MONESSEN – Matt Shorraw considers himself to be a stubborn person, who would never have run for mayor of Monessen if he was being pressured to do so by political forces who wanted the incumbent out of office.
At age 26, Shorraw will be the youngest mayor in the history of the Westmoreland County city that will hand him major hurdles to overcome when he takes office in January.
“I honestly care,” said Shorraw, who often appears to be a passionate cheerleader for his hometown that has never recovered from the loss of steel jobs that once kept its economy humming.
“I would never go through this nonsense if someone was telling me to do this,” he said over a lunch of grape leaves in a new, upscale restaurant, By George, in a tidy residential neighborhood in the city.
His opponents circulated a cartoon of him as a puppet being controlled by former mayor Mary Jo Smith and her allies in the Democratic party.
Lou Mavrakis defeated Smith four years ago in the mayor’s race, and he has repeatedly blamed the city’s problems on her leadership.
Monessen has become littered with blight as many people abandoned houses and businesses following the closure of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in the 1980s. Many local residents mistakenly believed for many years the mill would reopen, Shorraw said.
“There are 30 years of disinvestment here,” he said.
He also said President Trump promised America that steel would make a comback during the campaign, which included a stop at a recycling plant in Monessen.
Democrats in Monessen “called Trump on that,” Shorraw said. “He’s not bringing steel back.”
Trump’s visit to Monessen gave the impression Mavrakis supported him, and that belief likely caused him to lose in the primary and again during a write-in campaign in November, Shorraw said.
After Trump’s visit, Mavrakis, 80, was interviewed by news outlets across the world that reported on how such a city with a strong Democratic base would embrace Trump, a Republican. Monessen voters ended up casting the most ballots last year for Hillary Clinton.
Mavrakis insists the owner of the recycling business invited Trump to Monessen. Mavrakis said he invited Trump, then-President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to the city to witnesses its decline and hopefully attract businesses. Obama and Clinton didn’t accept the invitation.
“Either way, I’m a winner,” Mavrakis said when asked about the mayor’s race prior to the Nov. 7 election.
He said if he lost he would “no longer have the weight of the city on my back.” If he won, he said, he would be able to continue with his agenda, which included blight removal and saving taxpayer money.
Shorraw admits it will be impossible to save every abandoned building in the century-old city along the Monongahela River.
“There are buildings that need to come down,” he said.
Shorraw desperately wants to save an old bank building at 500 Donner Ave. and turn it into a cafe and music center. He sees beyond its broken windows and vines growing out of the balconies and believes the city-owned building should be stabilized.
“They don’t have the money to tear it down. There are volunteers willing to donate plywood to board up the windows. We need to let them.”
As head of the 19-member police department, Shorraw said, he does not plan on naming a new chief in his first days in office. The current police chief, John Mandarino, has announced he will retire at the end of January, Shorraw said.
“I’ve started talking to the police department and I want to get a feel for who wants the job,” he said.
Monessen has been saddled with debt that was estimated at $13.5 million in the spring of 2016. The city also had many crumbling streets and sewers and more than 300 blighted buildings, Mavrakis has said. The city also entered into the state’s Early Intervention Program to avoid bankruptcy as it neared the end of 2016, facing a $200,000 budget deficit.
The program has helped to reduce the city’s debt, and, Shorraw said, he wants to continue with the program administered by the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
He said his first priority as mayor will be to make sure the city’s departments are functioning properly.
Shorraw said he envisions the creation of Mon Valley-wide coalition of leaders to discuss their common problems, which include the heroin epidemic.
“We have to sit down and start talking about it,” he said.
“Monessen isn’t as bad as people think it is,” he said. “We do have a decent number of businesses. They’re just spread apart.”
To those who say he doesn’t have enough job experience to run the city, Shorraw said, he has had many jobs over the past decade. He is an unpaid assistant band director at Monessen High School. He said he worked at a grocery store and in the music office at California University of Pennsylvania, where he earned bachelor and master’s degrees.
The mayor’s job pays about $5,000 a year and it has become a tradition to donate that money back to the city, he said, adding he needs to find part-time work.