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Peduto Takes Fire From Challengers, Stands By Record In Debate

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A mayoral debate at Westinghouse Academy ran for over two hours on Friday, and Mayor Bill Peduto could be forgiven for thinking it was longer. He was attacked from all sides by challengers during the discussion, moderated by Pittsburgh Public Schools students and live-streamed by the district. The debate centered on issues that have been at the center of the campaign: housing affordability and gentrification, police conduct, and racial inequality.

Peduto largely sought to stay above the fray, focusing on his policy accomplishments. But in his introductory remarks, he acknowledged that those issues remained a concern.

“We've talked too long about two Pittsburghs -- a black Pittsburgh and a white Pittsburgh,” he said. “But there are programs and policies that can be institutionalized in order to be able to minimize that. But it requires one thing. It requires partnership.”

His critics countered that what was needed was new leadership.

State Representative Ed Gainey spoke at length about how there was too much “conversation” about the city’s problems. And while he spent little time discussing the policies he would advance as mayor, he accused Peduto of failing to prioritize issues of equity.

“We can keep talking about the rhetoric,” he said. “But let me tell you what we know for sure: If you haven't planted the seed of growth in eight years, you are not going to do it in the next four.”

Peduto did engage with Gainey on occasion, perhaps most sharply over Gainey’s criticism that a report on the plight of Black women in Pittsburgh did not lay out a course of action.

“You do not make change without having a bedrock of information in order to start that change,” said Peduto, who added the administration was pursuing solutions to problems like high infant-mortality rates in the Black community with help from partners like UPMC. He pointedly added, “You don’t do it by suing people” – an apparent reference to Gainey’s support for reinstating a lawsuit challenging UPMC’s tax-exempt status.

As an example of action being taken, Peduto pointed to a pilot program to provide Black women with a guaranteed income of $500 a month.

“This, again, was a recommendation that came out of the report that we commissioned. How many mayors do you know that are willing to put out reports that show the scars of their own community?” Peduto asked.

But Tony Moreno, a retired police officer who is also challenging Peduto, complained that the money was being financed for just two years by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. “And there's only maybe 25 people that get that. What about everybody else? What happens to everybody else? … And after that two years then what?”

Moreno also complained that Peduto had impeded efforts to improve how police handle calls involving the homeless or people with mental health concerns. He said a recent attack on a 12-year-old boy Downtown might have been averted if the city’s policy were clearer. Officers were, he said “depoliced” and “confused” about how to handle such cases. “That’s why you see a lot of the suffering happening right now,” he said.

Meanwhile as Moreno criticized Peduto for hamstringing police, Gainey said the mayor should do more to rein them in. Referring to an Associated Press story on a private Facebook group where officers across southwest Pennsylvania spoke caustically about LGBT people and communites of color, Gainey said, “We’ve just seen on Facebook private officers … talking about black and brown people and how deplorable Black Lives Matter was and how deplorable the LGBTQ community was. None of these officers, officers have been investigated.”

The AP story focused largely on officers outside the city, though a few city officers were mentioned it, sometimes for stories previously reported elsewhere.

Peduto did not respond directly to the criticism. But he said that when he took office, “our police bureau is broken,” and that there was talk about imposing a federal consent decree to govern its operations. But Peduto said after he hired Cameron McClay, “we worked through that. And … President Obama reached out to us to work on the 21st Century Policing Plan. ...Pittsburgh was one of six cities chosen by President Obama to experiment implicit bias training for our police officers. And they wanted to find the cities where it would work.

The candidates also wrestled with concerns that the city’s growth had not just left out the less affluent but was actually displacing them.  Peduto said that was a concern in some parts of the city, but that blight could also drive residents away, and the city needed new residents and tax revenues to reverse it.

“Gentrification's real,” Peduto acknowledged. “But you know what else drives people out of the community? Disinvestment. When people have the opportunity to leave for better schools, for better safety, for better opportunities for themselves and their children, they are going to move.”

“What we really haven't talked about is Black flight based upon that, going to Woodland Hills, going to Penn Hills, going to Gateway and finding other places in order to be able to raise their children,” he added.

Peduto said the city was striving to work with lower-income communities on their own development plans, to insure long-time residents would be included in any progress to come. But his characterization of Black flight prompted a rebuke from Gainey.

“Words matter,” said Gainey. “We started by saying that we know that gentrification is real. Then we went on to say that most people that moved out of East Liberty didn't do it for gentrification. They did it because they wanted a better school district, a better neighborhood. Ask the people in East Liberty. How it feels to be gentrified. …Either we say gentrification is real without an excuse or it's not. And we know that it's real.”

At times the challengers held their fire on Peduto and took shots at each other instead. Gainey criticized Moreno for opposing gun-control efforts, and Moreno faulted Gainey for obtaining a $2.5 million state grant related to East Liberty’s Bakery Square development. Critics see the project as a case study in gentrification, though the money was in fact related to improving mass transit in the area.

“I don't believe anybody asked East Liberty if they wanted Bakery Square, they just did it,” Moreno said. “Mr. Gainey moved $2.5 million dollars towards it. And you have that with this still broken neighborhood.”

Moreno was attacked in turn by independent Will Parker, who will not appear on the primary ballot but was permitted to participate. Parker took issue with Moreno’s touting his own record as a police officer. “You leading the city in arrests, that means there’s mothers out there whose children are behind bars,” he said.

The fourth candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, Mike Thompson, did not attend the debate.

Chris Potter: cpotter@wesa.fm
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