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Politics & Government

In First Broadcast Debate, Peduto Fends Off Attacks, As Rivals Sometimes Clash

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In the first mayoral debate to be broadcast on local airwaves, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto weathered criticism from the three challengers who hope to spoil his bid for a third term in office. And he responded by acknowledging that while “[w]e've been able to make improvements in almost every key indicator … our work is not done. It's far from done.”

That did little do dissuade his opponents’ criticism — but in one notable exchange, those challengers turned their fire on each other.

Hosted by 90.5 WESA and the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, the debate focused on issues that have been central themes from the outset of the campaign: racial equity, affordable housing, policing. And at times the tone was sharp.

“We can’t build a city on broken promises,” state Rep. Ed Gainey, a former Peduto ally. Peduto, he said, had failed to deliver on pledges to create better police-community relations, more affordable housing, and sustained support from non-profits.

Gainey, a skilled retail politician whose presence often makes itself known at public events ranging from street protests to Democratic Party gatherings, portrayed Peduto as out of touch. While he acknowledged the mayor had commissioned a 2019 Gender Equity Commission report showing the often dire plight of Black women, for example, he suggested the mayor had been slow to act.

“After over 30 years in office … if you’re just realizing now that there’s a tale of two cities, something’s wrong,” he said. “If we’re just finding out that black women health-wise are doing deplorable in this region, something is wrong.”

Peduto rejected that line of attack, noting that focusing attention on the plight of Black women was a step no previous mayor had taken. And he called Gainey’s attack “a hollow attempt to try and make something out of an issue that is very critical to this city, and politicizing it for political gain.”

Peduto also stood by his stewardship of the Pittsburgh police force. Activists have particularly criticized police tactics during a handful of protests in a summer filled with Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But Peduto cited data to suggest that overall, complaints about policing have declined since he took office in 2014.

“The number of complaints against Pittsburgh police officers has gone down. The number of lawsuits against Pittsburgh police officers has gone down,” even as serious crime rates had also fallen, he said. He credited “the training that we’ve been putting in … the ability to work with our officers to de-escalate situations.”

That didn’t impress Gainey, who cited other statistics previously reported by WESA: While arrest rates had decreased citywide, the rate of decline was slower for black residents — and as a result they now make up over 60 percent of those arrested in a city were they represent less than one-quarter of the population.

“That’s just over policing in neighborhoods and we can change that,” said Gainey.

The debate also revisited remarks Peduto had made in an earlier forum, when he suggested that while gentrification had displaced Black residents in some areas, population loss elsewhere was a result of “Black flight.”

On Tuesday, Peduto acknowledged that he couldn’t quantify how many residents had chosen to move away, and that “In East Liberty and in Lawrenceville, people are faced with the dilemma because the rents going up and they are being forced to leave.” But citing other communities that have seen large drops in the Black population he added “that's not happening in Sheridan, that's not happening in Beltzhoover. That's not happening in Knoxville. … What people in these communities want is they want to see investment brought in.”

Gainey argued that too many communities lacked investment, and were often crowded out once it finally arrived. When the city grew its tax base, he asked, “Were we in the plan … to ensure that all Pittsburgh had the opportunity to stay here?” Citing the demolition of Penn Plaza — a last bastion of affordable apartments in the heart of East Liberty — Gainey said tenants “are not going to tell you that they left for better schools or better conditions. They were forced out.”

But Gainey himself was put on the defensive by retired police officer Tony Moreno, who suggested Gainey had been complicit in the displacement he decried. Citing Gainey’s work in community-development for former Mayor Tom Murphy, Moreno said Gainey had offered public housing residents “a thousand dollars … and promised them housing. And those people are gone and never returned. Ed Gainey sits on the URA board for Mayor Peduto right now. They work hand-in-hand gentrifying these neighborhoods.”

“Both these elected officials are responsible for what's going on,” said Moreno, striking a familiar theme in his outsider campaign. “They planted the seeds and now they're talking about changing it. It's so hypocritical.”

That attack was picked up by Oakland resident Mike Thompson, a late entrant into the race who touts the fact that he lives in public housing. ”Ed Gainey is going to do something very similar to Bill Peduto” on development, Thompson predicted.

The criticism appeared to stem mostly from the fate of the former Liberty Park, a federally subsidized but badly-neglected apartment complex on Penn Circle East.

In 2003, some 150 families were compelled to leave and were offered $1,000 to cover moving expenses. City officials decried conditions at the complex, even as they blamed federal authorities for unexpectedly foreclosing on it. But as with removals at other complexes in the area, the residents were displaced without any affordable housing available in the area — a story that would reshape East Liberty.

In a rebuttal Tuesday night, Gainey said that he had advocated for building new housing for public housing residents — and ensuring they had the resources to move into it — before demolishing housing. But he pointed out that he was just a member of the administration at the time — “I had no power there,” he said — and in any case, “I also know the conditions of Liberty Park. I know what it means to smell crack cocaine every single day. I know what it means to have people living in the hallways and the stairwells.”

Moreno and Thompson introduced new storylines throughout the evening.

As a retired officer, Moreno was the lone candidate to defend the role of police unions and Act 111, the state law that gives public safety unions a strong hand in dealing with local governments in return for preventing their ability to strike. “Every union member … should listen and listen very well, that Act 111 protects workers,” Moreno said. Except where outright illegality was involved, the union had an obligation to protect officers, he noted. As for those with lesser infractions, he said, “You can’t police bad manners” but officers could be put in a desk job “where they’re not in public consumption.”

Thompson took a much different tack on police reform — he favored abolishing the union outright — but he and Moreno shared concern about the influence of developers. Candidates should reject campaign contributions from developers, he said, and when developers ask for tax subsidies, “We have to say no to tax breaks and focus more on people.”

Thompson, who said he launched his bid after receiving a donation of liver tissue, also had a word of consolation for voters “I know what it feels like to be a rock bottom and to lose hope. And I'm here to say that things will get better. …. I’m a nice Jewish guy, and I'm here to help.”

WESA will be re-broadcasting the debate on Friday, April 16 at 9 a.m. You can also listen to it now by clicking the "Listen" button just below this story's headline, or watch it here.