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Mayor, 2 challengers debate Pittsburgh's progress and future

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 10:10 p.m.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, City Councilwoman Darlene Harris and the Rev. John Welch are competing in the Democratic primary for mayor.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, City Councilwoman Darlene Harris and the Rev. John Welch are competing in the Democratic primary for mayor.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's two Democratic challengers went on the offensive Wednesday night in a televised debate, criticizing Peduto on a range of issues that they said he handled poorly or failed to address in his first term.

Peduto didn't swipe back at his challengers, Councilwoman Darlene Harris and the Rev. John C. Welch, but touted the progress he said his administration made on a number of fronts. He promised to build on that work if re-elected.

An incumbent mayor seeking re-election hasn't been defeated in Pittsburgh's modern political history, and Peduto has an overwhelming fund-raising advantage over his opponents. Still, Peduto said he's not taking anything for granted.

“I think the worst thing to have in life is regret, so we intend to put together a full campaign,” Peduto, 52, of Point Breeze said after the hourlong debate on WTAE-TV.

Welch, 56, of Homewood and Harris, 64, of Spring Hill vowed to do the same.

While city records show that Welch spent a little more than $10,500 and had about $9,600 on hand as of March 31, compared with Peduto's spending of close to $150,000 and his nearly $700,000 in the bank, Welch said, “I'm a clergy. I know very well the David and Goliath story.”

Welch is dean of students for the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the city's head police chaplain.

Welch said: “The main thing is reaching the people who have been neglected not just for the past 3 12 years, but who have been neglected for decades.”

Harris, who has not released any campaign finance information to the city during the campaign, said she traditionally hasn't raised or spent much money on her past races for the city's school board and council. She relies, instead, on the relationships she said she's made in decades of public service and a resume of hard work for constituents.

“I haven't been bought in 43 years, and I'm not about to start being bought now,” Harris said.

The candidates fielded 15 questions from panelists and people who submitted queries online.

Among the differences, Welch and Harris said the city became too cozy with the ride-share giant Uber during Peduto's administration — allowing the company to develop its autonomous-vehicle technology without getting formal assurances that it also would provide community benefits.

Peduto said he believes Uber has “a moral obligation” to improve working conditions for drivers and offer programs to help the poor and elderly, and he's working to convince the company to do more on that front.

Welch and Harris also criticized Peduto for dropping a lawsuit challenging UPMC's tax-exempt status in the hope that it would clear the way for more fruitful negotiations in the city's quest to obtain millions of dollars in annual contributions from UPMC and other nonprofits.

Peduto admitted “frustration” that such a deal hasn't been struck, but described the lawsuit as “a dead end.”

While Peduto said he has been working to restructure the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and replace the city's worst lead service lines, Welch argued that the city should declare a state of emergency in light of findings that its drinking water contains elevated levels of lead and then use the declaration to pursue state and federal funding.

Instead of replacing the service lines at an estimated cost of $411 million, he believes the city could save money and address the lead problem by installing “point-of-entry” filters in every home.

All of the candidates agreed that the city needs to do more to improve community-police relations, develop more affordable housing and find ways to spur growth in neighborhoods that have been overlooked while areas such as Downtown, East Liberty and Lawrenceville boomed in recent years.

Peduto said his administration has made significant strides on each of those fronts.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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