What a Mayor Ed Gainey could mean for Pittsburgh

by Terrell Thomas

Terrell Thomas speaks at a Campaign for Smart Justice coalition meeting (photo credit: ACLU of Pennsylvania)

Last month, state Representative Ed Gainey edged out Mayor Bill Peduto in the Democratic mayoral primary. Rep. Gainey is now on track to be elected as Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor in November, an event that has taken far too long in a city with a large Black population.

It is a historic moment.

In the months leading to the primary, I helped to convene a coalition of local grassroots groups, as well as regional, statewide, and national organizations, that met regularly and tirelessly organized to make sure that our policy issues were front and center in the mayoral race.

Pittsburgh is one of the worst cities for Black people, Black women in particular. While the city has seen a resurgence, thanks in part to the rise of the tech and healthcare industries, measurements of quality of life show Black Pittsburghers consistently falling behind their white counterparts, as well as compared to Black residents in other cities.

This lower quality of life pervades the criminal legal system, too. Even as the population of Allegheny County Jail has been in decline, the percentage of Black people incarcerated there has risen, in large part because Black people are more likely to be assigned cash bail than white people, according to a recent report.

It shows up in policing. Pittsburgh needs to demilitarize and divest from the police and reinvest those funds in the community and social programs that prevent crime, serve community needs, and will ultimately keep us safer by addressing the root causes of the violence that disproportionately impacts Black communities.

Pittsburgh police need to allow peaceful protesters to exercise their right to demonstrate without fear of being attacked by police with tear gas, rubber bullets, and other militarized tactics.

The city also needs to finally, fully implement its marijuana decriminalization ordinance, which it has failed to do, leading to the disproportionate criminalization of Black people, resulting in removing those individuals from their families and communities, limiting their access to housing, and restricting job opportunities. Philadelphia has implemented its own decriminalization ordinance, an ordinance that gives police an alternative, non-criminal way to cite people who possess marijuana and smoke it in public, and has kept thousands of people out of the criminal legal system every year. Pittsburgh can do that, too. But it takes leadership.

Since his primary election victory, Rep. Gainey has continued to engage and meet with our coalition, keeping such important issues at the forefront of a forthcoming Gainey administration. These are very promising developments.

This coalition grew, in part, out of the ACLU of Pennsylvania Campaign for Smart Justice here in Pittsburgh and across the state.

We launched the campaign in 2018, with Rep. Gainey attending our first community meeting. We have been holding regular meetings ever since. Our goals are to reduce mass incarceration by half in Pennsylvania and to challenge the racism that plagues the criminal legal system.

Gainey has been a champion of civil liberties during his tenure at the state House, keeping an ear to the ground and his door open for constituents.

If he is successful in the general election and sworn in as mayor of Pittsburgh, we are hopeful that this openness and spirit of cooperation will continue. Our coalition looks forward to working directly with Rep. Gainey’s administration — or whomever wins — to help improve the lives of Black (and all) Pittsburghers, to advance civil liberties, and to address our mass incarceration and policing crises.

To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done.

Terrell Thomas is the Senior Field Organizer, Campaign for Smart Justice at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.