On November 2nd Pittsburghers will elect a new mayor. Whatever the results, it will mark a post-Peduto era for the first time since I’ve lived in the city. I was completely caught off guard when Ed Gainey won the democratic nomination earlier this year. I had assumed that Peduto was a shoo-in for a third term, though admittedly I had not followed the primaries closely. Since I had relocated outside of Pittsburgh in the midst of the pandemic I was also not in touch with how the local political climate had been impacted not only by the public health crisis but also by the social justice uprisings and reckonings with racial disparities that unfolded across the country last summer. Indeed, the national discourse on policing was cited as a significant influence on the Pittsburgh mayoral race. In the wake of Peduto’s loss commentators situated the surprising results in relation to a nationwide trend against incumbents.
Peduto had branded himself as a progressive mayor who promoted policies based around modernizing Pittsburgh’s postindustrial economy and infrastructure through technological innovation. He acknowledged legacies of unequal development in the city even though his responses to rampant neighborhood gentrification were underwhelming. In contrasting himself against Gainey, Peduto was firmly established as part of the old guard of mainstream democratic liberalism, with Gainey representing the new spirit of social progressivism. With Gainey’s primary win he also became the presumptive first black mayor in Pittsburgh’s history. This historic milestone took on greater salience not only in relation to national discourse on racial injustice but also in light of the specific disparities faced by Black Pittsburghers. Pittsburgh has long promoted itself as a “most livable city,” but the city’s own research has confirmed that this “livability” is often not available to its Black residents. The disparities are particularly pronounced for Black women in Pittsburgh, with many Black women talking about leaving the city. This accords with broader demographic trends of Black residents leaving Pittsburgh.
The election is now framed as a contest between Gainey and Republican candidate Tony Moreno. The two have debated their differing visions for the city, and while policing remains a salient talking point they have also debated affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization. The prospect of a Gainey administration is exciting, although as the Moreno mailer I received demonstrates (pictured above), the rhetoric around his policies will inherently be racialized in both overt and covert ways. During Peduto’s administration bicycle lanes became one of the most hotly debated topics in local politics. Peduto foregrounded a robust approach to mobility and infrastructure, but the bike lanes became a stand-in for a particular inflection of the culture wars as they manifested in Pittsburgh, a signifier of progressive cultural policies that signaled being out of touch with “old” or “authentic” Pittsburgh residents and values. If Ed Gainey becomes Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor then I expect that the fixation on bike lanes will be replaced by more distinctly racially-coded exemplars of development agendas and priorities. As of now I remain optimistic that the discussions have shifted to more explicit concerns with unequal outcomes in urban governance.