Personified by Ed Gainey, Progressives Continue to Rise in Pittsburgh
Ceisler Media Director Keegan Gibson breaks down results from May’s primary in the Steel City and forecasts what further change may be coming.
Progressives continue their steady ascent in Allegheny County, with a marquee win and groundwork for more success in 2023.
The biggest win of last month’s primary night belonged to State Rep. Ed Gainey, who unseated two-term Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. What happened? This was a change election and Peduto was outflanked on the issues that mattered most in the campaign: racial equity (including housing and policing) and the debate over the nonprofit status of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Progressives in Pittsburgh sat on the outside looking in for a long time. Led in large part by Peduto, then a city councilman, they rabble-roused against the conservative Democratic establishment for years. They got their break in 2013 when a surprise retirement by incumbent Mayor Luke Ravenstahl created a path for Peduto. Eight years later, the same progressive energy that put Peduto in the Mayor’s chair – including many of the same activists and advocates – showed him the door.
The man who defeated him is the embodiment of the shift: Gainey was one of Peduto’s most important supporters in 2013 and again in 2017. Personally popular and highly qualified, Gainey is one of the few politicians who can bridge key power bases in the city: progressives, the Black community, labor unions and old-guard Democrats.
Gainey announced his run with the message that Peduto hadn’t delivered on his promises, and that Pittsburgh was a tale of two cities – lovely and livable for white residents, unwelcoming and unhealthy for Black people. A decade of development boosted the city’s finances, but also raised housing costs and displaced longtime residents. Peduto’s response to the 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd crystallized a sense that he was outside, not inside, that movement (as the Pittsburgh City Paper reported). Peduto tacitly acknowledged these weaknesses in his first TV ad.
Gainey also committed to taking a confrontational approach to UPMC, the health care provider/insurer that is Pennsylvania’s largest employer. That contrast earned him an endorsement and about half a million dollars in support from SEIU Healthcare, one of the city’s strongest unions (the trades unions, and the SEIU service workers union, backed Peduto). SEIU Healthcare has actively campaigned to challenge UPMC’s status as a nonprofit (as well as to organize its workforce). Peduto initially shared their position in 2013 but shifted tracks to a conciliatory approach after getting into office.
The final result was Gainey 46 percent to Peduto’s percent. Most tellingly, the wards where the incumbent dropped the most were in progressive hotspot neighborhoods like Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. Around 56,000 people voted in May’s primary – more than the 46,000 who voted in 2013 when Peduto won by 12 points. A third candidate, a pro-Trump retired police officer named Tony Moreno, took 13 percent, mostly in blue-collar wards where voters nicknamed the mayor “Bike Lane Bill” and it’s not clear whether Moreno’s candidacy hurt one candidate more than another. In all likelihood, Gainey will be sworn in as Pittsburgh’s first-ever Black mayor in January.
Change was in the air in other parts of the county, too, as 69 percent of county voters approved a measure to limit the use of solitary confinement at the county jail; and 81 percent of Pittsburghers voted to ban no-knock warrants. Kevin Kraus won the open primary for sheriff by 2 percent over Dom Costa, who had been one of the most conservative Dems in western Pa. The City Paper has a list of other progressive wins, too.
Across the city line in the borough of Bellevue, the progressive-backed candidate for mayor won an open primary. Val Pennington, a city councilman who swept into office with the blue wave in 2017, will likely be the first Black mayor elected here. And in the 3rd ward, where I live, progressive candidate Jennie Denton ousted the incumbent borough councilman by a single vote: 100-to-99.
The dust had barely settled in 2021 when one elected official brought 2023 to the top of everyone’s mind. Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala, of a prominent western Pa. political family, has long had a tense relationship with the rising racial justice movement. After a bombshell revelation by the Tribune-Review, it is irrevocably broken.
It started May 13, when attorney Milton Raiford spoke out against what he characterized as systemic racism in Zappala’s operation. In retaliation, the Trib revealed, Zappala issued an email that prohibited his staff from offering plea deals to any of Raiford’s clients. It ignited a firestorm, including prominent calls for Zappala to resign.
Zappala won his 2019 primary by 18 points against an opponent who did not enjoy total progressive support; he went on to face an independent in the general and his margin shrunk to 14 points. If he is in office in 2023, and seeks re-election, he will be a top target for the local progressive movement and for criminal justice reformers nationwide.
Keegan Gibson is a Director in Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh office.