Florence Turner, 57, of Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood, knows her candidate for mayor of Pittsburgh, John C. Welch, has a tough fight ahead of him.
But like Marvin Gaye’s dedicated lover in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which played softly in the background of the Pittsburgh Project hall Turner sat in, she and the dozens-strong crowd around her are determined that no obstacle will stop Welch’s call for a campaign that represents every Pittsburgher — one Welch has named a “people’s campaign.”
“He brings something different to the campaign, something people want to hear,” Turner said.
Welch, who is an activist and has been dean of students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary since 2007, has run his two-week-old campaign on a promise to improve the city for everyone — proclaiming early in his speech that “John Welch is social justice and social justice is John Welch.”
To win city hall, Welch will need to unseat incumbent Bill Peduto, a three-term city councilman and mayor since 2013, in the Democratic primary May 16, while running his first campaign for an elected office.
The North Side rally, held at the Pittsburgh Project — a Christian nonprofit community development organization — was the second of his campaign. The first kickoff event was held two weeks earlier in Welch’s native Homewood.
And while Welch still offered no specific policy proposals, he enthralled the crowd with his promise for Pittsburgh government based in equality, not access.
“We’re sick and tired of the status quo, we’re sick and tired of being excluded from the table and sick and tired of being left out of the group,” Welch said to the crowd.
Turner, chatting with her friends a few seats from the front, knows Welch personally. She said she is supporting him because “what you see is what you get,” specifically pointing to his “intellect” as a defining trait.
Crossing the Allegheny from East Liberty to see Welch was Ashley Ashley, 27, who works at the seminary. As a seminary employee, she trusts Welch’s judgment and says he’s been “among the people.”
She also believes Welch brings a “fresh voice and fresh perspective,” and that his status as a reverend shows altruistic motives for a political run.
“People want to know he cares about people,” Ashley said.
The people proved responsive to Welch and his allies throughout the rally, shouting encouragements such as “that’s right” or “preach,” while a few speakers involved the crowd with call-and-response routines, often ending in chants of the candidate’s name.
Opening the event, after a brief instrumental performance by seminary student Lee Gatewood, was Reverend Rodney Lyde of Baptist Temple Church in Homewood.
After taking to the podium, Lyde welcomed everyone from black nationalists to baby boomers, fast food workers to secular humanists, to Welsh’s “outside the box” campaign.
“This [campaign] is not about developing property only, this is about developing people in this city,” Lyde said.
While Peduto was never named, Welch and fellow Pittsburgh reverends criticized the sitting mayor for leaving some Pittsburghers behind in the city’s rebound from rusty steel town to millennial mecca.
Despite the city’s status as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles and a magnet for young people, Pittsburgh also has one of the highest food insecurity rates for a mid-sized American city, and some black neighborhoods have five-year infant mortality rates rivaling developing countries.
Decrying these inequalities, Reverend Richard Freeman of Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock advocated for a new egalitarian mindset in city government.
“Everyone must be recipient of the wellspring of prosperity, not just the influential and not just the chosen,” Freeman said.
Welch also seemingly commented on the cozy relations between Pittsburgh’s mayor office and Uber. Peduto and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick are known to have a close relationship, as detailed in a report by PennLive in December 2016. Peduto even offered Uber access to the Pittsburgh’s busways as part of a plan to attract federal grants.
“I don’t need to have the cellphone number of a CEO on speed dial, unless I’m willing to tell him or her, ‘Your technology is great but it will only advance the common good if it does not replace human workers,’” Welch said. “People need jobs, and quite frankly I’d rather see a person behind the wheel of a car actually driving and not sitting there making sure nothing happens.”
Welch then ended his 20-minute speech by speaking of his hope to continue community policing reforms in Pittsburgh.
“Until you’ve walked around any city in this country in black skin, you have no idea what we go through,” Welch said, referencing the cases of Jordan Miles and Leon Ford, Jr., both black men subjected to police brutality.
Welch, who has served the city as chief Pittsburgh police chaplain since 2008, also expressed his appreciation for the duties of police officers.
On lead, Welch made another veiled reference to the mayor, commenting that Pittsburgh has had rising lead levels for 12 years, during which Welch said the city government has taken no action.
“You can slice that up however you want, one mayoral elected term and two city councils, I’m just saying,” Welsh said to chuckles from the crowd.
Peduto served three terms as a city councilman before becoming mayor. The mayor announced Friday he was seeking advice on how to restructure the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority because of “systemic problems,” though Welch did not comment on the recent push for reform.
The challenger wrapped the speech with his final plea for fair policies, playing off Pittsburgh’s title as a “most livable city.”
“Let’s make Pittsburgh the most equitable city and the most livable for all,” Welch said.