A Keystone Election: Meet the 2021 candidates for Pittsburgh mayor

By: - April 21, 2021 11:04 am

If past elections are any indication, incumbent Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto would seem to be a shoo-in to win the Democratic primary on May 18, and re-election in November. The Steel City has not elected a Republican mayor since the 1930s, so the Dems’ primary is typically a reliable predictor of who will win the November general election. 

And even though incumbents are still tough to beat at every level of Pennsylvania politics, the tides have been shifting ever so slowly in deep blue Allegheny County in the past few contests; during the 2018 midterms,  Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who ran with the support of the Democratic Socialists, both won state House primaries over Paul and Dom Costa, respectively, both of whom were well-established local politicians. 

The first post-Trump election in Pittsburgh follows last summer’s demonstrations, which saw Black Lives Matter protesters arrive literally at Peduto’s doorstep to question what they saw as a lack of action by the two-term mayor on issues of racial justice. 

Peduto has three challengers for the Democratic nomination this time around, including state Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, who are shining a spotlight on the two-term mayor’s record. 

The Capital-Star asked the candidates why they should be the Democrats’ pick to lead the city for the next four years, and what issues they think are most important for the mayor to pursue right now.

The conversations have been edited for length and clarity. 

Rep. Ed Gainey represents the state’s 24th House District, which includes the city’s Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood and the borough of Wilkinsburg. He was elected to the post in 2013. Gainey is endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, fellow Democratic Reps. Jake Wheatley, Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, the SEIU, One PA, No Cop Money PA, Young Democrats of Allegheny County, and the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, among others

State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, is seeking the Democratic nomination for Pittsburgh mayor in the May 18 primary (Pa. House photo).

Gainey has championed progressive causes during his tenure in the state Legislature, including criminal justice reform, anti-racism efforts, and decriminalizing marijuana

The protests last summer were a missed opportunity for the Peduto administration to show its support for anti-racism and police reform, Gainey said. 

“Instead of this administration saying, ‘you know what, I see these cries for justice, let me meet with these protesters, we’ll come up with an agenda and work together to have a better city,’ they did nothing,” he said.

He pointed to a March report by the Associated Press about a private police officers’ Facebook group that was full of racist and transphobic comments as another missed opportunity. 

“That should have been an immediate investigation to show Pittsburgh that it is really reforming police-community relations,” he told the Capital-Star.

Gainey said he wants the city to focus on hiring a more diverse workforce, something he says the Peduto administration has failed to do. 

“There’s no reason why we don’t have more African-Americans on the police force or Latinos on the police force or Asians or any other group,” Gainey said. He added that he gets frustrated hearing that the city “can’t find” people of color to fill jobs. 

“We’re right here!” he said. “I’m having a hard time understanding how you can’t find a diverse workforce when we’re right here.” 

He envisions a hiring program that would provide job opportunities to Pittsburgh Public Schools graduates who may not be college-bound.  

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Gainey also has been a vocal advocate for getting tax-exempt non-profit UPMC, the city’s largest employer, to pay what he says is its fair share.

 “They should pay tax, period,” he said. “This is not picking on UPMC; their ability to pay taxes helps everybody. They’re a billion-dollar [healthcare] organization.” 

He said if that meant taking the health system to court, he would be willing to pursue legal action.

“We have to at least be willing to go to court to find out what we can make then do, to challenge them. Power concedes to nothing.” 

But he says there’s no appetite in Pittsburgh city government for that kind of battle. 

“I don’t care how many programs you make with UPMC,” he said in a veiled dig at Peduto, “the school district had a $39.9 million deficit, the city will be running a deficit. When do we come together to talk about what we have to do to make sure everybody pays their fair share?” 

Gainey argues that Peduto has had ample time to fix many of the issues he’s identified, but has not done so. 

“After 31 years in government, eight years as the mayor, and you haven’t done nothing that unified this city in all those years, you’re not the right person. If you ain’t did it in eight, you can’t do it in the next four.”

Mayor Bill Peduto has been Pittsburgh’s mayor since 2014, after serving 12 years on Pittsburgh City Council. He’s been endorsed by veteran U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-18th District, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, state Reps. Emily Kinkead and Dan Deasy, state Sens. Wayne Fontana and Jay Costa, the United Steelworkers Union, the Steamfitters Local 449, the IBEW and AFSCME District Council 84, among others

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (Photo by Jared Wickerham for Pittsburgh City Paper).

Peduto says he does not believe in defunding the police. 

“I believe we have a lot of work still to do, but I don’t believe a simple solution of defunding the police will solve any of those problems,” he said. “In fact, if you’re talking to the leaders of the community, from the neighborhoods that are most affected by crime, they are not asking to defund or abolish the police, but they want to see officers who are more involved in the community.”

He also disagrees with the idea of taking UPMC to court to get the health system to pay taxes, saying it’s not a productive approach. 

“I consider it a way that continues to separate us, instead of getting everybody including the city’s largest employer on board in working for the people of Pittsburgh” Peduto said. “We have big differences about not only how to approach UPMC but what the very idea of working together means.” 

Peduto says his approach has been to enlist not only UPMC but other big non-profits like Carnegie Mellon University,  Allegheny Health Network, and the University of Pittsburgh — he referred to them as the big four– to partner on projects like a street outreach program with AHN, and an opioid clinic at UPMC Mercy. 

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“We’ve worked with Allegheny Health Network, PNC Bank and UPMC on building a brand new homeless shelter in downtown. And we’ve been able to work with our philanthropic community, with PNC Bank and with Citizens Bank on investing in our historically Black neighborhoods, and investing in entrepreneurship and investment in the small business through our Avenues of Hope,” Peduto said. 

“So, we have had success what we don’t have is a structure, we still lack the structure of what we call One PGH: A commitment that over at least the next five years, the big four will all commit to supporting programs that go outside of city government that are absolutely essential to creating equity in the city of Pittsburgh, and then getting our corporate community and tone prompted community to join in,” he continued. 

Peduto says the priorities he has for the city are much easier with the Biden administration in the White House. 

“I considered not running [for reelection] had Donald Trump won,” he said. 

The differences between working with the Obama administration and the Trump administration were stark, he added. 

“The Trump administration did not have a domestic policy. There was no policy on transportation. There was no policy on local energy, other than they were going to bring back fossil fuel. There was no real policy when it came to health and human services,” he said. 

Under Obama’s administration, Peduto says city officials were in contact with the White House on a weekly basis on initiatives and grant applications, and through that work was able to get to know mayors in other cities.

 “Obama and his administration realized after the first term, that they weren’t going to be able to get success by working through Congress,” he added. “So they were going to go directly to mayors and governors.”

 He says the Biden administration has so far taken a similar approach. 

“To have that right now, makes it so imperative for us to be able to continue down the path that we created these past seven years,” Peduto said. “We now have Washington in direct alignment with our economic development strategy, with our transportation strategy, with our housing strategy, and within our energy strategy. And we can create a model that not just post industrial cities will follow, but cities all over this country.”

Tony Moreno is an Army veteran and retired Pittsburgh police officer. He’s endorsed by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. 

Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Tony Moreno (submitted photo).

Moreno, who has never held political office, thinks there’s a lack of leadership on Grant Street. 

“I’m running for mayor because the only change that can happen in this city is from the mayor’s office,” Moreno says. “What we see is a complete and total failure because we’re neglected.” 

Moreno says he doesn’t think Pittsburgh has a housing problem, but rather a leadership problem. He would put a training program in place, to train city residents in such trades as  plumbing and masonry, to help the city refurbish some of its vacant housing stock.

 “If somebody leaves or buys a property and leaves it sit for a year, I’m going to go after them and tell them you have to do something with this because it’s a blight,” Moreno said. “We get our folks in there, they either tear them down, or they rebuild them, and we make those homes, and we take them and get them into the hands of people that need housing now you have folks that are homeowners.” The plan would also include rehabbing larger buildings for people who prefer to rent, he adds.

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Moreno said he thinks the police department already has many of the tools it needs to improve community policing, they’re just not being used properly. He said last summer’s demonstrations showed that a large swath of the population felt like it was not being heard. 

“They’ve been crying out for help for years and years and generations, and nothing’s gone that way, so they finally got out to be heard,” he said. 

Moreno said he would change how police officers respond to a person in a mental health crisis, and have police officers dress in plain clothes when responding to a call “because we know someone in a mental health crisis reacts to a uniform. So we put them in business professional clothing, they’re still equipped with all their safety equipment, their gun belts, but it’ll just be covered, and won’t be seen as a threat.” 

He’d also seek to have social workers more involved in such situations. 

Moreno says he doesn’t like the direction Pittsburgh is headed. “You know, I go into Homewood and they tell me the same things they tell me in Sheridan and in Brookline and the North Side,” he said. “We all have the same desires and the same needs, we just don’t get those services equally. I want to show we can come together.” 

Community organizer Mike Thompson also has never held political office, but says he would represent low-income residents of the city and renters, a group he thinks has been long overlooked. 

Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Mike Thompson (submitted photo).

“All three of my opponents are homeowners with good jobs,” Thompson says. The rest of the city are like me, like my neighbors in public housing. Poor people do not get listened to. I think we need to be more like Mr. Rogers and take care of each other.” 

He wants to see Pittsburgh mandate new housing developments to have 25 percent affordable units. Thompson also wants to see a 50 percent budget cut to police funding, and for Pittsburgh to follow the model of East Pittsburgh. That borough disbanded its police department entirely in December 2018, following the fatal shooting of teenager Antwon Rose II by an East Pittsburgh officer, who was acquitted of homicide

“We should fire every Pittsburgh police officer, and bring in the state police, to re-establish trust in the police force,” Thompson said. “I’m the leftist radical candidate, and I like good unions, but if the police union protects bad police officers, it makes all officers look bad.”

Thompson would reallocate funding from the police department toward social workers to help people who call 911 in the midst of a mental health crisis, and would seek to train an all-new police force. 

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Thompson also wants to pass a law limiting Pittsburgh mayors to two, eight-year terms.”No mayor in America had a wonderful ninth year in office,” he said. “Real change happens in the first two to six years, and eight years is enough.” 

And he thinks it’s about time Pittsburgh had an NBA team. “It would be good for the economy,” he said. 

Thompson doesn’t share Gainey’s view that the city’s next mayor should go to battle with UPMC. The health system saved his life when he needed a liver transplant several years ago, he says. 

“In a tiny city like Pittsburgh, taking on the largest employer isn’t necessarily a smart call,” he said. “It’s a good PR stunt, but I think we can negotiate with them instead. To me, the ideal system of healthcare would be Medicare for all.” 

Pittsburgh Democrats choose their candidate in the May 18 primary.

Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications.