BREAKING BARRIERS: Kayla Portis becomes first Black member of Sharpsburg Borough Council

KAYLA PORTIS

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
In the estimation of Sharpsburg Borough Councilmember Joe Simbari, a longtime Sharpsburg resident named Anita Schaming was the “quintessential, absolute best candidate” to be appointed a Sharpsburg Councilmember.

“Not only is she a resident but a business owner, and she’s right in the heart of some of the decisions we’re going to be making about parking and traffic in the upper end of Main Street in Sharpsburg,” Councilman Simbari said of Schaming, who is White, during the borough’s monthly council meeting in February.

Then came the vote— Councilman Simbari voted in favor of Schaming. So did felllow Councilmembers Jonathan Jaso and Karen Pilarski-Pastor.

But then, out of nowhere came a fierce curveball that even Satchel Paige and Sandy Koufax would have been proud of.

Councilmembers Brittany Reno, Brad Truman and Adrianne Laing voted no to the motion of appointing Schaming for the vacant council seat.

It was a 3-3 tie.

Sharpsburg Mayor Matthew Rudzki, Esq., had the tiebreaking vote. “We have three great candidates, but I think one candidate outshined all of the other candidates and has been an integral part of the community, so I’m voting no at this time,” he said.

Which candidate was Mayor Rudzki speaking of, who had outshined all the other candidates, if it wasn’t Schaming?

Meet Kayla Portis.

“Her leadership around organizing people and bringing people into the process has impressed me not just tonight…but for years at this point,” echoed Councilwoman Reno of Portis. “She’s been on the front lines of engaging people and helping them get involved and advocating for changes they want to see.”

Councilwoman Reno, who also is the council president, added: “As a borough, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a person of color on council and I think it’s beyond time for that to happen. I think we’re fortunate because Kayla happens to be the best-suited candidate for this position…I’m very excited about Kayla and what she brings to our table.”

And with that, Councilwoman Reno made a motion to appoint Portis to the council.

This time, all the Councilmembers voted yes, 6-0.

Moments later, during the council meeting, Portis was sworn-in, making her the first African American Councilmember of the borough of Sharpsburg, the small, tightly-knit town of 3,500 that sits just off the Highland Park Bridge, neighboring Etna. She will serve for the remainder of 2021, and will also run for the council seat in May’s Primary Election. A win for Portis in May basically assures her a four-year term beginning in 2022.

Portis, 35, has deep roots in Sharpsburg. Born and raised in the borough, she told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, March 15, that “all my life, I’ve helped people. My mother, she’s a social worker, I’m a health care worker…I just felt like I was born to do it.”

Portis is a fourth-generation Sharpsburg resident. She knows the stories of her grandparents, Charles and Barbara Smith, who experienced discrimination as they raised their own children in Sharpsburg. Decades ago, Charles Smith wanted to become commander of the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) in Sharpsburg (Post 709), “but was told that he should go to a colored post,” Portis recalled. She said her grandfather replied: “Why should I go to a colored post? I live here.”

Charles Smith eventually became the first Black commander of the VFW Post 709, and is a lifetime member of the Post 709. Charles Smith died in 2000.

Barbara Smith, who graduated from the old Sharpsburg High School in 1948, maintained an active presence in the Sharpsburg community up until her death in 2019. Her mural is emblazoned on the outside of the Linden Gym, on Clay Street, in Sharpsburg.

So why did it take so long for Sharpsburg to have a Black borough councilmember? Portis believes that African American residents in the past didn’t feel like their voices were being heard by fellow residents and borough officials. Thus, there was no reason to run for a council seat.

Portis, though, said that for her, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Portis and Mayor Rutzki co-emceed a Black Lives Matter rally last June in O’Hara Township Community Park. From there, the idea of making a run for political office started to form. Portis then became president of the Fox Chapel Area Residents for Social Justice. Mix that with her titles as current vice president of the Kerr Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and former treasurer of the borough’s Baseball/Softball Association, and Portis seemingly was on a one-way route to a seat on the borough council.

“I have a lot of respect for Kayla, I have a lot of respect for what she’s trying to accomplish. Her heart is definitely in the right place,” Mayor Rutzki told the Courier in an exclusive interview, March 15.

“Kayla has been an incredible advocate for both racial justice issues, which are hugely important in our community and beyond, and for other issues of equity,” added Councilwoman Reno, in a statement to the Courier, March 12.

“…Kayla has been an incredible advocate for both racial justice issues, which are hugely important in our community and beyond.”

Prior to the council’s appointment of Portis, she told the Councilmembers that her goal was to “build a better Sharpsburg, economically and socially, as far as businesses and our residents.”

Portis also told Councilmembers she wanted to see more “equity within our borough,” in the form of “diverse housing options and employment opportunities. I would like to see diversity in our police department, wheelchair-accessible playgrounds,” and improvements to Sharpsburg’s parks. Portis told the Courier she can’t ever remember seeing an African American on Sharpsburg’s police force.

Portis also said she was concerned about the borough’s air quality, the parking issues on its narrow streets, and of course, the flooding problem.
When Portis was visiting her parents after her freshman year of college, she said the flooding was so bad in their home, that “my mother and I were trapped. We had to be rescued. The house was submerged in eight feet of water. Being a flood victim is such a traumatic experience, especially when it’s experienced multiple times. I definitely aspire to continue to work together to make this community an even better place to live,” she said.

Portis is a 2003 Fox Chapel Area High School graduate. She earned a B.S. in Liberal Studies from Clarion University in 2008.

Portis told the Courier that for years, she’s been helping people in Sharpsburg, in more of a “behind-the-scenes” role. But these days, she’s breaking barriers, looking to effect change in a public-facing, governmental role.

“It just brings me so much joy,” Portis said, reflecting on her status as the first African American Councilmember in Sharpsburg, which is about 8 percent Black. “I never realized how many people looked up to me until now. It feels so good to be able to actually make a difference.”

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