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.
(page 2 of 2)
Wherever you go in Homestead, Mayor Esper seems to be there — at parades, at funerals, at the food bank, at weddings, at bingo games and at Costco at The Waterfront, where on weekends her constituents can air their concerns to her as she nibbles on samples.
She also can be reached day or night on her flip phone. She doesn’t own an email account.
Esper, who never married and has no children, has dozens of great-nieces and -nephews, who are scattered all over suburban Pittsburgh. None of them live in Homestead, but they descend on her house for Christmas dinner.
She considers the town her extended family. “I go to bed with it every night.”
Esper can also be found out on the streets of Homestead, often involving herself in situations that would make most people flee in terror. If she sees a group of young guys carousing on a corner or on Eighth Street, for instance, she’ll hit the brakes of her Malibu, open the door and confront them.
“What’s going on?” she’ll ask. “How about leaving?”
“OK, Miss Esper,” they’ll say. Or they’ll just quietly disperse. “My family thinks I am nuts,” she says, “but I am not scared.”
The only thing she says makes her keep her distance are groups of rowdy young women. “Girls are worse than guys,” she says. “You know you are going to get a smart answer.
They give you the neck roll and the eye roll and all that crap.”
Esper is a one-off, to be sure. Love her or hate her, she’s the symbol of a gritty town fighting its way back.
“If you could define Homestead in the dictionary,” says Carol Shrieve, director of the Carnegie Library of Homestead, “her picture would be next to it. She’s gritty. She shoots from the hip. You might not like what she says, but she has more passion and realistic expectations for the community. She not some doobie out-of-towner. I love her to death.”
Homestead’s financial health has rebounded lately, thanks in part to the $850,000 in taxes it collects each year from The Waterfront. The big challenge today for Esper and the borough is bringing back its main business district, East Eighth Street, which is frequently bypassed by most of the cars headed for The Waterfront’s spacious parking lots.
But there are signs of progress on East Eighth — some restaurants, retail shops and microbreweries are slowly filling up the boarded-up buildings — but more remains to be done.
Jerry Miller, owner of the Blue Dust restaurant and bar, says people thought he was crazy when he opened seven years ago on Amity Street, a block that runs between The Waterfront and the East Eighth Street business district. But other restaurants and bars are following his lead. “I look like a genius now,” he says.
He says Esper was skeptical at first about the new nightlife. “She was not used to the whole youth, microbrew thing. She doesn’t drink. But now she is embracing [the nightlife] wholeheartedly. She sees it has brought a lot of people to town.”
Though Esper hopes to complete the town’s rejuvenation, she has started to think about retiring someday. Homestead’s first and only woman mayor is running unopposed this November, but she muses that it might be her last election campaign. In 2021, she says, “I’ll be 88. It’s my last four years.”
Those who know Betty Esper say you can never, ever, count her out, however.
“Ha, you’re never going to quit,” Doug Hartman, a Boy Scout leader who lives in nearby Munhall, tells her during a recent visit to Homestead. “They’ll carry you out of your office on your shield.”
Esper’s hazel eyes peer out at Hartman from behind her glasses, framing a jaw so square it looks like it could cut glass. She allows that maybe she could keep going after age 88. After all, her counterpart in West Homestead, Mayor John Dindak, is 89, and his term will take him into his 90s.
Despite her many political enemies and those who say Homestead needs new, younger blood, Esper has proven unbeatable. The borough is 58 percent African-American, and she draws strong support from black voters. “I have a lot of disciples in this town,” she says confidently. “They are all black. They’ve got my back.”
Her fighting spirit, no-nonsense attitude and tireless devotion to her hometown has earned her the respect of John Fetterman, the physically imposing mayor of neighboring Braddock, which has been undergoing its own resurgence. “Betty’s emblematic of the great Steel Valley town that does everything it can to make itself over. I call her the ‘Iron Butterfly.’
“I am afraid of her,” Fetterman says. “And I mean that in the best possible way.”
On a fall day last year, dozens of cars are lined up on the Homestead Grays Bridge above The Waterfront, their occupants working their way to Bravo or Burgatory to eat $15 pasta dishes and gourmet hamburgers or to watch $15 movies in stadium seating.
Half a mile away, a different clientele lines up at the Rainbow Kitchen to get their rations of free juices, canned vegetables and other basics that prevent them from going hungry. At the front of the line, Esper, a volunteer on this day, is supervising the shoppers and telling them what to take.
One burly man barks at the mayor as he makes his way through the line. “Do you think I am stupid?” he yells over his shoulder. “Do you think I can’t shop? I am a veteran.”
Esper yells right back across the room. “Do you have a problem, sir? I don’t care if you are a veteran. I help everyone shop.”
She has a good rapport with the rest of the people there that day. She chats up one woman who moved to Homestead from Bethel Park. “Bethel Park?” Esper says with a laugh. “I am still trying to get to Bethel Park.”
Like a modern-day Betsy Ross, Esper wears a red blazer with a stars-and-stripes scarf. She has just come from a Veteran’s Day parade. All those trappings of patriotism are in sharp contrast with the button on her lapel — a photo of President Trump’s face with a slash through it.
“He’s not my president,” says Esper, a Democrat who was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton.
“I have never said this before. I don’t care what his politics are — but the way he talks about women, John McCain, veterans — you’re supposed to forget what he said because it is over. It’s not over. For many years, he declared Obama wasn’t even legal. How can you respect a man like that? I think some white people are racist and bigots.”
Looking around the crowd gathered at the Rainbow Kitchen, she sees an equal mix of black and white residents in need.
“White people think only black people need food, but it is 50/50 here. There is a bad image of the black community that all they do is ask and they don’t want to work. White people who say that don’t see the ones who work and have nice houses. There is a need everywhere.”
The respect goes both ways. Esper’s best friend, Marley “Pumpkin” Murphy, the volunteer coordinator at the Rainbow Kitchen and an African-American woman, says the mayor gets the backing of the black community because she is in the trenches.
“You don’t get support from the blacks because you show up as a white woman. You get their support because they have seen you digging the trench, making it easier and safer for their kids. If your grandmother dies, black or white, Betty knows them. She shows up at the funeral and brings a dish. … It just doesn’t get any better than Betty. Her heart is in everything she does. But don’t punk her, because she won’t back down.”
Murphy considers Esper her mentor, her BFF and her idol. So of course, she showed up to cheer on the mayor during her wrestling performance at the Brawl Under the Bridge.
Afterwards, Murphy and other friends congratulate Esper on her kick-butt cameo. “She is in better shape than anyone,” Murphy says.
Walking away from the ring, Esper says she still feels good. She says she’ll use her ride on the back of a Harley hog as a future indicator of the longevity of her political career. “If I can still get on that motorcycle in four years, I will run again.”