Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Kraus shares his story of recovery and public service
Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Kraus has always been open about his life. Elected in 2008 as the District 3 representative, Kraus is the city’s first openly gay elected official and has been in recovery from addiction for nearly 25 years.
“Years ago, when running for public office, the two biggest taboos were sexual orientation and alcohol and drug use,” he said.
He said the fact that he was elected speaks volumes about how far we have come as a society.
Kraus had his first drink of alcohol at the age of 12.
“And I drank alcoholically at 12,” he said. “During my first experience with alcohol, I drank until I blacked out and then passed out.”
He said it was clear he was an addict right out of the gate.
“I am no different than many other addicts and alcoholics that come from a history of addiction. There is clear addiction in my family and I’m from the school of thought that says there is some environmental contribution to addiction and there is some genetic contribution to addiction,” he said.
He drank alcoholically until he was 33 and for the last eight years of that time, he drank daily.
“I don’t know that I had a sober moment in those last eight years,” he said.
Kraus had tried to get sober a few times but was not successful. Detoxes never seemed to stick.
“And then one day, as many say through the grace of God, certainly through forces far beyond my control, one day I actually got it,” he said. “I realized I was on a path of self-destruction. That was July 9, 1988.”
That day, Kraus found himself at an AA meeting.
“It was no earth shattering moment. The earth didn’t move and the skies didn’t open, although I wish they had,” he said.
Kraus said the simple truth is that it was just a lot of hard work.
“The first year was horrible. It was the worst year of my life. By the end of the first year I thought I was losing my mind. I truly thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.”
He said it had been so long since he had approached his life without drugs or alcohol as its centerpiece that he felt left with no skills to live substance-free.
It was during that first year that he stumbled across a presentation on PBS by John Bradshaw.
“Bradshaw does a series on family systems and how we learn addiction, how we learn about ourselves in the context of the family, and how that ultimately sets us up for a life of addiction,” he said.
The program turned out to be a 10-part series. Kraus said it was frightening to watch, as this stranger on TV knew more about himself than he did.
“I’m sitting there watching somebody that clearly knew me better than I knew myself and I’m thinking how does this guy know me so well, because he knows things about me that I have never told anyone. I thought I would go to my grave with those secrets.”
Kraus said he taped the 10-part series and for the next year, watched it every chance he had.
“I just saturated myself with information,” he said. “It taught me how I became the person I was from the age of 12 to 33. It changed my life.”
He said that understanding addiction in the context of family systems gave him insight about himself and his choices.
“It probably took me about five years to actually clear my head enough to the point that I could fully understand and accept that I was an alcoholic and an addict. That surrender did not come easy to me at all, but it did give me a very good foundation from which to try to lead a sober and alcohol and drug free life.”
Kraus, originally from the South Side, now lives in the house he was born in. After getting sober, he became involved in his neighborhood. He started his own interior design consulting firm and eventually served as president of the South Side Chamber of Commerce.
Councilman Bruce Kraus on recovery: “I just saturated myself with information.”
As Kraus got older, he became more deeply involved in his community, but never thought about running for office.
It was the encouragement of friends and one woman in particular, Lee Phillips, whose family had deep roots to the South Side community, that convinced him to run. When Phillips pushed him to seek a council seat, Kraus thought she had “flipped her lid.”
It took a lot of thought and almost a year before he came to the decision to run.
“Carson Street had become quite dynamic in the early ‘90s,” Kraus said. “I wanted to protect the good that was happening and minimize the negative. Things started to get out of balance as more and more alcohol was coming onto the street without a real plan to manage this increase.”
He realized that public service was a perfect springboard to give back to the neighborhood that he loved.
“I’m sure if you talk to most alcoholics and addicts that are on a true road of recovery, they feel remorse. For me, there was still some regret for some of the ways I chose to waste my time and my life. It became increasingly important for me to give back and try to make amends for some of the stupider things I did, and to hopefully have some kind of a legacy.”
Going into the race, Kraus knew he would have to be transparent about who he was. He sought advice from former Pittsburgh City Councilman Gene Ricciardi.
“I said ‘Gene, I need your advice here. I know you know this, but I have to say on the record that I am gay–I have to say that–and you also know that I have had my issues around drugs and alcohol.”
Though Kraus had been in recovery for 18 years at the time, he told Ricciardi he would not feel comfortable campaigning if he did not make his history perfectly clear.
“Gene was just amazing in his response,” Kraus said. “He advised me to look at those as positives and not as negatives. He said I would find that it would actually connect me to people more than it would disconnect me.”
He said Ricciardi told him there was not one person he would meet in the race without an LGBT member of their family, work, or educational community. By the same token, Ricciardi told Kraus he would not meet a single person in the race that was not, on some level, wrestling with issues related to drugs and alcohol, personally or among family and friends.
“He was absolutely right,” Kraus said. “The issues around orientation and my own history with drugs and alcohol actually bonded me to people.”
Kraus said there is no secret to recovery–you just do it every day, and you work very hard to stay away from alcohol and drugs.
“Hopefully, people will know that only real shame in their alcoholism and addiction is to not seek to get out of it. There is hope, people can do it and people do it all the time.”
He said he hopes his legacy will be one of a good guy that tried to turn his life around to have an impact on other people.
“I want people to remember not just that I was here, but that while I was here I chose to do better things with my life than to just consume drugs and alcohol.”