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'People Want New Leadership': Bill Peduto Reflects On 8 Years In Office, And The Election That Ended It

Gene J. Puskar

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto made history last week – but not in the way he hoped. Instead of winning a third term as mayor, Peduto lost handily a Democratic primary race against state Rep. Ed Gainey, who is poised to become the city’s first Black mayor, and whose campaign argued that Peduto had moved too slowly on issues like blight and racial inequity.

Peduto’s defeat – the first of an incumbent mayor since 1933 – brought his mayoral career full circle. His election-night event was held in the same South Side union hall used by former state Auditor General Jack Wagner when Peduto bested him to win the office eight years before. And the mood was much the same both times: Even as the count was just getting underway, it was clear the party was somewhere else.

Peduto said in an interview with WESA on Monday, “As I look back over the past eight years, there's nothing that I feel any remorse” -- except “the regrets of what we may have been able to do” had voters given him another term.

Peduto ticked off a list of such causes, like revitalizing the Hill District in the way the city had worked to rebuild Larimer: renewing the built environment while holding onto the people who’d been there all along. Meanwhile, he said, a pledge by area nonprofits to support social causes in lieu of paying taxes would need to be shored up.

But Peduto’s defeat is rife with ironies. After years in which he was often at odds with his own police, he was defeated in part by his handling of protests that sought make police more accountable. His decade-old effort to limit the influence of campaign contributions had led to outside-spending groups dropping six-digit sums on the election. And after spending much of his adult life in Pittsburgh politics, Peduto now says he will probably spend the next few years somewhere else.

“Change is in the air, and what people really want to see right now is new leadership,” Peduto said Monday. “They want something fresh. … [T]hey want to see new directions that will be taken. And I had become an obstacle in that wish.”

‘They’re protesting YOU?’

The turning point, say Peduto and many of his critics, came during last year’s demonstrations against police misconduct. The vast majority of those demonstrations – and a slew of 2019 protests in response to the police killing of Antwon Rose outside the city – took place with little incident. But a pair of protests in Downtown Pittsburgh and East Liberty last summer ended with large-scale arrests and complaints of police misconduct, as well as vandalism and torched police cars.

Throughout the campaign, Peduto noted that the overall rate of complaints against city police dropped during his tenure, along with rates of serious crime.

“I remember talking to my brother, and when I was telling him the protesters were coming to my house, his response was, ‘They're protesting YOU?’”

Peduto’s reflections on last summer are unlikely to satisfy critics. The Downtown protest, he noted, involved reports of vandalism at dozens of businesses and police cars set on fire. “That was not a peaceful protest that happened Downtown, and it was not instigated by the police,” he said, flatly.

The city has been sued over its handling of the East Liberty protest, which Peduto said constrained his ability to discuss it. But he said police had to act after reported attacks on officers, reporters, and property.

Still, Peduto acknowledged that he imparted “misinformation” during a late-night press conference after the East Liberty demonstration. He insisted to reporters that no tear gas had been deployed, despite protesters’ anecdotal accounts and widely circulated photos of gas canisters. Today, Peduto said a decision had been made on the ground to deploy the gas. Months after that, he revamped the command staff in charge of handling demonstrations after further controversies.

“Had I had the opportunity. I probably would have done it sooner” he said of those changes. The move should have come after a protest in Oakland in which a cyclist blocking traffic was grabbed by police and spirited away in an unmarked vehicle.

“He should have been arrested” for blocking a street near hospitals, Peduto said, but “the way he was arrested was improper," especially following incidents across the country in which unidentified federal police took protesters into custody. “it doesn’t take that much logic to realize that you’re creating your own problem,” he said.

Not megaphones, but telephones

But Peduto says the debate over policing reflected the challenges of governing during a time of increasingly polarized politics – amplified by social-media echo chambers. “We lose democracy when we become so entrenched into one side versus another, and everything has to be either absolutism on the left or absolutism on the right. Then we lose the entire ability to be able to understand the basic premise of democracy, which is based upon mutual understanding and the ability to compromise.”

Peduto said criticism of him and other mayors who didn't march with protesters was misplaced.

"It wasn't because [the mayors] don't believe in the movement,” he said. “They didn't march with the protesters because mayors don't use megaphones, mayors use telephones, and mayors have a responsibility to govern their city, protect their city and watch over their city, not to be the cheerleaders simply for one side over another."

Gainey, Peduto’s likely successor, was embraced by many activists in part because he has long been a forceful presence at demonstrations against police brutality and for other causes. Peduto predicted, though, that Gainey's approach “will change as he takes on his new role. That doesn’t mean he changed, that doesn’t mean what he believes changes.”

Peduto himself had been a legislator on City Council prior to becoming mayor, and his willingness to press for a more liberal approach on social and quality-of-life issues helped build enthusiasm for his own successful citywide campaign in 2013. “I was the one who did exactly what Ed is doing these past few years,” he said. “It is a tough transition.”

The list gets shorter

Peduto will remain mayor through the end of the year, and in the meantime, he said, the prospect of his departure “doesn't change anything that we're doing. The list just becomes significantly shorter: what is it that we can do over these next six months in order to be able to take projects and programs either completely through [to completion] or at a minimum, have it set up so that it is easily … continued to have success for the next administration.”

One initiative whose fate remains in the balance is a commitment by UPMC and three of the city’s other largest nonprofits to spend $115 on affordable housing and other social goods in the next five years. The long-awaited deal followed Peduto’s 2014 decision to scrap a lawsuit challenging UPMC tax exemptions – a suit that Gainey has pledged to restore.

Queried by WESA about whether it would abandon its pledge should that happen, UPMC responded with boilerplate language: “UPMC looks forward to working collaboratively with Mr. Gainey on the many issues facing Pittsburgh, and we congratulate him on his historic election,” said spokesman Paul Wood.

Peduto, for his part, said “I'll be having that conversation with those leaders … to ensure that what has been committed to is continued. Any other conversations that the next administration wants to have with the nonprofits will be up to them."

Peduto noted the commitments did not involve any binding agreement that prohibited the city from renewing a court battle, or that barred the nonprofits from changing their minds about their stated commitments. “It’s a voluntary agreement” that allows “both sides to always be able to leave if necessary,” he said.

Still, he said it “would be quite a shame” to see the city “turn down the potential of a quarter billion dollars to help people in the city of Pittsburgh just for politics.”

Peduto said he hadn’t spoken with Gainey about any of those priorities, and that he wasn't likely to until the election in November. When asked whether there were any programs whose fate would be a top concern, he said he was waiting to hear from his cabinet about “what we have right now where we planted a seed but it hasn’t taken root.” But he admitted that “there’s a number of initiatives that it’s very much going to pain me walking away," including transportation priorities and a bid to urge the federal government to let lower-income families use housing assistance to buy rather than rent their homes.

“There's no way that you can do something like that in the course of six months,” he said. “So there will be a lot of those we may just leave them for the next administration … and say, ‘Here's some ideas that you may want to pursue.’ But more than likely, they'll come with their own ideas and their own policies.”

‘Do you know anyone that’s hiring?’

Peduto’s ideas about his own future remain unformed. When asked what was next, he joked, “Sleep. I think I might grow a beard.” Told by a reporter that “people will hate it,” Peduto said, “Yes, they’ll vote me out.”

A moment later, though, he added, “I think I’m going to have to leave Pittsburgh for a little bit, and I say that with a broken heart. It’s going to be too hard to be here after 30 years in the ring.” Peduto said he would likely return after “a couple of years,” ideally to work on climate issues.

In fact, he reeled off a number of possibilities for himself: writing a book, teaching, traveling in the Southern hemisphere. He said he’d also spoken with President Joe Biden, who called to console him “because he’s a gracious man, and I literally said to him, ‘While I have you on the phone, do you know anyone that’s hiring?’”

Peduto said that over the years he’s built up a network of contacts, and had already started working on an impersonation of Vice President Al Gore, who he said had also reached out.

“It’s really close” he said of his impression, after doing an at-any-rate passable imitation of the former Vice-President drawling “Bill, I know what it’s like to lose a campaign.”

Asked to describe his own political legacy – a track record that dates back to his work as a city council staff in the 1990s – Peduto said he had been “a bridge.” His own election as mayor back in 2013, he said, came about only after he helped inspire more progressive voters to reshape city politics, making it less reactionary on LGBT and other issues.

“We helped to pave the way for the first Black candidate to become the mayor of the city of Pittsburgh,” he added, “and to create a city which would proudly elect him.”

Peduto touts a number of accomplishments over his eight-year administration: The city’s continued sound fiscal practices allowed it to leave a state fiscal oversight program, and its pension fund is far healthier. During his administration the city passed, and successfully defended in a years-long court fight, a measure requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. And while a lack of affordable housing and chronic social inequities still plague the city, Peduto has at least drafted a number of initiatives to address them. Among them were new “inclusionary zoning” rules to require the creation of affordable housing and an affordable housing trust fund to help finance it.

“I'm not the voice of this new movement,” he said. “But I was the voice and the architect of the previous movement, one from the Pittsburgh that I grew up with -- where my mom hung the clothes outside to dry and where the steel mills lit the sky orange -- to the Pittsburgh of today.”

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.