When Sam Schmidt learned she’d have to move out of the Buffalo apartment she was subletting and find a new place to live, she wondered how the transition would affect her then 8-year-old daughter.
“We loved it there, loved the community, and I knew she’d need a little help easing into that change,” Schmidt said. “She suggested we move to Pittsburgh. I just laughed at her and said, ‘That’s ridiculous.’”
Then Schmidt reconsidered. Why not Pittsburgh? She and her daughter had visited here a number of times and liked the city. So, on weekends, she drove here, checked out the neighborhoods, the culture and the economics of the region. In 2018, she moved to Bellevue and has been here ever since.
Now, she’s diving headfirst into county politics by running as an independent for the Allegheny County Council District 13 seat now held by Olivia Bennett, who’s decided not to seek reelection. Schmidt will face Democratic nominee David Bonaroti in the general election. District 13 stretches from Bellevue to the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Morningside and Garfield, and covers all of the North Side and parts of the South Side.
Schmidt, 36, is one of two socialists seeking seats on County Council. The other, Carl Redwood Jr., a longtime community organizer, social worker and social justice advocate in Pittsburgh, is running as an independent to represent District 10.
Schmidt is focusing her campaign on housing, environmental justice, food security and the rights of tenants and workers to organize — “a lot of the issues that come with poverty,” she said, “because that’s been my lived experience.”
“I have been unhoused. I have received food stamps most of my life. I’ve always struggled to get by, and I’ve always worked multiple jobs,” she said. “I feel so much for people struggling in that way and who are convinced that it’s a personal character flaw or personal failure that brings them to poverty and keeps them in poverty. That’s just not the case.”
To escape that poverty, Schmidt moved out of her parents’ home and into her own place during high school, and at age 18 she joined the U.S. Army — the only way she’d be able to afford an education, she said. (She has since earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.) She served 17 years, mostly as a reservist, and earned the rank of sergeant first class. Schmidt said military experience allowed her to grow as a leader.
But it’s her life outside the military that most defines her. She worked 15 years as a bartender, dependent upon tips to supplement her low wages.
“The injustices in that industry have stressed and rattled me my whole life,” Schmidt said. And she’s navigated social services systems that often seem to fail those they are supposed to serve. That’s something she hopes to address should she win the council seat.
Schmidt now runs a business she founded that offers personal fitness training — the operation’s framework is socialist (“I’m not a boss; we’re all equal employees”) — and spends two to three days each week volunteering for organizations such as Food Not Bombs, a collective that serves hot meals and distributes free groceries, toiletries and hygiene products.
“Really, we’re just there to show the people we’re talking to that we recognize their humanity, that we care about their circumstances and that we’re going to continue to show up for them every week,” she said.
Her involvement in the Pittsburgh chapter of Democratic Socialists of America sparked her interest in politics. She became a member last year and attended a DSA leadership school. It was then that she learned of a potential opening on County Council — Bennett had by then joined the race to become the Democratic nominee for Allegheny County executive.
Schmidt began making preparations to run for the District 13 seat, but Bennett dropped out of the county executive race and announced she would instead run for reelection on County Council.
“That was a conflict for me,” Schmidt said. “I felt she was passionate about helping the community. At that point, I gave her my respects and said, ‘I will not run against you.’”
Bennett later decided to pull out of that race, and called Schmidt to suggest she run.
“That was four days before the petitioning deadline,” Schmidt said. “So we scrambled and mobilized as many volunteers as we could and got on the ballot.”
Much of Schmidt’s volunteer work involves building coalitions between groups engaged in similar missions and “elevating the work they are doing collectively.” She’s hoping to bring those organizing skills to county government. Housing, clean air and water, access to food, the rights of workers and tenants to organize — all are human rights that can be fortified through legislation, she said.
As an independent, she faces a significant challenge — running against a Democrat in a heavily Democratic county. How does she convince voters to reconsider reflexively pulling a lever for the Democratic candidate?
She feels strongly the need to identify as an independent because the two-party system is outdated, she said.
“And just presenting myself authentically and speaking my truth all the time is important. People need to see that relatability, to humanize the problems of poverty,” Schmidt added.
“When it comes to talking about socialism and convincing people there is another way, I will go on an anti-capitalist tangent all day,” she said. “I love educating people about the many ways that capitalism has convinced us that this is the natural order, that this is the only way, that only certain people deserve power and privilege in our society.
“We are all equally worthy to access these resources — it takes a lot to unpack that for people. We are all conditioned with those beliefs of capitalism. It comes down to active listening, really understanding people’s problems and addressing their misunderstandings about other ways of doing things.”