The North Side North Shore Chamber of Commerce hosted a virtual forum on April 22 to ask all four Pittsburgh mayoral candidates on the Democratic Primary ballot about their plans for the City if elected.

By Ashlee Green

Photo: Forum screenshot, North Side North Shore Chamber of Commerce

All four candidates on the Democratic Primary ballot for Pittsburgh’s mayoral race met virtually for a forum on April 22 to discuss what the main role of a mayor means to them. 

The forum, which was free and open to the public, was hosted and moderated by North Side North Shore Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Gina Grone. Questions were focused on business in the city of Pittsburgh and the Northside in particular. In their opening statements, candidates identified the focal points of their campaigns. 

Mayor Bill Peduto is running a reelection campaign on the platform of finishing the job that his administration started seven years ago. Peduto took office in 2014. The Pittsburgh that former mayor Tom Murphy ran in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the Pittsburgh that he himself oversees now, Peduto said, are two different cities. During the 90s, “… seeds were planted and the city was looking towards the future of what maybe could happen,” Peduto said. Today, though, according to him there’s a whole new set of challenges.

State Representative Ed Gainey is running on the platform of change, with a focus on people and community. “It’s time that we build a city where we feel like everyone is included…,” he said. “You build [a city] through the people, not through the brick and mortars.”

Tony Moreno, a military veteran and former police officer, is leading a campaign focused on better management of the City’s finances and training its existing workforce. “We need to build out and fix the things that are broken before we start building new things,” he said. Ultimately, he explained, this will bring Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods back to “one great Pittsburgh.”

Mike Thompson, a math tutor, community organizer, and lifelong Pittsburgher, brings the focus of his grassroots campaign to small businesses while reevaluating tax breaks for large businesses. “The taxpayer money should stay in the taxpayer coffers and we should use that to improve our city,” Thompson said. An advocate of increased tourism to the city, Thompson is also pushing for a new NBA team in Pittsburgh, cleaner waterways, and more riverfront recreation. 

The forum continued for over an hour, covering economic development, affordable housing, and police accountability. 

When asked about their highest priority issue as it relates to small businesses on the Northside, Peduto referenced the closures of longtime Northside establishments Park House and James Street Gastropub and said there’s an “immediacy factor” of providing direct assistance to similar establishments affected by COVID-19 so that they “remain a part of the fabric of the Northside.” A longer-term goal, he continued, is to nurture the City’s relationship with the Chamber, the Northside Leadership Conference, and individual communities to identify each business district’s diverse needs.

Moreno focused on incentivizing businesses to come back to the City through a welcoming tax structure and lowered bureaucracy, including licensing and permits, which he called a “weapon” that the City uses to “keep the businesses out that they don’t want and invite businesses in that they do.” Referring to East Ohio Street and its “boarded-up businesses,” Moreno said the area is no longer a priority for police officers. “It breaks my heart because those were my beats at one point,” he said. Neighborhoods that have been “crying out for help,” such as Manchester, Moreno said, should also be prioritized. 

On the issue of affordable housing in Pittsburgh and the Northside specifically, Gainey and Thompson took the lead.

“On the Northside and throughout the city, we’ve seen 7,000 people be pushed or forced out,” Gainey said, referring to Census data highlighting the displacement of Black residents in Pittsburgh cited at a recent City Council meeting. Affordability, he said, needs to be built into new housing programs in the city—through, for example, the use of inclusionary zoning—and not treated as an “add-on.” Thompson, who said he lives in government housing himself, agreed, stating that all new large construction projects should have a firm minimum of 25% of their units as affordable ones. 

“Other cities have done something we haven’t yet: They’ve mandated affordable housing,” Thompson said. “You need to integrate people who are of lesser means into market-rate housing; make them your neighbors. You don’t want to concentrate them all in one location.” This can be done, he said, by not taking money from and not giving out tax breaks to developers.

On the issue of police accountability in Pittsburgh, Thompson said that the City must find a way to “think more innovatively” and “play hardball” to work around the police union, suggesting the transition to a charter police force. Peduto mentioned his role in creating the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board as well as his “overhaul” of the Office of Municipal Investigations following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in East Liberty. Gainey referenced a private Facebook group of current and retired Pittsburgh-area police officers that was recently outed for its pro-Trump memes and Black Lives Matter criticism, saying the mayor of any city has to “stand up and say what is wrong” in these instances in order to build the public’s trust; Moreno said Pittsburgh’s police union has been “infected by politics,” and that since he’s the “subject matter expert in this area,” he is the “only one that can fix it.” To watch the full archived live forum, visit the Chamber’s Facebook page.

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