Ed Gainey was sworn in as the 61st mayor of Pittsburgh Monday, taking the reins of the city as it tries to rebound from the pandemic and becoming its first Black mayor as it confronts its racial inequities. 

Gainey, 51, comes to the office from Lincoln-Lemington after almost nine years as a state representative. He goes from representing northeastern majority-Black neighborhoods such as Homewood, East Hills, Larimer and Garfield to being the mayor of all of Pittsburgh, a city that lost thousands of Black residents in recent years.

“My promise to you is that we will work to make Pittsburgh the Pittsburgh you voted for,” Gainey said in his inauguration speech. “A city where economic opportunity is abundant for everyone, a city where affordability isn’t a luxury and a city that is prepared to lead into the future.”

He inherits a city that managed to almost halt its decades-long population decline in the 2010s, but the 2020s present critical fiscal, housing and public safety problems. 

Gainey won the Democratic primary over the incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto vowing to tackle those daunting challenges. After almost a year of campaigning and a brief transition period, the time has finally come for him to try to turn his promises into policy.

Some of his agenda will depend on the cooperation of city council, which has signaled that it may take steps to bolster its own power as its former member, Peduto, departs the mayor’s office and a city government outsider enters. On Monday, council unanimously re-elected Theresa Kail-Smith as its president, a sign of continuity as the mayor’s office turns over.

Gainey is the first mayor to come from the majority-Black northeastern corner of the city in modern history. Some say that will bring much-needed representation to the mayor’s office — Gainey campaigned on the idea that for too long Pittsburgh has been unequal and that majority-minority neighborhoods face problems with housing, food and water access and public health that others don’t. 

“He’s one of us. He’s lived in this community his whole life,” said City Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Gainey’s neighborhood. “Having this shared pain absolutely will give him this opportunity to clearly understand and articulate the need.”

Jasiri X, a local activist and founder of 1Hood Media, said Gainey’s background — he was brought up in an East Liberty low-income housing complex and lost his sister to gun violence in 2016 — should position him to serve Pittsburgh’s most disadvantaged.

“We have one of the poorest working-class Black communities in the country. Many of those households are single-parent households,” Jasiri X said. “This is what we were kind of yelling [during the prior administration]. You could say maybe this white politician doesn’t understand. But Ed lived it. And so the hope is because he lived it he will be more willing and more eager to address it, because he lived it.”

Gainey said Monday that being the city’s first Black mayor is not a responsibility he takes lightly.

“I realize that I stand on the shoulders of greats such as Harvey Adams, Alma Speed Fox, Marcella Lee, Nate Smith, Byrd Brown, Dock Fielder, Bubby Hairston and the ward chair we lost last year, Chuck Frazier,” he said. “My victory represents another step forward in advancing the vision of a country where all people have access to opportunities to succeed.”

Organizers and officials who backed Gainey’s candidacy are eager for a city hall that is more open to them. City Councilwoman Deb Gross, who was the only council member to endorse Gainey over Peduto in 2021 and was sometimes at odds with the administration over the years, said she hopes Gainey will give more facetime to each council member. 

“Maybe it was just me as one of the nine council members, but a lot of council members didn’t get enough time talking to the mayor,” Gross said. “I hope that Mayor Gainey spends more time talking face to face with council members directly so he can be sure he fully understands whatever the view is of the day.”

Pittsburgh’s four living mayors — Bill Peduto, Tom Murphy, Ed Gainey and Luke Ravenstahl — pose together at Gainey’s inaugural ceremony on Jan. 3, 2022. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

Local activists say they are eager to work with an administration more open to collaborating with them than the last one. 

“I’m ready to dig in and work with this administration to promote equity,” said Brandi Fisher, founder of the Alliance for Police Accountability. “That’s what I’m really hopeful for with this new administration.”

Carl Redwood, a longtime affordable housing activist in Pittsburgh, said, “There’s a lot of people ready and willing to support moves toward making Pittsburgh a more equitable city, and we hope that the new administration reaches out for that support.”

Gainey’s political style — showing up to events all over town, working rooms and giving energetic speeches — will be an abrupt departure from the Peduto years. Peduto was criticized for not spending enough time in different neighborhoods, and his speaking style was more measured and policy-focused. 

“One thing I love about Ed, he’s like a Sasquatch, but he’s visible,” said local documentary filmmaker Chris Ivey. “He goes to every neighborhood. Ed is just everywhere.” 

First challenges

Gainey has no shortage of pressing issues to address in his first weeks as mayor. 

The Peduto administration announced a vaccine mandate in November, and Gainey will need to decide whether to continue it and how to enforce it. During the campaign, he said he would defer to experts on whether a mandate is needed and he declined to say he would fire workers for not complying.

Gainey will also have a chance to amend the 2022 city budget, which was drafted by the Peduto administration and passed by council in December. Gross said she expects changes to staffing levels in various departments as Gainey decides what to prioritize, and said she hopes to see more staff in the permitting and licensing department to assist businesses in navigating city bureaucracy.

“I hope in taking what we know are common goals that our constituents support like affordable housing and investments in neighborhoods, those are changes that need to be made in city planning, public works, city parks or [permitting licensing and inspection].”

Gainey declined during the campaign and transition to discuss specifics of how he would seek to change the budget. 

While every new mayor gets to amend the budget after taking office, Gainey has a unique opportunity in the city’s federal COVID-19 relief money. The city received a historic $335 million from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress last spring, and though council approved Peduto’s plan to spend it, Gainey will have a chance to propose different uses for a large chunk of the money. Members of the public clamored for more of the money to go toward food assistance and help for renters during a process over the summer that was criticized for a lack of public input. 

A proposed development in Oakland will be another early test of how Gainey differs from his predecessor. A Walnut Capital plan to revamp a swath of South Oakland, favored by the Peduto administration, has been met by concerned residents and is still pending approval by city authorities. Gainey is no stranger to city development; he has served on the Urban Redevelopment Authority board since 2014.

Gainey will also have a chance to start working on a signature campaign promise: reconnecting the police with neighborhoods and “demilitarizing” the force. He has declined to say whether he will replace the chief, Scott Schubert, who assumed the role when Peduto’s reforming chief Cameron McLay resigned. 

More than 200 officers are eligible for retirement this year, and others could leave as a result of the vaccine mandate. A shortage of officers — the department is budgeted for 900 — could force Gainey to decide whether to push for more recruits and a quick restaffing or to keep the officer count lower.

While many activists have called for a reduction in the police budget and in the department’s size, Gainey has called for officers to walk neighborhood beats more and to become a known presence in communities — goals that are hard to achieve with fewer officers on the force. 

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey with his family shortly after he was sworn in as the city’s 61st mayor on Jan. 3, 2022. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

Other campaign promises will take time for Gainey to work through with council, the city planning department and other parts of the city’s 3,000-employee government. He called for inclusionary zoning citywide, but achieving that may require neighborhood-specific studies and patchwork legislation. 

City Council members, though they don’t have the same familiarity with Gainey they had with Peduto, said Monday they intend to work closely with the new mayor.

Newly-re-elected Councilwoman Erika Strassburger said after she took the oath of office Monday, “We will accomplish nothing if we don’t work hand in glove with Mayor-elect Gainey.” Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who has been Gainey’s colleague on the URA board but endorsed against him in the primary, said to Gainey during a speech Monday, “The message you articulated in on your campaign, I believe that absolutely can be implemented.”

Symbolism

The significance of Pittsburgh electing its first Black mayor is not lost on anyone, though many in the city’s Black communities say that representation and symbolism only makes a difference if strong policy follows. 

“He’s not the savior. I’m going to hold him to the same standard,” Jasiri X said. “I’m understanding that Ed is not just the mayor for Black people in Pittsburgh, he’s the mayor for all of Pittsburgh. Talk is great, uplifting speeches are great. We need to see policies.”

Redwood pointed out that while Gainey represents change at the very top of city government, he’s hardly new to local government. As a state representative, a URA official, and further back as a city employee, he has had a hand in where the city is today.

“It really comes out in the policy and the action,” Redwood said. “They can have lots of listening meetings and do nothing with it.”

Still, with the COVID-19 pandemic pressing on and a long recovery ahead, Gainey offers a new message to city residents who, for better or for worse, have heard the same voice for the last eight years. Burgess said that despite his political differences with Gainey, he thinks the mayor will offer the city hope. He referenced the Old Testament and “figures of light and hope” sent by God:

“I think Mayor Gainey has the potential to be that symbol of hope to the people of Pittsburgh,” Burgess said. “I hope that his policies and his process bear out that vision of hope to the city’s African American community and all communities that have been particularly disinvested in over the last 56 years.” 

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...