‘He didn’t grow up with a silver spoon’: Pittsburgh to get its first Black mayor, and he’s homegrown

‘He didn’t grow up with a silver spoon’: Pittsburgh to get its first Black mayor, and he’s homegrown

We won! OK, so I’m not from Pittsburgh and have never even been to the city, but when I learned the news, albeit expected, that voters had elected State Rep. Ed Gainey as the first Black mayor to lead the city, it felt deeply personal.

As a child, Gainey lived in a Pittsburgh housing project. After his political ascension to the state Senate, his sister, a mother of three, was murdered in her own city. “There is a level of pain you can’t imagine,” Gainey told WPXI after her death. It’s because of those experiences, however, and his legislative background that I have no doubt Gainey will serve Black people as well as his larger constituency. 

“But let me tell you why this is beautiful,” Gainey told supporters Tuesday night at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts Downtown, “because you proved that we can have a city for all. You proved that everybody can change. We know how people have talked about Pittsburgh, have talked about how siloed it is, how segregated it is. But today, you changed that.”

Pittsburgh has elected its first Black mayor, state Rep. Ed Gainey (D): “Let me tell you why this is beautiful. Because you proved that we can have a city for all.” pic.twitter.com/VhUYXsTBq6

— The Recount (@therecount) November 3, 2021

With 96.5% of precincts reporting, Gainey won 48,430 votes, with Republican Tony Moreno, a retired Pittsburgh police officer, earning 19,552 votes, Allegheny County reported just before midnight.

Jake Wheatley, a supporter and peer of Gainey’s in the state House, told the Pittsburgh NPR station WESA Gainey’s victory says “a lot” about the coalition he was able to pull together. “He built the kind of coalition that we want the city to be. He modeled that in his campaign,” Wheatley said. “He’s always been accessible, he’s always showing up. And he doesn’t look at the things that divide us or keep us from being able to work together.” Wheatley, who’s originally from Detroit, called Gainey “a child of Pittsburgh—born, raised and educated here.”

“Coming from neighborhoods like Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer and the Hill,” Wheatley told WESA, “that will give those children an opportunity to see themselves in the mayor’s office. And he didn’t grow up with a silver spoon—he came from subsidized housing.”

Gainey grew up in the Liberty Park housing project in East Liberty and has been a resilient voice for police reform and violence prevention. His sister, Janese Jackson, was shot and killed in 2016 outside of a bar in the neighborhood of Homewood when she rejected the advances of the now-convicted murderer. She was 29 years old. Gainey said then: “I try not to focus on what could have, should have. I try to focus on what we need to do to improve the quality of life for all humanity.”

City Controller Michael Lamb told WESA that, while the city is in better financial shape—aided by some $300 million in federal COVID-19 aid—Gainey’s road to accomplishing his goals won’t be stress-free. Gainey has outlined reform priorities that include ending the use of military gear by officers, diverting resources for that gear to “investments in community policing strategies,” creating “alternative response procedures for non-violent and mental health emergency calls,” and “overhauling police training to focus on de-escalation.”

“If you want to move to a more community-based model as Ed has talked about, that to me means more police, not less,” Lamb said. “And you’re going to have a hard time getting there because you have to staff the force up” from retirements and other losses.

Gainey will also have a fight in store for him in his relationship with the nonprofit University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a “tax-exempt health care giant,” that WESA reported Gainey threatened to sue if it did not bolster financial support to the city. 

He did, however, gain the support of Pennsylvania’s largest healthcare union, Services Employees International Union Healthcare. “UPMC [University of Pittsburgh Medical Center] could have given every single employee in Pittsburgh a $5/hr raise and still made $522 million last year,” the union said, retweeting a post from a facet of its Pennsylvania work, Hospital Workers Rising. “We deserve more from UPMC. Time. For. $20.”

The union said in its news release celebrating Gainey’s victory that “Tuesday’s election is an important step in building an economy and healthcare system to benefit all families.” The union added:

“For too long, poor and working class people have felt the weight of unaccountable and militarized policing, with Pittsburgh’s Black minority most harmed. The ‘eds and meds’ economy has never replaced the upward mobility of good, family supporting, union jobs of the steel era, and Black workers who are over represented in Pittsburgh’s service sector have been denied opportunity. Gentrification has forced families from the city and disproportionately harmed Black neighborhoods.”

‘Mayor-elect Gainey’s success tonight is even more poignant and important as we witness powerful ideological and corporate interests who continue to try and divide us.  But instead, Mr. Gainey focused on what unites all working families: our collective demands and need for affordable healthcare, a high-quality education and investments in early learning, expanding good paying union jobs, criminal justice reform, and taking on powerful interests like UPMC and their corrosive anti-union agenda.

‘Ed Gainey’s election tonight marks a major turning point and opportunity for Pittsburgh, and our entire State.  We must seize this moment and continue to center our politics on investing in working families again and tear down the walls of poverty, anti-Black racism, discrimination of all kinds, and the gross inequities within healthcare, education, and housing. It is a cause and a fight our SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania members are committed to leading.’”

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