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Peduto Goes On Attack Over Gainey Union Support In WTAE Debate

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A mayoral debate broadcast by WTAE Channel 4 took a sharp turn in its final minutes as incumbent Bill Peduto accused rival Ed Gainey of taking votes and political positions in exchange for union endorsements — a tactic Peduto called “at best unethical."

The exchange came over 40 minutes into the hour-long debate, when Gainey accused Peduto of backing out of a pledge to continue a lawsuit challenging the tax-exempt status of UPMC once he took office.

“When this administration came in, they said they would take up the lawsuit. They dropped it,” Gainey said.

The lawsuit was initiated by Peduto’s predecessor, Luke Ravenstahl, in 2013. At the time, Peduto called the lawsuit a “good first step” and indicated that if elected mayor, he would pursue it as part of a broader legal challenge against other large nonprofits.

Instead, after taking office his administration decided the suit would likely fail after years of litigation. He pursued a more consensus-driven approach, to mixed results. While he credits UPMC with supporting efforts to build a new homeless shelter, among other initiatives, a grand bargain called "OnePGH" has eluded him.

But during Wednesday’s debate, he said Gainey had “confused me with his old boss" — Ravenstahl, for whose administration Gainey worked prior to running for the a seat in the state House. Ravenstahl, Peduto said, "through political expediency, created a deal where, for the endorsement of a union, he pushed the lawsuit — the same rabbit hole Representative Gainey has gone down.”

One of Gainey’s principal backers is SEIU Healthcare, which has been been in a pitched battle to unionize workers at UPMC and has been one of the key backers of the lawsuit. During the debate, Gainey did not respond to the allegation that he supported the lawsuit as a political maneuver, but repeated that Peduto himself had reversed his promise to do so. “That’s the promise he made. But now rhetoric, eight years later, he didn't say he didn't do that.”

Peduto called that “a complete lie,” and repeated the charge that both Ravenstahl and Gainey had “traded a union endorsement and the money from it in exchange for government action.” He then likened it to a vote Gainey had taken to a purported “deal that he signed with the frackers and others in order to trade votes for political support.”

Gainey, he added a short time later, “traded a vote that would give over $700 million dollars to the … petrochemical industry to expand in Pennsylvania. And in return, they have written them a check for $100,000 through an independent expenditure [group]. That's fact.”

Peduto was apparently referring to a $100,000 contribution made by a union local of the Operating Engineers, many whose members work in the natural gas industry, to Justice for All, an outside-money group backing Gainey. The bill in question was Act 66 of 2020, a bill that passed comfortably in both houses and which was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, but which environmentalists panned as a “massive giveaway to fossil-fuel companies” including those engaged in fracking for natural gas. Gainey voted yes along with 162 other House members, including much of the delegation representing southwestern Pennsylvania, where fracking is a key industry.

Gainey again did not respond directly to the allegation except to note that “I didn’t sign anything.” But he pointed out that Peduto had received support from fracking interests as well.

“He can make those statements, but he’s also taken money from organizations that’s benefiting from it. … It's kind of hypocritical to say one thing when you’re taking money from some of the same organizations that we know are benefiting from that industry. It’s not like you’re turning down the money. You’re taking the money.

Though Gainey didn’t mention specifics, a local of the Steamfitters -- a union also kept busy by the natural gas industry — gave $30,000 to an outside-spending group that backs Peduto.

Gainey has defied the fossil-fuel industry before. In 2020, he voted against a measure to bar Gov. Tom Wolf from entering into regional compact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. That vote put him at odds with some other pro-fracking Democrats from the region.

Still, Peduto can tout the only environmental endorsement in the race so far, from Clean Water Action. And he has been a staunch critic of the industry, often to the aggravation of business and unions alike who benefit from it. In 2019, for example, he created a national stir by arguing that the region should avoid further investments in “cracker plants” that rely on natural gas, even as a sprawling facility being built in Beaver County was hailed as a harbinger of industries to come.

Wednesday’s debate otherwise tread familiar ground, with Peduto defending his record on a number of issues -- like police reform and racial equality -- with Gainey pressing for more rapid action. Retired police officer Tony Moreno, meanwhile, criticized both officeholders for not doing enough in their political careers to deliver change, while Oakland resident Mike Thompson repeated sharp criticisms of the power of police unions.

The only other disagreement to spark controversy involved a question about Pittsburgh Public Schools, in which Peduto said he had been unable to arrange a meeting with school superintendent Anthony Hamlet, and that the schools needed more accountability.

Gainey seized on that as an opportunity to suggest that while he would be a team player, Peduto was “always blaming someone else. That's not the job of a mayor.”

Though a mayor has no oversight over city schools, Peduto was unapologetic. Given the importance of schools to a community, he said, “A mayor must hold a superintendent accountable for results.”

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.