Pittsburgh mayoral candidates discuss platforms, City issues

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Ahead of next month’s primary election, Pittsburgh’s four mayoral candidates met Thursday evening to share their thoughts on current issues impacting the City and policy proposals moving forward — such as racial equity, taxing UPMC, policing and more.

By Rebecca Johnson, News Editor

Ahead of next month’s primary election, Pittsburgh’s four mayoral candidates met Thursday evening to share their thoughts on current issues impacting the City and policy proposals moving forward — such as racial equity, taxing UPMC, policing and more.

Pittsburgh United — a coalition dedicated to building a more equitable and livable City — hosted the “2021 Mayoral Candidate Forum.” Around 260 people tuned in on Zoom to hear each candidate discuss their vision for Pittsburgh — incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto, state Rep. Ed Gainey, retired police officer Tony Moreno and community organizer Mike Thompson. Voters will head to the polls on May 18 to vote in the Democratic primary before the Nov. 2 general election. No Republicans are running for the office. Khalif Ali, the executive director at Common Cause Pennsylvania, moderated the discussion.

The candidates heavily discussed police reform and police accountability at the forum. In fact, each of the candidates mentioned police reform as one of their top priorities if elected mayor. Gainey said the number one issue in Pittsburgh is the “City’s police community relations.” If elected, he said he wants to demilitarize the police force and instead employ social workers to de-escalate situations. He also referenced a report released in 2019 that found that 60% of the people Pittsburgh police arrested in 2018 were Black to point to “over-policing” in the City.

“We need to demilitarize our police force and really focus on community-oriented police. We need to build the trust by having them get back into the community and knowing who Mr. and Mrs. Jones is and how to work with them,” Gainey said. “And lastly, we need to talk about social workers to be able to de-escalate some of the issues that we have on our streets, particularly … knowing that we have an increase in mental health. We have to build trust between police and community.”

Peduto — who has faced criticism from community activists for his stance on reforming, rather than defunding the police — pointed to a “look at policing” as one of his priorities for continuing to create a “more effective, more efficient, more equitable” City government. He also said he will review “civilian affairs,” enhance the Office of Community Health and Safety as well as push for economic development and more affordable housing.

Moreno said “nobody likes the way [the City police] is being run, and it needs to change.” Moreno has previously indicated that he wants police officers who “violate people’s civil rights” to be fired, and wants “proven leaders” in leadership positions at the police force.

“We need to get our police department back to doing what they do best, and that’s protecting our community,” Moreno said. “We either have a rogue police department not following policy, or we have a police department falling policy perfectly.”

Thompson — a South Oakland resident — said he will also prioritize police reform if elected. He said he wants to disband the police union and fire all “bad” police officers.

A member of the audience asked if the candidates would support a “democratically elected civilian oversight board” over the police. The question asked said that this board would have powers over hiring, discipline, investigation and budgets.

Peduto said he agrees with this question at face value, but that this idea is re-stating the role of City Council. He then pointed to Act 111, which he said limits the City Council’s power. Act 111 of Pennsylvania says police and firefighters are not allowed to strike, and so disputes with union contracts or other matters go to binding arbitration.

While Gainey said he would want to see the language of such a bill, he is in favor of such a board. He said “we can’t hide behind Act 111 and arbitration” in the face of unjust events. He then referenced a private Facebook group with Pittsburgh police officers that contained racist and transphobic content.

Thompson said it sounds “like a great idea,” while Moreno said he doesn’t see “how that would operate appropriately.” Moreno instead said the problem with the police is “confusion in our ranks” and a lack of leadership toward the police. He said police review boards, such as the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, are “abject failures.”

Another topic the candidates discussed is their ideas for how to use President Joe Biden’s proposed funding for infrastructure. Gainey said he would like the money to go toward improving the Department of Public Works with new equipment and technology, improving raw sewage runoff and toward beautification projects.

“We got a lot of vacant lots where the weeds are up to our hips,” Gainey said. “We got a chance to do some things that really beautify our neighborhoods — let our children see something beautiful.”

Peduto said he’s looking at a “green stormwater management plan.” He said he’s also considering starting new renewable energy projects with hydrogen power and investing in infrastructure. Moreno said if elected, he would want this money to go toward dilapidated bridges, cleaning up the river and improving parks. Thompson said he also wants to use the money to improve Pittsburgh’s water quality.

Another topic the candidates addressed was UPMC. Ali asked how the candidates planned to “hold UPMC accountable” and make sure they “pay their workers a livable wage, provide affordable health care and make them change their nonprofit status so they can pay taxes to our City,” which elicited varying responses from the candidates. UPMC dropped a federal lawsuit against the City in 2014, just days after the City’s decision not to appeal its state court claim against UPMC, which challenged the hospital giant’s tax exemption.

Peduto said he can’t force a nonprofit to pay taxes as mayor and is “limited by state laws.” He added that UPMC has “contributed” to the City — namely through helping fund a homeless shelter Downtown. Peduto said last month that his administration did a “deep analysis” and found it could not tax UPMC as one entity.

“But what you need is something formal, not just from UPMC, but from Allegheny Health Networks, Highmark, Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, a formalized function where we’re rowing together to do all these wonderful ideas people are talking about, but we don’t have the funding to do,” Peduto said. “Only by working together will that happen.”

Gainey has disagreements with Peduto on this issue and took a jab at him during his remarks. Gainey said that “everyone has to pay their fair share, even if we have to go to court to make that happen.” 

“I know some people in here said that we’d do it, and then once they got elected, it changed,” Gainey said. “And then they said they did a deep dive and now all of a sudden, they don’t want to touch it.”

The event had a slew of other community co-sponsors including 1Hood, Alliance for Police Accountability, Bend the Arc Pittsburgh, Black Political Empowerment Project, Casa San Jose, Group Against Smog and Pollution, Homewood Concerned Citizens Council, Just HarvestKingsley Association, Lawrenceville United, League of Women Voters, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, PittVotes, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, Urban Kind and Women for a Healthy Environment.

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