• Keegan Gibson

Pittsburgh’s New Mayor Builds Bridges as Progressive Allies Build Campaigns

Ed Gainey is reaching out to non-supporters. Also, a long-held Congressional seat is opening. Our Director in Pittsburgh, Keegan Gibson, forecasts the coming year.


Pittsburgh’s progressive movement is a story of win after win for five years running. The old party machine, led by culturally conservative union Democrats, is falling away. Even as the left faltered in other high-profile elections in 2021 (notably, mayoral races in New York City and Buffalo), Pittsburgh has been an unalloyed bright spot nationally.

That movement will be put to the test in 2022. The biggest stories this year center on how progressives will use the power they have achieved, and whether their footprint expands or contracts in the region.


It’s important to note this story focuses on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. For the most part, conservatives are on the rise in neighboring counties and regions.


Where will Mayor Ed Gainey build bridges?


One of Gainey’s first acts as Mayor was to hop on a snowplow in Brookline, a white, working-class neighborhood with a perception that it is overlooked. It’s represented by Anthony Coghill, the most conservative member of City Council. In the 2021 primary, the area went not to Gainey and his multiracial progressive coalition; nor to incumbent Bill Peduto, who was derided in those parts as ‘Bike Lane Bill,’ but to Tony Moreno, a retired police officer and former Republican.


Brookline is also hilly – even by Pittsburgh standards – which makes snow removal a perennial issue. Riding a plow was a perfect image for the new mayor, who won in 2021 as someone who would focus on basic city services. It complements Gainey’s approach to staffing his administration: Don’t clean house for its own sake, and instead seek to retain many Peduto alums.


The second round of headlines from the Gainey era came when news broke that Pittsburgh was among four finalists to host the 2024 GOP National Convention. Gainey had written a letter to the RNC Chairwoman encouraging the party to choose the Steel City. More than a bridge to Republicans, it was a nod to the city’s business and hospitality sectors that the new mayor is a willing partner. For many progressives who worked to elect Gainey, the idea is anathema; Gainey’s support a betrayal. He hasn’t backed down.


The third bridge crosses into Wilkinsburg, the neighboring borough of 16,000, and part of Gainey’s former State House district. If an initiative by the Community Development Corporation succeeds, Wilkinsburg could merge into Pittsburgh. The initiative requires a vote by Pittsburgh City Council, and would go to a voter referendum in Wilkinsburg this year. The issues and debate are complicated, touching themes of taxes, city services, development, gentrification, homeownership vs. renters and much more. Gainey has remained steadfastly neutral throughout the debate, a position that will be tested if the process moves forward.


Who will replace Mike Doyle in Congress?


The purest test of Pittsburgh’s progressive movement will come on the congressional ballot. Longtime incumbent Mike Doyle is retiring and the Democratic primary will decide his successor. “Who will succeed Doyle?” was a topic of speculation among politicos for years. But the time has come, and many of the names previously mentioned are opting out.


Why? Because of Summer Lee. The second-term State Rep. announced her candidacy within hours of Doyle’s retirement announcement, and suddenly the seat didn’t look so wide open. Lee built a formidable political machine in the years following her 2018 primary win (in which she ousted an incumbent Democratic). She expanded her efforts under the banner of UNITE PAC, which funds, volunteers and sends mailers for endorsed candidates up and down the ballot, including Gainey. The only time I’ve ever had my door knocked on for Allegheny County Council – a relatively low-profile position – was from UNITE volunteers in 2019; their endorsed candidate ousted the incumbent. Lee also enjoyed success in judicial races in 2021.


Lee entered the race with an active grassroots network, national name ID and an endorsement from the Justice Democrats, the PAC that helped send “The Squad” to DC in 2018. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al, have also offered support for Lee). Gainey spoke at her campaign kickoff.


There are other distinguished candidates in the race. Steve Irwin is a popular attorney from Squirrel Hill, long active in Democratic politics and within Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. Jerry Dickinson is a progressive professor who challenged Doyle in 2020. The most recent entrant is Stephanie Fox, a non-profit executive and victims’ advocate.


The uncertainty of redistricting and the final map compels that any forecast comes with a grain of salt, but whichever way a Pittsburgh-based district takes shape, Lee has the inside track. It would take a robust mobilization of opposition to prevent her victory four months from now.

 

Keegan Gibson is a director at Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh office.

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