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Gainey All But Certain To Become Pittsburgh's First Black Mayor After Victory In Democratic Primary

Ed Gainey giving his victory speech, after beating incumbent Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary for Pittsburgh mayor.
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Ed Gainey giving his victory speech, after beating incumbent Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary for Pittsburgh mayor.

State Rep. Ed Gainey defeated two-term incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, the first time a sitting mayor has lost a re-election bid in modern memory. Gainey is all but certain to become Pittsburgh's first Black mayor.

"A city is changed when we all come together," Gainey said in a speech to supporters Tuesday night. "I believe we can have a city for all, and we will work hard. Not just I, as mayor, but we, as a community, and we as a city will work to build a better city of Pittsburgh for everybody. We will embrace justice, we will do all that we have to do to make this a city that is welcoming for everybody."

“I’m a mayor for all, and I can’t wait to work with everybody," Gainey continued. "There’s no Mayor Peduto supporters and Ed Gainey [supporters]. There’s Pittsburgh supporters and we want to build a base that talks about how to improve this city.”

“No matter where you come from, if you dream to be something, if you work hard to get there, you can get there.”

Peduto conceded just before 10:30 p.m. "I just called [Ed Gainey] and congratulated him on earning the Democratic endorsement for Mayor of the city of Pittsburgh. Wishing him well," Peduto tweeted. "Thank you Pittsburgh for the honor of being your Mayor these past 8 years. I will remain forever grateful."

Mayor Bill Peduto giving a concession speech to supporters on Tuesday night.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Mayor Bill Peduto giving a concession speech to supporters on Tuesday night.

"We put together a coalition that helped to change the city of Pittsburgh. That work laid the groundwork for a new generation of progressive leaders to be able to run for office," Peduto told his supporters Tuesday night. "I pledge to do my work in order to help to elect the first Black mayor in Pittsburgh, and I'm asking you to do the same. "

Gainey led Peduto 46 to 39 percent by early Wednesday morning and more than 2,000 Republican write-in votes had been cast.

Gainey’s win is all the more notable, and presumably more painful for the incumbent, because he and Peduto were once allies. And talking to reporters shortly after voting on Tuesday morning, Peduto depicted himself as a transformational figure who made possible the very movement that seemed, by that evening, to be leaving him behind.

“Go back and look at my record since 2001, when I was the lone voice of progressivism in the city of Pittsburgh, when I took on the Democratic political machine,” he urged reporters. “I was able to clear a pathway for many of the candidates today that are standing against me … to take the slings and arrows in order to give them an opportunity to run.”

There is no Republican on the ballot, but it is possible that GOP voters could choose a nominee through a write-in process. Some Democrats have quietly surmised that Tony Moreno, who ran on the Democratic ticket and was often sharply critical of both Gainey and Peduto, might be an appealing option for the GOP. But such results may not be clear for some time, and Moreno was a distant third on the Democratic ballot, with Mike Thompson trailing the field even larger.

From the outset, a constant refrain of Gainey’s challenge to Peduto was, “If it hasn’t been done in the last eight years, you’re not going to do it in the next four.” And he pledged to take bolder actions on some Peduto initiatives than Peduto himself had.

Among the most notable: Gainey has promised to revive a lawsuit challenging tax exemptions enjoyed by healthcare giant UPMC, the region's largest employer. Peduto dropped the lawsuit shortly after becoming mayor in 2014, arguing that a more collaborative approach would provide more benefits. But progress was slow in coming, with Peduto recently announcing a deal with the city's largest nonprofits that — while it included substantial investments in affordable housing and other causes — still seemed to fall short of his original vision.

Peduto and his allies, meanwhile, sought to undermine Gainey’s own progressive bona fides, observing that while in Harrisburg, he had voted for tax subsidies for the fossil-fuel business, and for a program, bitterly opposed by immigrant-rights activists, to verify the citizenship status of construction workers. (The proposals were backed by some unions and many Democrats, though progressives opposed them.) Peduto at times suggested that Gainey took these positions in exchange for union support.

Gainey was also dogged by a report from WTAE Channel 4, which reported that a political committee tied to him had a track record of murky expenditures and unreported contributions.

Going into the race, there were concerns in Peduto's circle that there were cross-currents which made his odds hard to calculate: among them were the lingering effects of last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, and a sense that the Democratic base was moving left.

On Election Day, Peduto himself told reporters that, “We go into today feeling confident, but also with the understanding that anything can happen.” And while “[a]ll of our indicators going into today have remained consistent,” he said, “we’re going up against that tide and those headwinds.”

Peduto said the race was “a referendum on what is a progressive versus what is a socialist, and I don’t think that that conversation really is being had on a national level. I think it’s happening more on a local level. And then there’s also a question that is out there about … establishment versus change.”

For his part, Gainey told reporters early in the day he was proudest of running a positive campaign. “We were positive, we didn’t get into the mud. You can’t building a city throwing dirt …We brought people together and we let people know that we can really work together across the lines.”

“[R]egardless of what was thrown at me, we walked with integrity and dignity, and I wanted our children to see that,” he added.

Not surprisingly for a two-term incumbent, Peduto outraised and outspent Gainey in a head-to-head matchup. Between January and early May, Peduto raised nearly $900,000 to add to a warchest of almost $185,000, and he spent just over $878,000 of it. By contrast, Gainey raised $307,000 for campaign that began almost from scratch in January, and by early May, he had spent just under $242,000 of it.

But Peduto’s edge was offset by contributions made to an outside money group, Justice for All, which had raised $475,000 for Gainey by early May. Of that money, $350,000 — more than Gainey’s entire campaign had raised on its own behalf — came from political entities tied to SEIU Healthcare, arguably Gainey’s biggest champion.

Meanwhile, the picture down ballot was much less volatile for city elected officials. City Council District 2 incumbent Theresa Kail-Smith and City Council District 4's Anthony Coghill both took commanding leads over their challengers, Jacob Williamson and Bethani Cameron, early in the counting and never surrendered them.

Coghill had captured nearly two-thirds of the vote with all precincts reporting in, while Kail-Smith had nearly 70 percent of the vote with a handful of districts not yet reporting.

District 6 incumbent Daniel Lavelle and District 8's Erika Strassburger both ran unopposed for re-election.

An-Li Herring contributed to this report.

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.