State Rep. Ed Gainey got a humbling message Tuesday night when Mayor Bill Peduto called him to concede the Democratic primary for mayor of Pittsburgh. It was a warning of sorts: You’ve been elected as a grassroots progressive. Now comes the hard part.
Peduto knows from experience; he was elected as the progressive candidate in 2013 and, eight years later, the progressive movement in the city coalesced around his rival and ousted him from office.
Gainey and Peduto sparred all spring about policing, housing, UPMC and more. If that was predictable, the election result was not: Gainey defeated Peduto with 46% of the vote, became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent mayor since 1933 and is on course to become Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor in January 2022.
Less than a week after the election, PublicSource sat down with each of them to hear their reflections on the campaign and their views on what comes next for their city. Gainey previewed the planning to be done ahead of his presumed January swearing-in, and Peduto reflected on what he accomplished in eight years as mayor and what led to his historic defeat.
Gainey held police reform as a central campaign issue, but he didn’t embrace the national left-wing stance of defunding or abolition. He took a more moderate tact, saying that the police should be demilitarized and money shifted into “community policing” efforts.
He said the answer to the city’s policing issues lies in getting the force to connect with the neighborhoods.
“There’s a value in building relationships in the community by having officers on the beat,” Gainey said. “If the only time you see an officer is if he’s jumping out in your neighborhood … then we know that leads to a distrust. When you talk about overpolicing in the neighborhoods, and only 23% of the city is African-American, but 65% of arrests are Black, that’s not alarming — it’s traumatic.
“We need equitable policing across the board. We have to have our police officers walk the beat and get to know the neighborhood. I’m an elected official, I’ll do it. They have to uphold the law, they should do it, too.”
When asked if he trusts the Bureau of Police to make that shift: “That remains to be seen. I know my expectation.”
Last year, a Peduto-empaneled task force recommended reforms, some of which have been enacted, but many of which are still in progress. Gainey said the process was too slow.
Peduto said police reform started with the hiring of his first chief, Cameron McLay, in 2014, and characterized the bureau as “at a high point." He rattled off ways in which his administration has expanded training, improved body camera technology and enhanced transparency.
Data showing that Black men in Pittsburgh are arrested at six times the rate that white men are arrested — cited by critics during the election — wouldn't be available if his administration had not been committed to understanding and addressing disparities in law enforcement, he said. He also cited a decline in overall arrests and in police use of firearms as evidence that he had some success reforming a bureau he said was "broken" when he inherited it.
“The police chief was in prison,” he said, referring to former Chief Nate Harper, who was indicted in 2013 for conspiring to divert public funds, and was sentenced to 18 months. “It’s hard to say that we started out with a positive outlook for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.”
Federal COVID relief money
Pittsburgh received more than $330 million from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, and after some of it is used to plug budget shortfalls, the city has fairly wide discretion over how to use the rest.
In April, the mayor’s office and City Council created the framework for a task force to decide how to allocate the money. The task force consists of representatives in the mayor’s office and three members of City Council.
Peduto said some of it will be part of the next city budget, which will be introduced in November, with council’s vote likely in December.
These decisions are being made during an unprecedented six-month period during which a mayor has lost reelection but is still at the helm of the city.
Peduto said he has no plans to invite Gainey to join the process of allocating that money. Gainey is not the mayor-elect yet — he could face a Republican or independent candidate in the November election, though Democrats have controlled the mayor’s office since 1934.
“I don’t think, legally, I can utilize a political party’s nominee in the role of governance,” he said. He noted that federal rules require that the money be spent by 2024. “And the clock’s ticking, and we need to be able to work with City Council in order to put together a plan of how that money should be allocated. We need to start spending down some of it, and looking long-term over the course of the next two years at where the critical needs are of this city.”
Peduto said that after he won the Democratic nomination in 2013, predecessor Luke Ravenstahl waited until after the General Election to schedule a meeting and start the transition. Ravenstahl’s team wrote a 2014 city budget, which Peduto and council amended early that year, the mayor said. Peduto said he envisioned the same kind of transition, adding that he would leave the city with a five-year financial plan that will balance budgets without hiking taxes.
Gainey said he has no expectation that Peduto would defer on these decisions or involve him.
“He’s still the mayor and I’m going to respect that,” Gainey said. “If he would want to have a conversation about that then of course I would, but I can’t make any comment about that.”
Affordable housing was another key tenet of Gainey’s campaign, and he said Friday that the city needs to be more affordable. When asked what his election means for affordable housing in Pittsburgh, he led with two words: inclusionary zoning.
His most concrete housing policy is to expand the practice of requiring developers to offer a certain number or percentage of units to low-income renters in each new development.
“I want to make sure that every housing project that comes before the city, affordability is already embedded into it,” Gainey said. “If you want to have a great city, it has to be affordable. We can’t push people out and say we’re growing the economy. …In order to be successful and have a progressive economy, it has to be an economy for all.”
He attributed a decline in the city’s Black population in the 2010s to a lack of affordable housing.
Beyond inclusionary zoning, he gave a nod to the long planning process that lies ahead, and said he wants to work with housing advocates and “bring in people that have more wisdom than me to devise some of the policies that can stabilize the city.”
Peduto's administration has supported inclusionary zoning in Lawrenceville, spurring talk of taking the tool citywide.
The mayor said he boosted affordable housing development by creating the Housing Opportunity Fund, which uses deed transfer tax revenue to back construction and renovation of apartments and houses for households of modest incomes. He added that his efforts to create a Pittsburgh Land Bank that would put abandoned properties back into private hands did not succeed.
"When you work in government, people expect you to bat a thousand," he said. "But if you're able to bat .500, you're extremely successful."
The only route Peduto sees to truly meeting the city's demand for affordable housing is the OnePGH plan, in which nonprofits would dedicate resources to city priorities. On April 29, the mayor announced $115 million in commitments by UPMC, Highmark Health, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
He called UPMC's commitment to $40 million in affordable housing investments "seed money" that he hoped would yield a harvest of "hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that we didn't have before."
Gainey's campaign had called that "too little, too late" and discussed forcing tax-exempt UPMC to make payments to the city.
Peduto said that if a Gainey administration sues UPMC, that raises the question: "Will they stay in and keep their commitment?”
On the surface, this election was an age-old political story of a progressive challenger building grassroots support and toppling an incumbent who had been in city government for more than two decades.
But Peduto was once a leading progressive on City Council in the 2000s and replaced a two-term mayor when he took office in 2013.
Peduto claims that he didn’t change much, but the electorate did.
The 22,029 votes Peduto got on Tuesday isn't much lower than the 23,650 with which he handily won the lower-turnout 2013 primary. He attributed his loss, in large measure, to a change in the political climate that has made it harder for centrists to win, and to govern.
Peduto, reflecting Monday, said: “The rebel becomes the establishment, and every revolution has a counter revolution.”
His feeling may have been summed up by what he told Gainey when he called him around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to concede the election.
Gainey said of that call: “He said at one time he had the support of the youth, and he told me not to lose that. And I thought that was profound.”
Self-described Democratic Socialists state Reps. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville, and Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, backed Gainey.
Peduto made a comment that raised a few eyebrows on Election Day, seemingly implying that Gainey stood for the socialist movement, saying “this election is a referendum on what is a progressive versus what is a socialist.” On Monday, he echoed that thought:
“I’m a Democratic capitalist, and I say so proudly," the mayor said. "My politics have not changed, yet many of those who support me have, and they look at it as: ‘Why aren’t you, now, part of the socialist movement?’ And I never was."
A campaign spokesperson said Monday that Gainey himself is not a socialist, “though self-described socialists were welcome and valued partners in his campaign coalition, which was ideologically diverse but anchored by a shared commitment to justice and equity.”
Peduto worried that increasingly polarized and strident politics was affecting every level of government.
"The very basis of democracy is based on compromise. And to govern in an executive position, be it president, governor or mayor, you have to be able to compromise."
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @richelord.