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Gloves Come Off In Pittsburgh's Mayoral Race, As Outside Groups Get Involved

Veteran civil-rights activist Tim Stevens says he wasn't happy about his appearance in this attack ad
Veteran civil-rights activist Tim Stevens says he didn't authorize his appearance in this attack ad.

The first real attack ad of Pittsburgh’s mayoral campaign — aired by the kind of outside-spending group that local politicos have been expecting — landed this week. And one of the people feeling stung by it isn’t even a candidate.

“We felt like our credibility was at stake,” said Tim Stevens, a longtime Black civic leader and founder of Black Political Empowerment Project, after seeing himself appear in an ad attacking Bill Peduto.

Stevens appears for about two seconds in the spot, created by a union-backed committee called Pittsburgh Justice for All.” Though he is not named in the spot, he can be seen asking “for whom is [Pittsburgh] most livable?” — a statement Stevens says was excerpted from a 2019 press conference on health outcomes for Black women in the city. The ad strings that together with news clips and newspaper headlines to conclude “After eight years of Bill Peduto’s empty promises … it’s time for a change” — and to urge a vote for Peduto challenger Ed Gainey.

"I'm only on it for a few seconds but — not to be boastful — I'm a recognizable black person in the city of Pittsburgh,” said Stevens. “When you put me in there, it could easily be seen as me supporting Ed Gainey. And with no disrespect to Ed Gainey or his campaign, we have no history of endorsing candidates. Our mission is that African Americans vote in each and every election. We don’t ever want to be confused as endorsing candidates.”

Pittsburgh Justice for All stood by the ad in a statement.

“Like many of us, Pittsburgh Justice for All wants to know why housing in our city has become inaccessible and unaffordable for too many residents, and why Bill Peduto has failed to address that,” said spokesman Wesley Gadsden. “In raising these issues, our campaign has used publicly available statements and video.”

Gadsden said the group “respect[s] BPEP’s and Tim Stevens’ advocacy, though we are not affiliated in any way with BPEP or with any candidate — we are an independent expenditure campaign.”

Indeed, independent expenditure groups like Justice for All are legally prohibited from coordinating their efforts with candidates. In return, they can wade into a campaign with few of the constraints placed on candidates themselves. While Pittsburgh limits the size of contributions made to candidates directly, for example, there are no limits on what can be contributed to independent political committees.

In a state filing made under a slightly different name, Justice for All reported receiving $100,000 from an Operating Engineers local, and $50,000 from SEIU Healthcare so far. Both those unions have also contributed to Gainey directly — but only up to the city’s maximum of $5,000.

Such activity has been seen in Pittsburgh before. In 2013, for example, Peduto was targeted by “Citizens for a Better Pittsburgh,” a committee which turned out to be a parting shot financed by then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Peduto’s departing predecessor and rival. But those groups could become far more visible this year.

Last year the city’s Ethics Hearing Board, which administers the city’s campaign finance rules, successfully asked City Council to apply some of the rules to outside groups. Board Executive Manager Leanne Davis told WESA at the time that the board was prompted to make the requests after hearing inquiries from outside groups expressing an interest in spending on behalf of favored candidates in 2021.

Peduto himself is not without allies. Another independent expenditure group, Good Jobs Pittsburgh, was formed to support him in late February. A coalition of the same name formed at roughly the same time, includes a number of union supporters: the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and locals affiliated with the Laborers, Steamfitters, and Electrical Workers unions. But registration documents show that the creation of the political committee itself was handled entirely by the national office of SEIU 32BJ, a service-workers union that is among Peduto’s biggest most avid supporters

The squabble echoes a divide that, as WESA reported in February, has already stamped the race — and divided the politically potent SEIU. The 32BJ local represents custodians, building guards and other service workers. SEIU Healthcare, meanwhile, is an ardent foe that blasts Peduto for failing to rein in the power of hospital giant UPMC.

A direct comparison of spending between the two independent committees is difficult at this point. Good Jobs has sent out mailers and engaged in fieldwork, but Allegheny County’s elections office had only its registration documents on file, with no financial reports as of yet.

In any case, independent-expenditure groups often pull even fewer punches than the candidates themselves. Gainey has become increasingly critical of Peduto, but he rarely names his rival directly, and often uses labels like “people from Downtown” to criticize the administration. Justice for All has no such qualms — and others can get caught in the crossfire, as BPEP’s Tim Stevens can attest.

Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia lawyer who practices election law on behalf of Democrats, said the ad’s use of Stevens’ press conference probably presents no legal concerns. The ad is, after all, about conditions for Black residents in Pittsburgh — the subject of Stevens’ press conference — and also features newspaper headlines addressing the topic. “My instinct is that this was a press conference, these were public remarks and presumably who took the footage they either had a right to or that it was fair use," Bonin said.

But Bonin said he understood Stevens’ concern. Since B-PEP is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, Stevens “is not allowed in his official capacity to do anything that could be seen as intervening in a campaign. It’s completely understandable that he needs to make clear that he did not participate in this ad and his organization is making no endorsement.”

A politician’s own campaign might be more cautious about featuring a community figure like Stevens without getting his consent first, Bonin added. But, he said, “an independent committee may not be as worried about burning relationships.”

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.