A Conversation with Steve Irwin


Last weekend, I decided to sit down with Steve Irwin, a lawyer, activist, and now politician to discuss why he’s running for congress. I’ve known Steve almost my entire life yet this interview made me realize how complex and how much I didn’t know about him. The reason I decided to sit down with Steve is to understand what it’s like to hold such a position and to understand why he cares so much about changing the current state of Pittsburgh, and on a larger scale, America. I thought it was important to interview him from the perspective of a student, especially as his campaign comes to a close to get his final thoughts and messages to the people that support him. It felt amazing to sit down with someone so passionate about issues such as infrastructure, global warming, and issues of equity surrounding Pittsburgh. Without further ado, here’s the interview.


What decisions led you to run for Congress? That’s somewhat of a personal question that I wanted to ask.

Well, it’s a great question, Nur. So, first of all, in my life, I’ve always had an interest in government, and it started in high school. Actually, it started before that, but in high school, I went to Washington, something called Washington workshops, and I sort of got a taste of what Congress is like. So after I finished college, that’s where I got my first job working in the United States Senate for five years and after that, throughout my entire life, when there have been issues that I’ve been concerned about, I knew my way around Capitol Hill and how to get things done there. So I’ve used those skills and knowledge to try to move legislation and causes that I cared about. When Mike Doyle, our congressman, for the last 28 years announced that he was retiring, I knew that we were at a critical juncture in the history of our country. And that my knowledge of how to get things done in Washington, and my experience in our region here in southwestern Pennsylvania, knowing Pennsylvania, its institutions. Its schools like Winchester, the issues that people care about the people of Western Pennsylvania, I thought I was the right person to take the baton and run with it!


So I guess you could say it was kind of like a butterfly effect. How you started in high school and then progressed into the political world.

Yeah, from that I studied Government at Harvard. And then during the summers in college I worked in government and worked for the Attorney General Florida on criminal sentencing and then afterwards went to Washington worked on the floor of the Senate for our Pennsylvania senator handled issues like the environment and Education and Labor, transportation infrastructure. And then after that I went to law school. And after law school in Pittsburgh, I worked on political campaigns, and was appointed to a number of positions over the years in government. So I’ve served at every level of government and every branch of government without having to run.  Running is a big decision because it’s an entirely different animal. But I’ve done it and I’ve been doing it and there’s only 10 days left.


Yeah, so my next question kind of follows up with that. If you don’t win, will you continue your work with another political field? And if so, what would you do instead besides Congress or would you run again?

Well, that’s a great question. No one’s asked me that yet. So I love that. Well, first of all, there’s some really important things that are happening in this country right now. We’re facing climate change issues that we’re going to experience in our lifetime of global warming, and we’ve got to address those issues. Our democracy is threatened and our right to vote. We are right now, at the turning point in reproductive rights in this country, it appears. So the right for a woman to make that personal decision whether to have an abortion is completely threatened, and we’re going to have to address that. So I don’t see how I would sit on the sidelines. And I want to make sure that we have people in government who are the best that we can have. And so I’ll continue to work for candidates who I think have the experience and the resilience and the vision and are willing to do the hard work. I don’t know whether I’ll run for something else. I’m too much in the moment right now and trying to make sure we win this election to think about it. But I can tell you that running for Congress is very, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And yeah, I can talk sometime about all the different challenges that you have when you’re doing that. I think Congress is one of the hardest positions to run for because it’s a local position, neighbor on neighbor – you’ll see one of my signs and then somebody else’s.  But it’s also a very national race, where there are national caucuses and movements that are very concerned about who represents Pittsburgh. So it’s, it’s very exciting in many ways, but it’s very draining. It’s the only thing I’ve done for seven days a week, 20 hours a day for many, many months.


So you are talking about how it’s been one of the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced. So can you say what was one of the biggest challenges that you’ve had to overcome through running this position? Just one if you could pick one?

Sure. One of them is certainly raising the dollars that you have to raise to get your message out. Because in a federal campaign, unlike a state campaign, where there are unlimited contributions, if you know people have a lot of money, they can make big gigantic checks. It’s like how many balls on a string does it take to get the moon? one, but it has to be a very, very big one. When you run for Congress, you need a lot of little, little tiny balls, you know, so the maximum anyone can give you is $2,900. Now if you’ve got to raise over a million dollars, you realize that you need 3,000 people to give you that kind of money to get there. And obviously not everyone writes a check like that. A lot of people write checks at $5, $10, $15, $25, or $50. And so you’ve got to be able to reach out. and why? Why do you raise the money? For no other reason than the fact that you’re trying to reach 750,000 people, and you have to get your message out to them and you have to do that through television, the Internet, mailers, and all that kind of stuff, and they’re expensive. They’re very expensive, a week on television can cost $60,000, it could even cost $150,000. So you’ve got to raise the money and that is something that you do by sitting on the telephone and talking to people about the campaign and politics for six hours a day, day after day after day. 


So on the topic of money, I believe you raised $338,000 In your fourth quarter. Did you expect that much of a contribution to your campaign? And if not, why did you not expect it?

Yes, so I never I never raised money for myself before. I’ve raised it for organizations in our community like the food bank, Three Rivers Rowing, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. And I know that in those situations I’m calling and asking people to contribute, maybe you know, $100, $300, or maybe $500; usually not asking them to contribute $1,000s of dollars.. So I thought that I knew a lot of people and I didn’t know how they would respond because I’d never asked for myself before. So I was really thrilled because the test was whether I could raise the money in that fourth quarter of last year, which was actually the first quarter that I was raising money. Mike Doyle now said he wasn’t going to run for reelection on or about November 1. I got in the race on November 15, and between November 15 and December 31. We raised the money that you referenced. Since then, I’ve raised another million dollars on top of it. But once we did it in the first quarter, we thought well, we might be able to pull this off. And we did.


What is the first thing you want to do when you get elected into Congress?

First I’ve got to win the primary and then I have to win the general election. And that’s in November, and then I get there in January, so there’s a number of things I want to do. First of all, I want to support the president. I think the President has a great plan to deal with climate change. I think the President has a great plan to deal with infrastructure, a great plan to deal with jobs, a great plan to transition our energy and infrastructure away from fossil fuels toward renewables, and wind, solar, hydrogen and other things that are to come. He has a good plan for helping families who are really struggling with childcare support and getting the cost of medicine down, etc. So he’s got awesome plans, so I want to support the president. But also one of the main things I want to focus on is health care. I don’t like the fact that people are concerned about picking their jobs based on the health care that comes with it, as opposed to doing something that they love. Everyone ought to have health care. And I’m very concerned about mental health care in this country. I think we have to treat mental health and physical health on the same level, and we ought to be reimbursing for that kind of treatment, and needs to be more accessible to everybody. And you shouldn’t have to say that you’re going to kill yourself before you get somebody to be your therapist. And it should be quick and we should help people and find ways to give people that kind of support. I mean, your generation now has been growing up in very critical years of your own physical and emotional development, largely in isolation. You know, you spent two years basically, at home, not in community with other people and having those kinds of relationships, and it’s taken a toll on everybody. And the consequences of that we don’t fully know. But we need to be there to support you and others who are experiencing those problems and give them the help they need to get through it. And I don’t think the system currently does it well. We do it in Pittsburgh pretty well but we’re not doing as well as we can. So mental health is something I’m very concerned about. Social isolation and loneliness for people who are older also. It’s a big issue, and I really want to focus on that.  I have a lot of experience in that area. Until I started running for congress I was the co chair of the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative. And I was the lawyer for the Hospital and Health Care Council of Western Pennsylvania. While I have experience in health care policy. I’m not a doctor.  One of my daughters who went to Winchester through eighth grade, Jillian Irwin, is a physician, and she has a master’s in public health; we talk a lot about these issues. So that’s something I really would like to focus on.


So on the topic of equity, I think it’s clear to say that Pittsburgh is a pretty inequitable place. Who would you say faces the most challenges regarding inequity within marginalized communities and how do you plan to support them?

Yeah, a number of folks are marginalized in Pittsburgh. Black and Brown people, the disabled community, LGBTQ community are all challenged throughout the country, but in Pittsburgh, sometimes it’s particularly acute. We know that, for example, in perinatal health, which refers to the health of a mom before, during and after pregnancy, the outcomes for those mothers is not as good as it is elsewhere. We know that in gun violence in Pittsburgh, a Black or Brown person is 24 more times likely to be the victim of gun violence than a white person. And so I think there’s things we can do in gun violence and healthcare to change those outcomes. I think transportation is a big issue. Access so you can get to work so you can get to school so you can get to your doctor. You know, it’s not easy just to take a bus everywhere. I gave up my car many years ago, and I took the bus everywhere. Fortunately, Uber helped a little bit. But not everybody has the ability and the access to do those things. So I think we’ve got to rethink those things and addressing those are going to be high on my list of things that need to be addressed.


Do you have any policies that you’re really passionate about that other candidates that are running against you don’t fully believe in? And if so, why? 

Well this is a Democratic primary. So I think we all share concerns about inequities. We all share concerns about democratic values and voting rights and civil rights. One area where I think we differ from my opponents is fracking. My main opponent believes that we ought to put a moratorium on fracking, that the threat to the climate is so great that we need to stop it immediately. And similarly, she’s stated that environmental deficiencies in the steel industry, which has a 99% compliance record, are enough to really shut down. For example, consider Clairton coke works where they make coke to make steel.  The air that we breathe is of course very important, and we need to insist on compliance with the environmental laws. I’m not suggesting that we want to do fracking in people’s backyards where it’s going to affect their water and their health. But I think that we can actually have both –  we can have jobs, and we can have a clean environment. And I think that takes hard work. To figure out those things and needs, we need to put more resources toward devising and enforcing reasonable regulation. And we need to recognize that these families are depending on these jobs to take care of themselves and their kids and their communities, and that you just can’t shut them down. That’s a big distinction between us.


So are you in support of fracking?

It’s not that I’m in support of fracking; we need to move toward renewables and, as the President has suggested, we need to get to carbon neutrality by 2050. He has a plan to do that. We can do that. We don’t have to shut down the Clairton coke works. We don’t have to shut down all fracking. There are places where we do not want to do fracking. We need to have regulators on site making sure it’s done in accordance with the law. And if they’re not doing it in accordance with the law, then we have to stop. But as long as we’re doing it and meeting those environmental requirements, we should be able to do it. Strategically our country needs to be able to produce natural gas even if you have solar cells and wind, as the sun doesn’t shine all the time and wind doesn’t blow all the time. You have to have an energy that’s going to help you maintain keeping the lights on and natural gas is cleaner than coal and is a better interim fuel in those situations. And we have to continue to do research to find others to help fill that gap, as well.


So you kind of touched on your work as an attorney before and this is kind of shifting gears. And I guess you partially answered this before, but how has your work as an attorney led you to run for Congress?


As an attorney, I’ve worked on a lot of different things over the course of my career. In healthcare, I fought the pharmaceutical companies when they were charging too much for generic drugs and fraudulently claimed that proprietary drugs, you know ones that have certain names, that everyone knows specifically speaking,Synthroid, in this case, it’s a Thyroid Supplement, and it was the name brand, but there was another generic that you could have gotten for much less than the price of Synthroid, but they advertised Synthroid. We showed that they were the same, and they lied to the public about it being the same. They knew it was and they still concealed it from the public. We were able to get more than $100 million to give back because people overpaid for that drug. So that’s one of the kinds of cases I worked on. I also worked on discrimination cases, made it easier to be able to bring certain sexual harassment cases. I worked on political corruption within the city of Jeannette where an industrialist came and basically bribed the mayor and other public officials to get them to get public money to support the rebirth of the glass industry when he had no intention of actually doing that. It was just a way to get public money. So you know, those are some of the kinds of things I’ve done over the years as an attorney, I worked on sentencing disparity, criminal sentencing disparities among different groups. And so that work really makes sense because I’m going to have to deal with criminal justice when I’m in Congress. I’m going to have to deal with health care when I’m in Congress. I’ve done a lot with engineering firms and architects working on construction projects and infrastructure as a main thing that we’re going to be dealing with. The Congress, under President Biden, has committed $1.7 trillion to rebuilding the infrastructure of this country. So we need somebody in Congress who knows how to make sure that that money is spent wisely, that it gets out to everyone and projects are done on time and on budget.


When I told a student at Winchester that I was interviewing you, they told me that I shouldn’t interview you because people at our school can’t vote. But a question for you, why do you think that it’s important for students to know about what’s going on within the political realm and spreading awareness within that?

I love that question. So first of all, I started in politics when I was seven years old. Even though you can’t vote you can start working on campaigns when you’re at any age. First of all, you can influence other people’s votes, your parents’ votes, your friends, your neighbors, and others. You can learn more about it and you can get involved in it in a very deep way. Think of the person from Norway, you know who’s worked so much in the environmental movement? She’s a very young woman. 


Oh, Greta Thunberg. Right.


Yeah, Greta, look what she’s done. She couldn’t vote and she’s changed the world. So that’s why you need to pay attention now because frankly, life goes by too fast. And if you don’t start learning about this stuff now, you’re going to be behind the eight ball. There are some people out there. The same people that get involved in campaigns when they’re in high school, are the ones who are going to be running for office down the road. They’re the ones who are going to be running campaigns when they get out of school, ready to go like that. And they’ll be the ones running for Congress. Just a few years after that and city council, President of the United States, etc.


So as you mentioned before, there’s only 10 more days until the primary. Can you discuss the final steps that you have to take before such a big commitment?

So, we’ve been working real hard knocking on 1000s of doors, making 1000s of phone calls, sending out texts, reaching people and getting our message out. And we’ve been interviewing everybody we talked to, we get a sense of whether they’re voters who are inclined to support us, so we know who our voters are. And we believe that we have the votes to win the race. Now the trick is getting all of them to show up and vote on Election Day. And make sure that if they want to vote by mail, that they’ve gotten their ballots that they send them in, we stay in touch with them. And then on election day, we make sure we reach out to them, make sure they get to the polls if they need a ride, whatever they need. We remind them to vote. We remind them who we are. We make sure we get our commercials up on television and our notices out so people, even though they have a lot of things going on there. Remember to make sure our lawn signs are everywhere and in every polling place. And we’re recruiting hundreds and hundreds of people to be at those polling places to remind people that I’ve been endorsed by our Congressman Mike Doyle, by our county executive, by a number of other leaders in the community, and we secured the Democratic Party of Allegheny County’s endorsement as well. And we just remind people, you don’t have to take my word for it. Take the word of all these other people who have said that they believe that I ought to be the next Congress person


As we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts or final words to say for someone who wants to, either get into politics or, someone in youth that likes politics but isn’t sure what they want to do in that field? 

So I’ve had a TV show for the last five years called political jungle. It’s kind of a play on my name, Right? Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, jungle, that kind of thing. But it’s on television. If you Google Political Jungle, you’ll see that I interviewed 50 people in Western Pennsylvania and politics, at least, on why they do it, what they do and the different paths to get there if you want to get into politics down the road. And I encourage everyone to look at some of those shows.  You’ll get some insights because there’s not just one path to get into politics. There are many different ways to get here. You don’t necessarily have to get into it right after high school. You can do something else and then find your way into it down the road. I mean, look at me, I’m running for Congress. It’s the first office I’ve run for. I’ve been very involved in government and in our community, but I haven’t run for office. So you can do it at any time in your life. My advice is number one, do what you love, because you’re likely to do it better, and do it more and become better at it. Get some expertise in areas and then life will offer new opportunities to get new expertise as you go. When you get to Congress, you have to have expertise in many different areas. The more time you’ve spent learning about  mentoring, the environment,  healthcare, infrastructure, etc, the better equipped you’ll be to be able to do the work of a congressperson.  The next thing I suggest strongly is pick a campaign and just go work on it. Because the people that are working on campaigns, they’re often centers of influence.  They know people, and you’ll meet people, you’ll grow your network, and the people that you know, you’ll get people who can be mentors for you, and advisors who speak for you. And whatever you do, don’t try to do too much but whatever you do, really throw yourself into it 100%. Show people what you can do, because people will remember that and the opportunities will grow from that. I grew up, went to public school, with a working class family. And I was given opportunities to do things and when I did them, I tried to do them as well as I could. And it led to more opportunities to do things and some of the things were not things I ever thought I would do. For example, when Mayor Murphy asked me to be the head the parking authority in Pittsburgh. I thought, who cares about parking in Pittsburgh? It turned out to be one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had. And it led to other things. So it’s the skills that you learn – they’re adaptable. No matter what context you’re in, you have to develop the skills. And so you just can’t stay home. You gotta get out and put yourself in situations where you’re risking a little bit and it’s okay to make mistakes. And politics is just a great way to make good friends. People care about our country, about our region, about each other. And that’s how the world is gonna get better. It’s not gonna get better if we just sit on the sidelines. So get into the game.


Well, thank you for sitting down with me. I appreciate your time. And I wish him the best of luck in the primary. And I guess my last words are to vote for Steve.

Thank you. I wish you could vote. But tell all your friends and tell all your Winchester friends. You know Winchester has been an important part of my family for a long time. And I’m ready anytime you guys are ready to start working on campaigns. Either while you’re in college or afterwards call me and we’ll get you to work, and if I’m not there, I’ll know tons of campaigns and people to hook you up with because you’re very talented. You guys care about our community. And you’re got a lot of great skills. Your questions were outstanding, as good as anyone who’s asked me any questions. Thank you, Nur!  Let’s keep it going.