Originally published: Jan 2, 2023
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

To a neighborhood development advocate, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s funding for affordable housing shows “a real understanding that this is one of the urgent issues.”

In Highland Park, a community group is frustrated by how Mr. Gainey’s office has handled the noise of gunfire from a city police firing range. “We just did not get very much response,” a neighborhood leader said.

And the head of the local police union is worried Pittsburgh could face “a crime wave of an unprecedented nature” if the mayor doesn’t get more cops on the street fast.

Taken together, their assessments reflect an early mixed verdict on the Gainey administration from a wide range of residents and local leaders. A year after he succeeded Bill Peduto to become Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor, first-hand observers describe Mr. Gainey as an active, hands-on neighborhood presence who shows up, listens closely and builds relationships.

But when it comes to the daily work of running the city bureaucracy, local leaders and city hall insiders said the administration is still finding its footing in communicating with the public, staffing up and making progress on Mr. Gainey’s campaign pledges. His administration has had to grapple with pandemic-era labor shortages, rising costs and crime. Homicides increased about 27% from 2021 to 2022, and the key post of a permanent police chief remains unfilled after former Chief Scott Schubert departed in July.

Mr. Gainey’s history-making win and sweeping campaign rhetoric raised hopes more than usual for a new mayor, said Jerry Shuster, a political communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh. His campaign priorities ranged from fighting economic inequality to improving internet access.

“He had some unusually high expectations in the transition,” Mr. Shuster said.

For the former state representative, those high expectations ran headlong into Mr. Gainey’s lack of executive experience. During his nearly decadelong legislative career, his voice was one in a chamber of 203. A mayor stands alone atop a complex city government.

“He learned very quickly that simply going someplace and making speeches — particularly to an audience that was very receptive to him — was not going to generate the heat he needed,” Mr. Shuster said. “He’s a fast learner — but that’s what he has to be. Otherwise, he’s not going to be there long.”

A spokesperson for Mr. Gainey wouldn’t make him available for an interview and didn’t answer written questions. The mayor and some members of City Council have pledged not to speak with the Post-Gazette during an ongoing strike by some PG employees and a pressure campaign not to engage with the newspaper.

“Both he and his staff have been very open and transparent with council members, at least with me,” Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle said of Mr. Gainey. He and other people directly familiar with discussions inside Council, speaking on condition of anonymity during the strike, gave the mayor credit for soliciting ideas and being approachable and available.

But collaboration between the administration and Council has sometimes proved challenging, one of the people said, and lawmakers sometimes get inconsistent messages from different Gainey aides. The next couple years will determine whether his administration can deliver “lasting change,” another Council insider said.

“He’s really out there and accessible, just trying to get input and trying to solve complex issues that involve all of us,” said Carlos T. Carter, who heads the nonprofit Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

During his campaign, Mr. Gainey pledged to “invest in housing every Pittsburgher can afford.” His budget for 2023 boosts an affordable-housing effort by $2.5 million, to $12.5 million overall.

That additional money is good news for low-income renters, said Mark Masterson, executive director at the Neighborhood Community Development Fund. The region faces a shortage of about 15,000 affordable homes, according to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Is it all that I think is needed? No,” Mr. Masterson said of the funding bump. “But they’ve got more than one year. The problem didn’t occur in a year; it’s not going to be fixed in a year.”

Mr. Gainey has also emphasized strengthening relationships between neighborhoods and city hall. But in Highland Park, Stephanie Walsh said the sound of gunfire from a nearby outdoor police training facility has been traumatic to some residents. The problem long predates Mr. Gainey, and the Highland Park Community Council had to repeatedly request the administration review the issue anew, she said. Officials eventually signaled it wasn’t a priority and that at some point the site would relocate indoors to a new facility.

“I understand the city has to have priorities and that there’s a limited number of funds, but part of what we want to talk about is scheduling and short-term mitigation,” said Ms. Walsh, who leads the community group. “And they haven’t been willing to meet about those things, either.”

Mr. Gainey promised during his campaign to strengthen police accountability, invest in community policing strategies and pursue stronger investigative powers for the Citizen Police Review Board.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the CPRB, said there’s been little change so far at the independent agency, which investigates complaints about police conduct. She’s skeptical that local government can amp up the group’s investigative muscle without a change in state law, but said improved ties between the CPRB and police officials have continued since Mr. Gainey took office.

“If anything,” she said, “I think the relationship between the CPRB and the Bureau of Police has improved in the sense that the common concern is public safety — how safe do people feel and how safe do officers feel?”

Robert Swartzwelder, president of the local police union, said officer safety and response times are suffering from a lack of resources. Cops are overworked and working double shifts as their numbers thin, he said.

“I’m extremely concerned about the 247 officers who could retire tomorrow morning if they so choose — with no academy [incoming] class in session,” Mr. Swartzwelder said. The administration, he said, is “abdicating their responsibility” by not bringing on a class of new officers to make up for recent attrition.

Through early December, the number of sworn police officers fell from 912 to 836, Acting Chief Thomas Stangrecki told Council last month. The city budgets for 900 uniformed officers.

Two academy classes are now in the works but won’t begin until August, Lee Schmidt, the city’s public safety director, told Council. It would be about a year after that before those officers are on patrol. He said the city would “have to come up with some solutions, some stopgaps to make sure we’re providing the services we usually provide.”

In the Golden Triangle, Kristin Presutti, a building manager, said she saw almost no police presence from spring into fall. She observed an open-air drug market along Fort Duquesne Boulevard where hundreds gathered, she said.

Downtown regulars have said they feel less safe amid high-profile violent crimes, homeless encampments, car break-ins and panhandling.

“I don’t want to walk anywhere by myself down here,” said Ms. Presutti. “As a property manager, I don’t like saying this. I want to keep my building full. But I don’t feel safe as a woman walking around Downtown by myself.”

Mr. Shuster, the Pitt professor, said Mr. Gainey appears to have adjusted his rhetorical approach to engage critics, not just supporters. Take the city’s sluggish response to a snowstorm last winter: The details of getting salt on roads made for an early lesson in the practicalities of running municipal government, Mr. Shuster said.

The mayor has discovered how people “react to neighborhood situations much more quickly and powerfully than they do for long-range plans.”

“He has the potential to become an excellent mayor because he listens,” Mr. Shuster said. “You can tell by the adjustments he’s made.”