John Welch says appearances are deceptive when it comes to his beloved hometown. Pittsburgh regularly ranks as one of the nation’s “most livable” cities, but it’s marked by stark inequalities.
“Many of the people who live here don’t see how that label translates to their lived experiences,” Welch says.
The city’s mayor, Democrat Bill Peduto, has benefitted from a similar sleight of hand, according to Welch, who will be on the ballot in Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayoral primary on May 16. When Peduto ran and won four years ago, Welch supported him. Four years later, he thinks Peduto’s administration hasn’t lived up to its promises.
“I don’t think he’s as progressive as has been reported,” Welch says, pointing to the rapid gentrification on the city’s east side. “We’ve become a city of inequity, rather than a livable city.”
Welch was disillusioned, too, by Peduto’s handling of a labor conflict early in his administration. Local activists and workers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the region’s largest employer, were pressing for higher wages and a union. Simultaneously, the city of Pittsburgh was pursuing a lawsuit challenging UPMC’s tax-exempt status. But the city agreed to drop the lawsuit with the hope of extracting voluntary contributions from UPMC. Welch, who was involved in the fight on the side of workers, said the suit “was the only leverage we had in negotiations,” and the city’s action left the campaign high and dry. Four years later, “we don’t have anything to show for it,” he said.
Welch is a native of Pittsburgh and earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, a Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS) and a Ph.D. in healthcare ethics from Duquesne University. He is now the dean of students at PTS, has served as a Baptist and Presbyterian pastor and is chief chaplain of the Pittsburgh police.
In These Times recently spoke with Welch about his campaign and the election on May 16.
You’ve criticized Bill Peduto for the recent gentrification in Pittsburgh. What would you do to promote more affordable housing?
The main thing is that we have to allow for nonprofit community development corporations that really want to create affordable housing tracts in the community, to have access to the land. So you need to have a land bank where we can ward off speculators coming through and buying up and then flipping. And streamline the process so that these community development nonprofits can get access to these properties and develop them. And we need to find ways to help fund them in the process.
Every politician needs a coalition. What is yours?
My coalition overlaps Peduto’s. I have a labor base. I’ve done a lot of work with the local American Federation of Teachers. I have a large religious base, having been the president of an interfaith social justice organization for five years. And I’ve been a chaplain for the Pittsburgh police for nine years now. My faith compels me and propels me into the work of creating a city where fairness prevails and everyone has access to opportunities. That’s how I define my faith. I’m not one who thinks there’s no room for politics in the church. I think that a church divorced from civic engagement is not really a church. And it’s not about proselytizing or converting people in the process. It’s about doing what’s right.
Turnout in local elections is notoriously low, especially in off-year elections. How do you plan to get out your voters?
The results last November were a shock and made people realize that they need to be engaged. And I think there will be a spike in voter turnout, because people realized that despite what’s going on in Washington, there are some things that can happen in the cities.
And second, we’ll continue to bring to people’s awareness to the issues that we’re dealing with here in Pittsburgh. For example, we have lead levels [in the water] that are comparable to Flint [Michigan], and they’ve been rising. But there really was no attention to that, and no communication to the general public about the problem, until we had a “boil water” advisory after recent flooding.
So that message will resonate with people: You have a mayor who’s been in power for 16 years — 12 years as a councilperson, four years as mayor — and that timeframe is commensurate with increasing lead levels. Granted, our infrastructure is old. But everyone knew it was old. And there should have been more attention paid to it earlier.
You have a Ph.D. in healthcare ethics. Why were you interested in that field and how will the degree help you as mayor?
My interest in that was because of the persistent health disparities between African Americans and whites. I’ve been tracking that for years. And here in Pittsburgh, we’re ranked No. 1 in the country in infant mortality among African Americans. And, at the same time, we’ve been ranked the No. 1 most livable city twice. So, the tag line here has always been: Most livable for whom?
The issue of fracking is important to me. I don’t agree with it. I don’t support it. I don’t think it’s environmentally friendly. And the health implications are still not known So, because of that, I don’t think we should allow it. That degree gives me an awareness and concern for ecological justice, healthcare justice as well as economic justice.
How do convince people that they should care about the problem of inequality?
I can’t sugarcoat it. One of the things I say is that the flood waters of poverty are rising, and they really don’t care what color you are. Anyone’s problem is everyone’s problem. If it’s not touching you now, it will touch you eventually. Look at the drug situation in our cities. First, it was crack cocaine in the inner cities. Now it’s a heroin epidemic that’s affecting the rural areas and the suburbs. So, one of the things I’m realizing is that, while the more senior population might not care about the inequities, with the millennials and Gen Xers, it resonates very well. So I just stand on telling the truth and conveying a story that’s real, and hopefully it will turn the hearts of people and translate into votes.
Public health is an interesting way to talk about inequality. The difference in life expectancy can be 15 years for two people living in two different zip codes.
Pittsburgh has a population of a little over 300,000 people, but we have more than 90 neighborhoods. We are that parochial. So you can literally go five blocks in one direction and hit a different neighborhood, and you’ll see significant disparities in health outcomes. And that’s very real, and highlights concentrated poverty. And getting people to recognize that social policies have created these disparities — it’s not something that organically arises out of nature, but these things happen as a result of social policies.
Over the years, when I’ve done presentations on that, and actually linked race to it, it’s opened the eyes of many whites who were in the room. And, again, Pittsburgh will not be the most livable city until it’s the most equitable. And that’s not saying that everyone has to have the same thing. You’re not going to pay a janitor a CEO’s salary. But there’s no reason we should have the concentrated poverty we have in our urban centers. And then you see the pattern of gentrification, in which it appears to be a covert operation, a takeover.
Are you running to push Peduto to the left, or do you really believe you can win this thing?
If the exit door is to the left, I’m pushing him to the left and out. I do believe I can win it. And if I don’t have enough momentum to push him out, then he’ll be further left than he’s been. But it’s my intention to win. And in doing so, I know that regardless of the outcome, he’ll be less of a moderate.