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Politics & Government

Pittsburgh mayoral candidates address housing, policing in testy debate

tony moreno ed gainey.JPG
Courtesy Ed Gainey for Mayor and Tony Moreno for Mayor

With Election Day just one month away, Pittsburgh mayoral candidates Ed Gainey and Tony Moreno met Monday evening for a debate that turned testy at times, with Moreno often on the attack.

Moreno, a former Pittsburgh police officer, defended the force on topics that involved policing, homelessness and mental health crises. When asked what each candidate will do to "re-imagine police" and address the distrust between police and some communities, Moreno said the highest rate of crime is in Gainey's district and neighborhood in Homewood, and that police are needed in those areas more often.

"If we had police officers out there regularly ... we wouldn't have communities looking at their police officers only when they're chasing people through their back yards," Moreno said.

Moreno later encouraged residents to ask Gainey what he has done for the community.

"You don't have to ask him: Just go to Homewood and look," he said.

"Please go to Homewood and ask Homewood how they feel about me," Gainey rebutted. "They'll tell you all the stuff I've helped them do."

Moreno also claimed that he taught de-escalation training in the police force, and that mental health services are supposed to be summoned during calls involving mental health crises, but the city didn't so until protests last summer "had to burn the city down."

Gainey countered that police needed to change their approach to communities, especially those where relationships with police had frayed.

"We need to get back to police officers walking the beat and building the trust that has eroded so that we have a positive relationship between police and communities," he said. "Secondly, we do not need to over-police neighborhoods. That creates an us-versus-them mentality."

During a discussion of the city's use of federal coronavirus relief, Gainey expressed disappointment in council's decision earlier this summer to budget the use of $335 million from the American Rescue Plan. Shortly before council voted on the plan, Gainey issued a statement urging its members to pause before allocating some of that money. But he otherwise largely remained quiet on that issue, even as some residents and activists called for more public discussion on the planned use of the funds.

"We wish that we would have been able to have a little bit more influence on where these funds went," Gainey said Monday night. "At the end of the day, we would have liked more funding going to the [violence prevention fund]."

Moreno also weighed in on city council legislation that includes a proposal giving council expanded power to vet mayoral appointees. The legislation was proposed by Councilor Ricky Burgess, a longtime Gainey rival.

"The reason council is doing that is because there's a thought process out there that Mr. Gainey is already the mayor and they are afraid of the people he's going to bring in," Moreno said. "[State Rep.] Jake Wheatley has introduced himself as being part of the [Gainey] campaign. ... I do not want him in my administration. We have to make sure the people coming in are coming in for the right reasons."

Wheatley is widely believed to be considering a post in Gainey's administration, though he has not said so publicly, and Gainey has not discussed staffing plans.

Candidates also weighed in on concerns about housing affordability, and how to stave off a wave of displaced residents when a pandemic-inspired moratorium on evictions lifts.

Moreno said police could be better trained to deal with homeless people, and that the city could use old veterans' hospital space as temporary housing.

Gainey, meanwhile, called for the construction of affordable housing Downtown and adopting inclusionary zoning rules that require developers to furnish housing at below-market rates.

"Some of the money we talked about with the recovery funds should have been used to address the homelessness downtown," Gainey said. "This is not a public safety problem: It's a public health issue. We need a plan to address homelessness, we need wrap-around services, we need a place to send people."

"Affordable housing is an easy, nice, comfortable way of saying government assistance or Section 8 housing," countered Moreno, referring to a federal rent-subsidy program that is a key tool in finding housing for lower-income residents.

Candidates were also asked what measures they would take to address the issues impacting the survival of Black women in Pittsburgh, where conditions are said to be among the harshest in the nation

Gainey said his administration will have Black women in director positions to "move the city forward."

"We have to empower them," he said. "They will be well-reflected in my administration."

Moreno said Black women struggle to find work they need to bring them out of poverty because of a lack of access to child care.

"Child care is one of the No. 1 issues why Black women can't succeed," Moreno said.

He said ARP funds could have been used to provide child care in neighborhoods where Black women are having trouble accessing it.

During closing statements, Moreno raised questions about Gainey's campaign finances — a reference to an ongoing controversy surrounding the African Americans for Good Government political committee. The treasurer of that committee, Leeretta Payne, was charged last month with a misdemeanor for failing to report some contributions and expenditures last year. The committee has longstanding ties to Gainey, but he doesn't hold a formal position with it.

"You can't be in charge of the city when you have problems like that," Moreno said.

Gainey vehemently denied that his campaign is under investigation. The county police told WESA last month that, with the charge against Payne, their investigation was over.

"I'm not under investigation and neither is my campaign," Gainey said. "And for that to be said by a cop is why there is distrust. ... That's not the leadership we need in the city."

The online forum was put on by 1Hood Media.

Chris Potter contributed to this story.

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