© 2022 90.5 WESA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip: news@wesa.fm

'You Have To Be Present': Ed Gainey Speaks On His Mayoral Bid

Jacqueline Larma
Pennsylvania state House Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Pittsburgh, right, talks with Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, Tuesday Jan. 1, 2019, at the statehouse in Harrisburg, Pa.

Pittsburgh may get billed as the nation’s most livable city, but state Rep. Ed Gainey says too many are left out of the picture as economic and racial inequity persists – and hesays the city is ready for a change of leadership.

“It's time for Pittsburgh to have a mayor that's for all, time that we really start looking at how we build this city and be more inclusive,” said Gainey, who announced his bid to challenge Mayor Bill Peduto Tuesday evening. “I believe that Pittsburgh can be better than what we are … but everybody has to be lifted up. If we are not growing together, then we can't live up to the motto of being America's most livable city. And if it hasn't been done in the last eight years, you're not going to do it in the next four.”

Peduto has sought to address concerns about social equity in his first two terms. “If it’s not for all, it’s not for us” has been a watchword, and the administration has launched a number of initiatives to resolve social-justice concerns. As he undertakes his bid for a third term, Peduto says the city will launch a pilot guaranteed-income program this year with a focus on providing a stipend to Black women.

But concerns about economic and racial inequality remain. A land bank created early in Peduto's first term to facilitate community-led redevelopment has yet to complete a single transaction, for example, while an effort to extract more community investment from large nonprofits has been stalled for years. Peduto’s efforts to reform the police department have been shaded by police handling of a handful of protests last summer – though city officials note that the vast majority of demonstrations during the months-long campaign went smoothly.

Peduto says the land bank may become part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and that the city is exploring ways to encourage building-security officers — many of whom are Black — to find work as police in a department that has had a decades-long struggles with diversity. Peduto also said some of his efforts have been dealt a setback by the coronavirus, which has disrupted the national economy and hamstrung spending by local governments. Police protests were also disruptive, he said.

“We spent years building out what would be the best approach to building a resilient city only to find ourselves in two situations where we’re facing shocks,” Peduto told WESA last week.

But Gainey said action is needed to prevent a swath of the city from being left behind.

“This issue has never been addressed. It's been talked about. We've done a great job talking about it. But at the end of the day, you have to be present and it has to be something that you want to work towards.”

Gainey has long been involved in government, having worked on community-development issues for mayors Tom Murphy and Luke Ravenstahl. He was elected to represent state House District 24, which encompasses Homewood and other majority-black neighborhoods, in 2012 after besting his former boss, Joe Preston.  

Peduto and Gainey have been allies in the past. Peduto has previously donated to Gainey’s campaign, and Gainey backed Peduto’s election bids in 2013 and 2017. The two were on opposite sides of a 2019 race in City Council District 9, which overlays Gainey’s district. Gainey supported challenger Leon Ford, while Peduto backed incumbent councilor Ricky Burgess.

But there has been little outward tension between the two, and Gainey refrained from criticizing Peduto by name during an interview Wednesday. For the most part, he offered general criticisms about the slow pace of change during Peduto’s tenure, and suggested that concerns like affordable housing need more attention.

“We can talk about it and we can even point to the fact that we built some affordable housing,” he said. But in faster-growing communities like East Liberty or Lawrenceville, he said, “ask the people that felt forced out, ask the people that couldn't afford the rents, ask people throughout this city if they feel [it’s] livable.”

If elected, Gainey would be the first Black mayor in the history of a city that is nearly one-quarter Black. That achievement “is significant because you're breaking down a lot of the barriers that's been in place. I don't want to make light of that, but this has to be a Pittsburgh victory.”

Gainey has been a visible, and vocal, presence in a number of progressive causes, including last summer’s demonstrations against police accountability. He acknowledges that some reforms would have to come from Harrisburg, where he has helped to sponsor legislation that would change use-of-force and other policies. Peduto has often complained that state law makes it hard to take steps like removing officers with disciplinary problems – and Gainey acknowledged the difficulty of addressing it in a Republican-led legislature.

“We will fight for legislation until we get it. But that can't be the only way that we impact change,” he said “We have to move away from military-style policing and move more to community oriented policing so police get to know the community and that we get to know them.”

Gainey said he supported efforts to redirect money currently spent on police toward other causes – a goal espoused by many of last summer’s demonstrations.

“You have to reallocate some of the money, and there's no question about that. Public safety will never improve public health, but public health will always improve public safety. The reallocation of funds [is] just another way to ensure that you're building healthy relationships between police and community.”

Toppling Peduto will be a challenge. As of last fall, Peduto had just under $170,000 in his campaign account, nearly 100 times Gainey’s balance of just under $1,750.

In his previous runs for state House, Gainey’s supporters have included more conservative unions, like the Operating Engineers and the Steamfitters, that have sometimes run afoul of progressives over issues like natural gas drilling. He’s also received four-digit sums from developers at Walnut Capital and Mosites – some of whose projects have attracted criticism for helping to gentrify neighborhoods in the East End.

Gainey said accepting a handful of contributions from developers hadn’t changed the fact that “I have opposed developments that I don’t think are good. We have to do what we need to do to assure that we have good, healthy development.”

As for the labor support, “I'm for all labor unions. But in regards to the environment, that's first [and] they know that.”

Insiders expect Gainey to get help from SEIU Healthcare, which has been in a pitched battled with health care giant UPMC throughout the Peduto administration. Peduto, meanwhile, has deep ties to SEIU 32BJ, a sister organization focused on building-service workers.

But Gainey says his campaign will draw its real strength from the grassroots, citing police protests as a sign of how a movement can coalesce.

“When you see how many people came together this summer — young, old, Black, white — to talk about social justice, that was powerful. When you see the amount of people that have come together in regards to COVID-19 — checking on their neighbor, making sure they got food, making sure they're able to get tested — that's powerful. Because that's showing the city coming together.

“I can't match them dollar for dollar,” Gainey said. “If you want change, [then] I'm the one that you want to invest in. We know that they have a war chest. But I believe that we have the infrastructure of people."

Ariel Worthy contributed to this report.

Clarification: This story was updated at 2:34 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2021 to clarify that the unions identified as supporting Gainey did so for his 2020 state House re-election bid, not his mayoral campaign.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
WESA invites you to participate in an audience survey. We’re interested in how you use WESA and what you think of our services. Your responses will help us shape what you hear and read from WESA in the year to come. This is an anonymous survey; it takes about seven minutes to complete and there are several opportunities to provide comments and suggestions. You can take the survey through Tuesday 12/6.