Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'You proved that we can have a city for all': Ed Gainey becomes Pittsburgh's first Black mayor

Election 2021 Mayor Pittsburgh Ed Gainey
Gene J. Puskar
Ed Gainey, Democratic candidate for Pittsburgh mayor, talks with reporters after voting in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Ed Gainey, a native of Pittsburgh who spent his childhood in a low-income housing complex and rose steadily through the ranks of local politics, made history Tuesday night by becoming the first Black mayor in Pittsburgh’s history.

“You proved that we can have a city for all. You proved that everybody can change," Gainey told a fired-up crowd of supporters gathered on Tuesday night at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts Downtown. “We know how people have talked about Pittsburgh, how siloed it is, how segregated it is. But today, you changed that."

Gainey appeared to be on pace for a comfortable win over Republican Tony Moreno, in a race where turnout was boosted by mail-in ballots. The results of more than 23,000 of those ballots were released a few minutes after 8 p.m. and showed Gainey leading with a 4-1 margin. Moreno was never able to catch up: By 11:30, with all but about a dozen precincts reporting, Gainey was holding on to a lead of 70 to 29 percent, or more than 27,000 votes.

“I think tonight says a lot about the coalition that Ed was able to pull together,” said Jake Wheatley, a colleague of Gainey’s in the state House and a supporter of his campaign.

“He built the kind of coalition that we want the city to be. He modeled that in his campaign,” said Wheatley. “He’s always been accessible, he’s always showing up. And he doesn’t look at the things that divide us or keep us from being able to work together.”

Election 2021 Pennsylvania Mayor Ed Gainey Pittsburgh
Keith Srakocic
Ed Gainey, center, leads a chant of "One City, One Pittsburgh," as he speaks to supporters at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts after winning the election for mayor of Pittsburgh during his election night returns watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Pittsburgh. Democrat Gainey beat Republican candidate Tony Moreno. Gainey will become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh.

Gainey is steeped in the city he will lead, having grown up in the Liberty Park housing complex in East Liberty and graduated from Peabody High School. He knows first-hand the cost of violence — his sister was fatally shot in 2016 — and has been a strong voice for police reform as well. While he has served in the state House since 2013, he's also familiar with city government, having served in the administrations of previous mayors Luke Ravenstahl and Tom Murphy.

Gainey’s win Tuesday came as little surprise: No Republican has held the office of mayor in 90 years, and Gainey's notably comfortable defeat of Mayor Bill Peduto this past May all but ensured his victory. His pitch to voters remained consistent, stressing the importance of what he called “CommUnity,” a less confrontational approach to policing, and renewed emphasis on housing affordability.

"We understand that we need law enforcement, law enforcement needs community," Gainey told his supporters in a brief but impassioned speech shortly after 10:15 p.m. "We can have a city that's affordable. We can have a city that focuses on affordability to move our families back into the city."

Moreno, a retired police officer, portrayed himself as a political outsider in both the Democratic primary and as a Republican candidate after a successful write-in effort on the GOP ballot this past spring. Backed by the Fraternal Order of Police and bolstered by the local Republican Party, he warned of public-safety dangers and sought to make an issue of campaign-finance improprieties involving a political committee tied to Gainey’s allies. But while the treasurer of that committee, African Americans for Good Government, faces a misdemeanor for not properly reporting its activities, Gainey never had a formal role in the entity and there has been little discussion of it outside Moreno’s campaign.

But for all of the political tumult, Gainey stands to inherit a stable position when he is sworn in this January.

“He’s coming into a city that has some very positive things going on financially, even with the pandemic,” said City Controller Michael Lamb. “It’s certainly in stronger shape than when the current mayor took office.”

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the city was running surpluses after years of financial distress, and while the virus has hurt revenue from amusement and other taxes, Lamb expects those to bounce back as the virus’ hold slackens. What’s more, the city has the bulk of $300 million in federal COVID-19 aid to spend. And while there were concerns that Peduto’s own plans for the money could limit Gainey’s options, Lamb said Gainey will be able to steer much of it.

“He’s going to be able to put his stamp on it and say, ‘These are my priorities.’ If he wants to do more on something like affordable housing, he’ll get that opportunity. He can do a lot of things that people really need — like repair retaining walls and city steps. He will have the money to do things that need to be done.”

Relations between Gainey and City Council were awkward after Gainey defeated Peduto: Eight of the nine council members had backed the incumbent, who had served on council himself. And council recently has pondered bills that would subject mayoral appointees to additional scrutiny and limit Gainey’s power in other ways. But that prompted behind-the-scenes blowback from some Black political leaders, and Lamb credits Gainey with “doing a good job of reaching out. I think they will work well together. He’s not going to have any trouble getting five votes for what he wants to do.”

"Nobody brings more passion and energy to the position than he will," said City Councilor Anthony Coghill, who won his own race against Green Party candidate Connor Mulvaney in District 4. "I don't know his policies like I should, but I do know he will do what's right for the city."

That isn’t to say there won’t be challenges. Gainey may, for example, struggle to reduce spending on police, a cause that animated many of his supporters. Lamb noted that the city did not train a new class of police recruits this year — even as police retirements and transfers to suburban departments have picked up pace.

“If you want to move to a more community-based model as Ed has talked about, that to me means more police, not less. And you’re going to have a hard time getting there because you have to staff the force up” from retirements and other losses, Lamb said.

Gainey also will have to contend with UPMC, the tax-exempt health care giant he has said he would sue if it didn’t find some means of providing more financial support to the city. The prospects for such a court fight are murky at best, but Gainey was supported heavily by UPMC nemesis SEIU Healthcare.

Still, those concerns were remote Tuesday night.

Gainey's supporters predicted that his vision for Pittsburgh would be inclusive — “whoever you are, this Pittsburgh will be for you,” as Wheatley put it — but also traditional in its focus on building stable communities that resist gentrification and other pressures.

“We want to see a new Pittsburgh in a lot of areas — public safety, climate policy — but we want to hold onto the things that made for traditional neighborhoods,” said activist Randall Taylor, a Gainey supporter. "I think Ed is old enough to remember those too.”

“He’s a child of Pittsburgh — born, raised and educated here,” said Wheatley, who grew up in Detroit and ran for mayor himself in 2013. “Coming from neighborhoods like Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer and the Hill — that will give those children an opportunity to see themselves in the mayor’s office. And he didn’t grow up with a silver spoon — he came from subsidized housing.”

(Wheatley himself has been rumored as a potential member of Gainey’s cabinet: On Tuesday, he said “I’m gonna do what Ed wants me to do, and if he sees a position for me in his administration, I’ll consider it.”)

Wheatley stressed that Gainey had support from a broad cross-section of the city: Indeed, with the Black population having shrunk to less than one-quarter of the city's population, Gainey couldn't have won otherwise. But Wheatley said Tuesday's outcome would have a special resonance for a long-ignored community.

“When you have reports saying things like this is the worst city in America for Black women — never having a Black leader in the mayor’s office also sent a message that wasn’t welcoming,” said Wheatley. “We broke that barrier tonight."

Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Ariel finally made a “big move” 45 minutes down the interstate to the University of Alabama where she studied Journalism and International Studies. During her time in college she interned with Tuscaloosa News, a daily newspaper in her college town. After college, she got her first job back in her hometown with Birmingham Times, a weekly where she served as reporter and editor. Ariel made an even bigger move to Pittsburgh and joined the 90.5 WESA family as digital producer. She is adjusting to experiencing actual cold weather.
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.
To make informed decisions, the public must receive unbiased truth.

As Southwestern Pennsylvania’s only independent public radio news and information station, we give voice to provocative ideas that foster a vibrant, informed, diverse and caring community.

WESA is primarily funded by listener contributions. Your financial support comes with no strings attached. It is free from commercial or political influence…that’s what makes WESA a free vital community resource. Your support funds important local journalism by WESA and NPR national reporters.

You give what you can, and you get news you can trust.
Please give now to continue providing fact-based journalism — a monthly gift of just $5 or $10 makes a big difference.