Q&A: Mayoral candidate John Welch talks affordable housing, water and putting “this Pittsburgh” first


Dr. John Welch speaks at the second campaign stop of his “people’s campaign” in February. John Hamilton | Editor-in-Chief

Reverend, doctor, professor, dean of students. John Welch is hoping to add Mayor of Pittsburgh to that résumé as he campaigns to unseat the incumbent, Mayor Bill Peduto, in Tuesday’s Democratic primary . We sat down with Welch in his Garfield campaign office to ask about some of his policies and how he might differ from the current mayor’s.

The Pitt News: You supported Mayor Peduto last election and obviously now you’re challenging him. What happened, or didn’t happen, in those four years that led to your run?

Welch: Yeah, there’s about 87 different reasons, that’s the 87 different neighborhoods that felt neglected.

I just felt there’s more that could be done for the city beyond the current development that we see here in the East End. In addition to that, I really liked the work that [Police] Chief Cameron Mclay was doing and I felt he wasn’t properly supported.

Third, realizing the problems we’re having in our drinking water. I was in Flint last year, so to see that we weren’t really paying much attention to it, I just felt I had to shed light on it.

TPN: The water issue has been a central to your campaign. What kind of strategies will you bring on day one that will be different than the current administration’s?

Welch: By the time I take office, it’ll be January of 2018. So there’s a lot of time this year that I think can be spent remedying this whole lead issue. My whole position was that I don’t think the priorities of the mayor have been proper. Right now, they already have a plan to replace service lines. The DEP is recommending they replace 7% per year. That’s a little over a thousand lines. It’s gonna take 14 years — at least — to replace all the service lines.

I’ve been pushing that we could deliver clean drinking water to residents now by installing EPA approved point of entry units. And that way the water quality in the home, or at least delivered to the home, would not be affected by anything down the streets. So that’s what I’ve been pushing.

TPN: You’ve talked about decelerating a state of emergency like they did in Flint. Is that still something that you would implement?

Welch: I don’t care who is in the office, whether it’s Trump or who’s there. We have the right to declare a state of emergency under the circumstances we have. And our situation is worse than Flint in a lot of ways. So if Flint was able to do that to get federal or state aid, I don’t see why Pittsburgh would not.

The mayor says there are 5,000 other municipalities that are affected by lead. I don’t want to lump myself into the other 5,000 — I want to be the one to raise my hand and say we need help.

TPN: Talking a little bit about your background as a community organizer, activist, dean of students, reverend. How do those roles shape how you would govern?

Welch: How about Pitt ethics professor?

I see myself bringing responsible governance. I don’t think the governance thus far has been as responsible. Example and point is this emphasis on reaching out to developers to contribute to [Peduto’s] campaign. The most egregious example — egregious is kind of strong — when your have your chief of staff, who is also the chair of the URA, calling developers for campaign contributions. If that’s not unethical, then I won’t teach ethics anymore.

So responsibility. And clear leadership where all of the constituents and all the neighborhoods feel like they have a seat at the table. The mayor has been saying that in this campaign, but he’s been in office three and a half years already, and actually if you look at his entire record, 15 and a half as an elected official. He should have been doing this day one.

TPN: Affordable housing is another key aspect of your campaign. On top of what Mayor Peduto has talked about with tax incentives, you’ve said we need to be doing more. What would that look like with you in office?

Welch: Well, there’s nothing wrong with what he had been proposing. It’s a recommendation of the task force that was put together and I think the task force did a good job. I just want to make sure that these tax incentives are applied appropriately.

So the first thing I would do, before we look at raising the real estate transfer tax, or other ways of funding affordable housing, is to perform an audit of the URA and Housing Authority to make sure that funds that have been received have been properly allocated. Then we can look at how we want to fund the opportunity fund.

TPN: Pittsburgh has a low retention rate for keeping college graduates. How would you try to make the city more attractive or create opportunities for these graduates to stay in the city.

Welch: It’s interesting. We’re in the top 10 lowest for retention rate but we’re in the top as far as attracting people to our universities. So obviously there’s a hole in the bucket. Depending on what your field of study is, you can graduate from here and not be able to find an affordable place to live. Staying on campus is one thing, but staying off campus in affordable housing is another. One, we need to make sure that we are keeping in mind everyone of all socioeconomic status as far as housing. And two, we have some pretty decent jobs here, but some of the jobs are paying substandard wages. I think Pittsburgh should be a leader in declaring what kind of wages we’re gonna offer, particularity family sustaining wages.

I would certainly encourage our business district to be responsible and to look at how their contribution could really improve the common good. Unfortunately many corporations are concerned about shareholder equity, not necessarily their employees. We need to shift that conversation.

TPN: Uber is one of those corporations you’ve criticized and the mayor has welcomed to the city. You’ve criticized their work place culture and a couple other things. But Peduto points out that they employ close to 1,000 people. So how would you balance trying to hold these corporations to your philosophy while also being cognizant of the potential benefits that they bring?

Welch: Cost-benefit analysis. Should I celebrate that we have a thousand people employed in an abusive culture? I don’t think so. It’s like having somebody living in an abusive house and saying, “while at least they got housing.” I’m not for that.

And beyond [Uber’s] work culture — the fact that it’s misogynistic — I am not comfortable with the technology they’re using to test autonomous vehicles. I think it is still in the incubator stages but they’re using the cars out on our roads. I don’t think the process that they’re using for developing and accumulating the necessary data is sufficient, while at the same time we’re putting humans at risk. I question the methodology for autonomous technology and I question the work culture.

TPN: If you were elected, how would you work with Uber or have them hear your concerns to work toward something you would see as better?

Welch: I would put Uber off to the side slightly. I mean, I would talk to them. But the main thing I would want to push for is creating a think tank or technological center where we can come up with true techniques and technology for making sure the autonomous vehicles are put out safely. Uber can participate in that, Argo AI can participate in that, but we need to bring in other folks from aerospace, the Department of Defense, the insurance industries. We need to have all of these stakeholders at the table to make sure that as we’re putting this technology — as we look to put it into use — that we set a high standard for this technology. I don’t want to look at Uber as a one off, I want to look at the industry as a whole.

TPN: What is your history with working with the LGBTQ community and how would you address that community as mayor?

Welch: I have a group of students at the seminary that fit in the LGBTQ community. They just recently, a couple of years ago, created their own student group, called the Rainbow Coalition. All of the student groups are under my preview as dean of students. I’ve worked with them and helped them to feel welcomed, I helped them create sound footing with their organization.

As head chaplain of Pittsburgh Police, we had a chaplain on board who was the founding member of Tri Lam, one of the original organizations that provided support for the LGBTQ community and families.

I think what has kind of scared people is the fact that there is a “reverend” in front of my name. And I didn’t respond to the Stonewall Democrats questionnaire because I didn’t have it in my hand until the day of the debate.

TPN: How is your vision for the future of Pittsburgh — or for the next four years — different from the Mayor Peduto?

Welch: I won’t be thinking about the next Pittsburgh without thinking about this current Pittsburgh. I think the mayor’s futuristic ideas are great. He wants to prepare the city for this new wave of technology, new industries, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are some things we need to address currently. We still have people hurting in our city that are still caught up in the wake of the closing of the mills — Hazelwood and Braddock, though Braddock is outside of the city. I want to focus on this Pittsburgh, not losing sight of next Pittsburgh, because we don’t want to leave anybody behind.