An interview with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey
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An interview with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey

Bridges, antisemitism, schools and guns

From snowstorms to collapsed bridges, presidential visits to setting up his administration, it’s been a busy first month in office for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

When Gainey was sworn in Jan. 3, he said in his inaugural remarks that his administration’s mission is to create a “Pittsburgh for all.”

The city’s first Black mayor spoke with the Chronicle, addressing a wide range of topics that included antisemitism, policing and underserved communities.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With the collapse of the 50-year-old Fern Hollow Bridge in Frick Park on Friday, Jan. 28, does improving infrastructure move to the top of your list of priorities?
Absolutely. Coming in, I was laser-focused on how we improve our infrastructure when it came to the Department of Public Works, just looking at that knowing that they hadn’t had any real investment. I mean, they’re using 2011 trucks — these trucks only last five or six years. They’ve been down over 20-some trucks for a long time. Manpower is down. So, infrastructure has always been important.

In addition to that, let’s add the bridge. We were fortunate there were no fatalities. To see it and see how it collapsed and understand there was a Port Authority bus on there, you had cars on there, you had a gas leak that could have exploded, there were so many issues. If it hadn’t been a two-hour delay of the school district … we should thank God and understand we were fortunate. Absolutely, infrastructure is at the top of the list.

All of this is a pretext for saying you don’t want it to happen, but having the governor here and having the president coming in, they could see it for themselves, particularly as we’re talking about a bipartisan infrastructure bill. We have more bridges than any other city in America. We’re built on mountains. We need these bridges if we’re going to be successful. I don’t have to sell it anymore. I just have to say go see it for yourself. It’s the funding we need to make sure that we can do what’s necessary to repair our bridges.

What are your other priorities for your first year?
We’re going to become a more welcoming city because we will plant a seed of change. What does that mean? One, it’s about putting the right people in the right positions to be able to succeed and bring change by having a diverse workforce. The second is we have to really talk about how we celebrate each other’s culture. I think culture has always been the bedrock of America, and we have so many diverse cultures that we could celebrate.

We need to invest in our public works. To come into this job and see they haven’t had any investment — we’re down manpower, personnel power … Your No. 1 responsibility when you come in here is really talking about how you fund public works in a way that they can get the job done. Now, does that mean we can ever win the war on snow? Every year we talk about snow. We live on a mountain. But there are things that we can do to ensure that we have the equipment necessary for our personnel to do the job. That’s what we’re focused on.

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto had good relationships with the Pittsburgh Jewish community and worked to ensure its safety. What will you do continue this priority?
Coming in, I wanted to make that a priority. Because I’ve talked about making sure that we have relationships throughout the city, building on those relationships so that you’re connecting cultures together. I met with the JCC. I met with the Jewish Federation. I went out there and I started meeting with them early so that I can have this conversation, because you and I know one of the main things is safety, and how we feel safe.

People have heard me say that I want to make this city the safest city in America. We have to make safety a priority or investment doesn’t come here. So, when I reached out to the JCC, the Jewish Federation, that was the seed to say, ‘Hey, listen, I’m with you, whatever I can do to help, I’m here.’ I want to help. I understand the safer we are, the more investment we get, the more investment we get, the more jobs we get. The more jobs we get, the more families we have, the more families we have, the more entertainment we have. We’ll have money to spend on the local economy. It’s all connected.

As we talk about putting a public health plan together, I wanted to hear from the Jewish community. My mother was one of the medical examiners that went into the Tree of Life. To this day, she talks about how traumatic it was. We have to understand a public health plan is how you build the backbone of a new economy that helps heal one another.

How do you balance that with your priority to demilitarize the police force? I know that some minority communities are concerned about overpolicing, but in a situation like that at the Tree of Life building, some of the police resources you’re talking about were used to save lives.
That’s a question that I think everybody is grappling with right now. How do we do that? We want police to do their job because that’s how they protect lives. We understand that. But during peaceful protests, during other issues, we don’t need military-style garments. We also have to demonstrate that we’re trying to build throughout neighborhoods a level of connectivity that says, ‘Hey, listen, we’re here to serve you. We’re here to make sure you’re safe. We’re here to protect you.’

That’s why you hear me talking about more police walking the beat because that’s critical. The more we build relationships in every community, then there’s that sense of, ‘I know this officer, I know this community leader,’ whether their community leader by title or and indigenous leader, like a grandma on the block. I think that’s critical, particularly if you’re talking about building trust that has eroded in several communities, low-income communities.

Second, we’re talking about overpolicing in neighborhoods because overpolicing never stops crime. Never stops murder, never stops violence. When we talk about overpolicing as a strategy, no, I don’t want overpolicing in certain Black and brown neighborhoods because it hasn’t been successful.

And then thirdly, let’s go back to dignity. We don’t want the police not to do their job. They were phenomenal with the Tree of Life, and they deserve every credit that they get. We want that throughout the city. That is what we’re working towards.

There’s been a rise in antisemitism, locally and nationally. What’s your understanding of why this is taking place and what role can the city play in stemming hate?
That’s an excellent question. We’ve seen what happened in Florida, we’ve seen what happened in Texas. I don’t have an answer to why people hate people because of their religion or the color of their skin. I don’t have that answer. What I do know is that we have to fight. We don’t know where it will rear its ugly head. What I do know is that we have to come together. I wish we didn’t have hate in society. But we do. We had hate before us, it will be here afterwards.

What I’ve come to realize is that in the midst of hate and these tragic events that have happened throughout the course of history — and it’s happening today — is it gives us a chance to express our love. It gives us a chance to show people why love can conquer hate. It gives us the opportunity to say our light can shine in darkness. It gives us the opportunity to say we’re not going anywhere. We’ll fight to find peace, even in the midst of a storm.

What can you do as mayor of Pittsburgh to improve the state of our public schools?
I think there’s a couple of things that I can do. I have to have a relationship with the superintendent. I don’t need the city nor our children to see us divided, pointing fingers at one another, because that doesn’t grow anything. What our children need to see is us working together to solve some of these issues that are plaguing society. I think a lot of times we tend to blame our children for this violence as if they started the culture of violence. They’re too young to have created it. So that means the culture of violence had to be created amongst people our age and inherited by our children. We have to work together to understand, as adults, how we play a part, such as fighting over masks, bringing guns to school — it gets to the point that as adults, it gets violent. I’m going to work with the school superintendent. We’re going to partner together.

It starts with letting the kids know that they’re valuable. Let’s begin to talk about a long-term strategy of what we can do in two areas. One, in the midst of a pandemic, we don’t know that another variant won’t come and the effects that has on our children being in an isolated situation. We need a plan from a city and school district. Two, we need to figure out how to create more inclusive environments where kids can succeed. The biggest part is our kids didn’t create violence. You have to learn that. We inherited what our generation created. You go on the news, you see a Nazi in Texas, violence in Texas, voters’ rights, these issues have an impact on society.

The bigger issue … is how do we interface and talk with each other. Do we spur hate or love on the internet? Do you wake up with positive or negative energy? What relationships did you build? When you saw a child on the street, did you say good morning? We want the big picture, understanding pyramids are built one layer at a time, not overnight.

I know that your agenda is looking to shore up resources for underserved communities. Do you have any proposals in mind to help improve mental health resources in those communities?
One of the issues we market a lot in America is violence — domestic violence, gun violence. It all ends with the word violence. In other countries you hear peace — peace in the streets, peace resolution, peace treaty and peace solution. I want a plan to focus on peace. How do we break down barriers of institutional racism and poverty, education, housing and equity? Those are the building blocks. It’s not going to happen overnight.

We need to invest more in public health. Public health is the reason why people get healthy, not public safety. Public safety is there to protect and serve. If we’re really going to do something, we need to deal with the pandemic called violence, in a way that treats it on the historical context of how we got here. That’s critical because it helps us understand culture, it helps us understand society and it helps our kids have more tolerance, love and respect for one another.

Both Bill Peduto and Dan Frankel proposed gun control bills. Did you agree with that? Where do you stand on gun control in the city?
I introduced a bill to ban all assault weapons in the House. I introduced some other gun bills and supported others. I think that the city should be able to preempt state law and come up with our own laws, because I’ve been fighting in this gun battle for decades. I was telling people then that there are too many guns on the street, and now the number of guns has tripled. More of our young people are getting guns.

The Second Amendment, to many, has become a religion. When I was at the state for Gun Advocacy Day, they had a big sign that said, “Guns, God and Glory.” That has nothing to do with the Constitution. That should be concerning to everyone because if that’s the thought process, where do we begin to talk to your children? They should not have guns. We say our biggest asset is our children but yet it’s OK for them to have guns? Even though guns are illegal they still get in kids’ hands. It’s causing death. I lost my sister to gun violence. I understand it quite well. The drug culture is also a major issue. There are overdoses every single day.

One of the things that I asked law enforcement was if we were winning the war on drugs. They use billions of dollars to fight this war on drugs. We still have drugs — fentanyl, crack. America has been getting high since the beginning of time; she’ll be high till the end. As long as the investment is on incarceration and things of that sort, we will never have enough funding for rehabilitation, recovery and education. We must change the paradigm if we’re going to do something with guns and drugs. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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