it was in 1950. Many downtown businesses on Eighth Street were boarded up or faltering.
Esper’s foray into Homestead’s rough-and-tumble politics began in 1978 with — of course — a fight. Known by her childhood nickname “Bo,” Esper was living in her family house on Eleventh Street. Every day when she took her dog to the park across the street, she’d be hassled by young men drinking and smoking marijuana.
“These gangs had the park to themselves because nobody else would go there,” Esper says. “They would mock me. I’d get these dumb remarks from them, and I answered back. It got to be a feud.”
She called the Homestead police, and they told her, “Bo, stay out of the park.”
“Is that how you resolve a problem?” she replied.
Esper complained to borough council. When they too told her to stay out of the park, she decided to run for mayor. She raised $2,000 from friends and planted scores of “Elect Esper” signs in front yards and along streets. On Election Day, she says, she watched borough police officers escort her opponent’s voters to the polls in police cars.
She was crushed in that election by a two-to-one margin, but two years later managed to get herself elected to one of seven council seats. In 1990, with name recognition from a decade serving on council, the tide turned. She was elected the first woman mayor of Homestead.
She was in her first term when a large development fight erupted over the future of the town and she found herself in a bruising battle with the planning commission over the redevelopment of the Homestead Works site into The Waterfront. Some planners — and some citizens — favored a plan with bigger public spaces and sightlines to the river, flower beds and benches, and they wanted to preserve a greater portion of the steel mill and its historic buildings.
But Mayor Esper sided with the developer, Park Corporation, over more retail space and less public space. Community activists accused her of being in the Park Corporation’s pocket, but Esper argues that she was simply being realistic and fighting for a dying town trying to survive.
“They’d get too out of line and want to save everything,” she says. “But you can’t save everything, not when you’re poor. I can’t eat flowers. That’s what I always said. We need meals on our table. We can’t save every building, not when you’re dying. It’s fine if you’re living in Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair, where you have a nice town. They wanted to save the machine shop. They wanted to save everything at the mill — I mean, goodbye! It’s gone, man!”
Esper says people became sentimental about the steel mill only after it closed. “None of them worked in the damn steel mill.”
George S.T. DeBolt, the owner of a venerable Homestead bus and tour company, was one of the community members who helped to write the redevelopment plan. He believes Esper was well-meaning but says she gave up too much to the developer at too great a cost to the community and its history — and the effects are being felt today.
“Back then, Betty Esper was an impediment to a visionary development of the mill site,” DeBolt says. “It caused a lot of controversy. To her credit, the mayor has evolved since then.”
The original plan, says DeBolt, would have created housing and green spaces for concerts and would have brought some of the prosperity of The Waterfront to downtown Homestead. The Waterfront, he says, is better than it might have been “but not as good as it could have been.”
That rough political debate cost Esper reelection in 1994. She sat out for four years, checking coats at the University Club, her only job other than the ones at the steel mill and her $2,000-a-year job as mayor. (She lives off of a pension, Social Security and income from rental properties and is incredibly frugal, eating just one meal a day.) She won the next mayoral election in 1998 and picked up where she left off in her war with her political foes.
In 2012, council members accused her of improperly withdrawing money from the Spirit of Christmas fund, a borough account that paid for the annual Christmas parade, Homestead Community Days and other activities. She says she had paid expenses upfront out of her own money and was just reimbursing herself.
Council froze the account, and a meeting in November of that year became particularly heated. Council vice president Barbara Broadwater said she wondered why Esper was able to cash checks made out to Homestead borough. Esper yelled back at her and other council members that she was innocent.
The state attorney general cleared Esper of any wrongdoing, but she says she no longer lifts a finger to help council members plan Community Days, a festival in the park featuring pony rides, concerts and booths. “I told council to go to hell,” she says without a shred of remorse. “I told them a lot of worse things, too.”
But in a postscript to that battle, she attended the funeral of her old foe, Broadwater, in April, and was surprised when the family asked her to speak.
She opened her speech with her trademark honesty. “Barbara and I never got along.”
But that was Betty Esper the person. Betty Esper the mayor went on to thank Broadwater for her service to Homestead.