Shortly before he was sworn in as Pittsburgh’s mayor in 2014, Bill Peduto took two trips to Washington to meet with Obama administration officials, including a meeting with the president and vice president themselves. As Peduto’s former chief of staff Kevin Acklin recalled, Peduto told White House officials, “We want to be your laboratory. If there are ideas you want to try out as a federal government, come to Pittsburgh.”
The message reflected Peduto’s background as a policy enthusiast and his penchant for trying to tackle the biggest problems with cutting-edge technology, new commissions and offices, and partnerships with startups and academia.
“What we brought about was not a change in operations; we brought a cultural change to our city,” Peduto said this month, referencing economic development, infrastructure and parks improvements.
In a wide-ranging interview at the end of his term, he discussed the MetroLab partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, his hire of a reforming police chief and the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force as examples of his administration leveraging the city’s institutions and taking new approaches to old problems. But many critics say Peduto’s scientific approach to governing too often fell short of achieving tangible results for city residents.
“Bill is a really good idea guy,” said former Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields, who served on council with Peduto from 2004 to 2012. “But he was not a good execution guy.”
Tension between the mayor and those who felt that his progressive statements did not bear out in policy came to a boil in 2020 when activists were angered by the mayor’s response to racial justice protests in the city. Racial equity became the defining issue of the 2021 mayoral campaign. Peduto opponents pointed to studies that show worse outcomes for people of color in Pittsburgh to call for a change at the top. In the end, Peduto lost his bid for a third term, falling in the primary to state Rep. Ed Gainey.
The city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, convened early in Peduto’s first term, produced a report showing the need for bold policy to address the city’s housing needs and recommending some concrete plans: a housing trust fund, inclusionary zoning, protections for renters and more.
While Peduto and his allies say their Affordable Housing Task Force put focus on the issue in a more concentrated and urgent way than any previous administration, Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, acting director of the activist group Pittsburgh United, said she was frustrated by the administration’s response to the task force report.
“We had to run campaigns to actually win those things,” Kennedy said, “which you wouldn’t think you would have to do for something that was in a report commissioned by an administration.”
Peduto, when asked recently, said he supported the new housing trust fund known as the Housing Opportunity Fund “immediately. Before I was mayor.” He brushed aside other policy critiques from housing activists, saying housing advocacy needs to come out of individual neighborhoods, not from outside entities.
“It shouldn’t be activists who don’t live there and are making the calls from different neighborhoods and, in many cases, outside the city of Pittsburgh, saying what should happen in that neighborhood,” he said.
Councilwoman Deb Gross, the only member of council who did not endorse Peduto in 2021, said she had to lobby the mayor to allow the Department of City Planning to help craft an inclusionary zoning policy for Lawrenceville, a section of her district with dramatically rising housing costs. “It took longer to get the mayor’s buy-in than I would’ve hoped,” Gross said.
The Lawrenceville pilot was deemed successful enough that it was made permanent this year and may be expanded into Polish Hill and Bloomfield.
One of the most clear-cut policy failures of Peduto’s administration is one he says is critical to ensuring affordable housing in the city: the Pittsburgh Land Bank, which was established seven years ago to rehabilitate vacant and abandoned properties and has since processed one property.
“We needed to do a better job, and I’m hopeful that the next administration will do that,” he said, saying state lawmakers need to make it easier for land banks to access property. “We know where the problems are, but we were never successful in getting them to be changed.”
Peduto appointed the land bank’s initial biggest critic, Councilman Ricky Burgess, as its chair. Burgess opposed the initial legislation and even asked that his district be excluded from its jurisdiction. While Peduto gave him the reins to try to ensure his support of the project, it never took off under Burgess’ leadership.
Burgess said in an interview that the land bank was slowed by restrictive state laws and by a lack of staff and funding.
Acklin defended his former boss’ record on housing by saying that he was the first mayor of Pittsburgh to pay much attention to it.
“Before Mayor Peduto took office, there was not any policy on affordable housing in the city of Pittsburgh,” Acklin said. “If you look at the Affordable Housing Task Force and all those recommendations, that came out of our administration. Before us, none of that existed. Was it as successful as it could have been? I think the jury’s out.”
Brandi Fisher, who founded the Alliance for Police Accountability, said she noticed a shift from the mayor last year when it came to policing. She said he tried to be “on the right foot” on policing and she applauded the hire of Cameron McLay as chief, saying the first years of the administration brought real progress in improving the relationship between the police and the community. Then came the summer of 2020.
“It was a very drastic change publicly,” Fisher said. “We never know what’s in people’s hearts … but his actions were drastically different. He was supporting the brutality and the actions of the police officers when they were brutalizing people exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Activists seethed at the police’s handling of some of 2020’s demonstrations in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and they were angered further by the mayor’s response to some of them. Peduto describes the incidents as the flawed work of “basically two people” in the police bureau, not representative of eight years of his police reform efforts.
“There’s an entirely different focus in the bureau that we took over, a bureau that was failing to a bureau that is very professional now, and a bureau that is now accepting and very focused into community policing,” Peduto said.
One of the defining incidents was the June 1, 2020 protest in East Liberty where police released tear gas on demonstrators. Peduto initially asserted that no tear gas was used, trusting his command staff’s word. “The information I was given was improper,” he now says. But a dispute continued over whether the protesters instigated a police response, and an independent investigation and multiple lawsuits are still pending. Peduto said this month, “There are still questions on both sides.”
Local activist and 1Hood Media founder Jasiri X said the events of June 2020 were a startling turn for the mayor, who he previously supported.
“If you were to ask me prior to 2020, I would’ve said we have a progressive mayor, he’s somebody we can communicate with and talk to, he seems like he understands and supports the work that we’re doing,” Jasiri X said, “which is why I was so perplexed about how he began to behave in 2020.”
Peduto said training and community policing efforts should not be overshadowed by the actions of a handful of officers.
“Find me another police department in Allegheny County that is training their officers and following all of these standards of policing, of community engagement,” Peduto said. “Is Wilkinsburg doing this? Is Penn Hills doing this? Is Bridgeville? Who else is doing this to this level? And why aren’t the activists protesting these communities and why are they focused just on Pittsburgh?”
Policing controversy followed Peduto through his final months as mayor. An internal review found that several police officers broke protocols resulting in the death of Pittsburgh man Jim Rogers in October. The review resulted in a few procedural reforms, including providing medical assessments any time police use force or a Taser.
Pittsburgh’s racial inequities long predate Peduto, but they were highlighted during 2020’s nationwide focus on systemic racism. Pittsburgh is a less livable place for people of color, and especially for Black people, according to a number of studies and metrics. The 2020 Census showed Pittsburgh’s Black population declining by more than 10,000 in the 2010s.
Some of Peduto’s responses over the years: Creating the city’s Office of Equity, only the fifth of its kind in the country, creating commissions on gender and racial equity, hiring a diverse city hall staff and taking steps to center equity in the city’s budgeting process.
Though Peduto says his administration focused on equity “from the very beginning,” a report from a city commission showed stark racial disparities six years into his tenure.
“That happened on your watch,” Jasiri X said. “So for somebody that says you know Black people because of your proximity, you know what we want, you have the most diverse cabinet or whatever, all of that did not translate into a better quality of life for Black people in this city.”
Peduto said it would be a “disservice” for activists to assume the population loss is all low-income families being displaced, and said the city needs to work to get middle and upper-middle class Black families to stay as well. “It’s hard to say, with any great amount of knowledge, what specifically is happening,” he said.
“We have a real issue that needs to be addressed. Are we building a city for all?”
Carl Redwood, a longtime Pittsburgh housing activist, said city policy toward Black residents did not match the mayor’s words, part of a nationwide trend of white leaders not delivering on racial justice promises.
“The buzzwords of this last eight years for everybody, not just Peduto, like equity, were kind of newer words that people are using,” Redwood said. “But the reality is the Black community is in a worse position eight years on than they were eight years ago.”
Burgess, who represents majority-Black neighborhoods and endorsed Peduto in 2021, said investments in city services and housing development, as well as the relatively new Avenues of Hope initiative, are proof of tangible benefits to the city’s Black communities under this mayor.
“I think if you look at the track record of his administration, you would see a historic commitment to investing in African American neighborhoods, and particularly the ninth council district,” said Burgess, who was often a political opponent of Peduto when both were on council and endorsed against him in 2013.
According to one former aide, Peduto demanded his staff organize a blitz of town hall meetings in his first year as mayor, eager to meet with the residents who had just elevated him to his dream job.
“He was like a kid in a candy shop” at the meetings, said John Fournier, the deputy chief of staff at the time. “In those meetings, that was him at apex mayor.”
Peduto himself said that early on he felt he had to be present throughout the city, “and I almost killed myself. It is not possible to be at 90 places at once.” He said the mayor’s role is to “delegate and to trust” and that his Office of Community Affairs is a model for neighborhood engagement. Acklin said they used city council as a conduit to reach every part of the city.
The town halls slowed after a year or so. And while the Peduto administration hails its 3-1-1 modernization as evidence of unprecedented constituent access, many have criticized Peduto for not being present enough in neighborhoods far from his East End home.
“Bill was not as comfortable being out and about as other mayors have been,” said Councilman Bruce Kraus, a Peduto ally. “It is Pittsburgh. People want to see you, they want to touch and feel.”
Gross said Peduto “was more focused on cultivating relationships with people outside the city.”
Peduto’s frequent business trips to other cities and countries were polarizing. Some, including the mayor, thought his forays into the national and international stage were invaluable opportunities for the city. Others would’ve preferred him to stay home and focus more on local work.
“It was an exciting time,” Acklin said of the early years, when the mayor’s team had regular calls with Obama administration officials. “You had a mayor who knew that Pittsburgh mattered politically to Washington, but also we were on the cusp of the national landscape.”
As eager as he was to work with Obama, he was at least as quick to style himself as a counterbalance to President Donald Trump in 2017. When Trump renounced the Paris Climate Accords by vowing to serve the “people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Peduto went viral with a tweet criticizing the former president. When Peduto ran for reelection in 2017 in a primary against other Democrats, he came out with a campaign ad focusing on the Republican president.
OnePGH and UPMC
Peduto and his allies note that his administration was successful in stabilizing the city’s finances. The city came out of state oversight in 2018, boosted its pension fund and built enough cash reserves that it did not need to lay off employees during the pandemic.
“If there’s only one thing that I can truly applaud Bill for, it’s fundamentally understanding the finances of the city … and how to make certain that we were fiscally stable, responsible and looking toward the future,” Kraus said.
But it’s a fiscal policy — specifically Peduto’s grand plan to get local nonprofits to invest in city projects — that is his greatest regret.
“That’s going to break my heart,” Peduto said of his “OnePGH” plan to get tax-exempt giants like UPMC to supplement city funds. He entered the mayor’s office believing he could create a new model program to get nonprofit contributions “that would be able to recognize the critical needs of the city that is in a fractionalized government structure.”
He said his dealings with hesitant major nonprofits dragged on for years, and eventually he announced a program in 2021 that was smaller than he had once hoped. It did not impress those in the public who want to see UPMC lose its tax-exempt status.
“The public wanted blood,” he said. “They wanted it to be something that couldn’t be delivered, which is a tax [on nonprofits].”
Gainey ran in 2021 on making UPMC “pay their fair share” but declined in interviews over the summer to detail how he would make them do it.
Peduto said short of a tax, the public wants a lawsuit against UPMC, but UPMC’s corporate structure makes it impractical to sue the entire organization. He lamented that his years of work on the project could be erased by his election loss.
“So now that idea sits on a shelf,” he said. “Should the next administration decide to sue, that plan will end up in the garbage can.”
‘You’ve had enough time now’
Allies say Peduto’s 2021 loss, almost unprecedented for an incumbent Pittsburgh mayor, was a result of natural political forces.
“All elected leaders have a shelf life,” Kraus said.
“I think this was a change election,” Burgess said, because of national politics and events.
Gross, whose endorsement of Gainey in 2021 was a sign of decay in Peduto’s progressive support, said she sat on her decision for a while and ultimately decided “four years weren’t going to make things better.”
“I felt like four years ago we all kind of had an optimism that we were going to be achieving some of the goals around increasing social equity, increasing affordable housing,” she said. “But in 2021, it seemed like, ‘OK, you’ve had enough time now.’ I think it’s time for different leadership.”
Enough voters (54% of them, to be exact) may have felt similarly.
Just as explanations of his downfall diverge — some saw a natural, inevitable loss while others saw a loss brought on by ineffective leadership — people see the legacy of his administration in different lights.
Burgess said Peduto’s work in violence reduction and economic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods “shows his grasp” of the city’s issues. “I think history will show him to be one of the most innovative mayors in our history,” the longtime councilman said.
Acklin cast the mayor and his team as intrepid problem solvers and said their willingness to recognize big problems may have contributed to the mayor’s political downfall.
“We ran into a lot of burning houses. Some of those houses we lit, some of them we inherited,” Acklin said. “Candidly, that’s the legacy of this administration. … It wasn’t perfect. But that’s what we tried to do every day, was to try to solve problems for the residents of Pittsburgh.”
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.
PublicSource reporter Rich Lord contributed reporting to this story.
This story was fact-checked by Chris Hippensteel.
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However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.