A Referendum on Progressivism in PA's Major Cities
Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
A Referendum on Progressivism in PA's Major Cities
Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
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Urban progressivism is on the ballot in Pennsylvania’s biggest cities, where the May 18 primary will measure Democratic voters’ satisfaction with ideological governance.

Seeking a third term as mayor, Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto could lose reelection for not going far enough as a self-described progressive – particularly on public-safety issues. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner may lose a second term for going too far as a progressive prosecutor amid surging violent crime. The primary, which essentially determines November’s victors in both one-party cities, is “really a test of where Democratic voters are right now,” said Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion.

In Pittsburgh, Peduto was once applauded as a progressive visionary. In 2013, the then-city councilman ran for mayor on a “new Pittsburgh” platform. Shortly after his 2014 mayoral inauguration, Peduto declared that Pittsburgh – politically controlled by Democrats for nearly a century – had “changed from an old boys’ network city to a progressive city.”

Since then, Peduto’s governance has reflected that leftward shift. As mayor, he has enacted “inclusionary zoning,” embraced inclusive urban development, and vowed a carbon-neutral city by 2050. In addition, during Peduto’s first term, the Obama administration selected Pittsburgh’s police department to experiment with implicit-bias training. Such progressive policies appealed to younger, affluent voters – then known as part of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” – who had begun gentrifying Pittsburgh neighborhoods as the city transformed from a struggling former steel hub into a thriving and livableeds and meds” metropolis.

But today, as that same political demographic contributes to tumult in America’s cities – especially after the sometimes violent events of last summer – Peduto’s reelection isn’t assured. “Peduto has the bona fides of a progressive, but in contemporary Democratic politics, is that enough? There’s your million-dollar question,” said Borick.

As Ed Gainey views it, Peduto’s progressive stewardship has fallen short. Gainey (pictured) is Peduto’s most competitive opponent among the three Democrats vying for the incumbent’s seat. A state representative since 2013, Gainey would govern to the left of Peduto, who he believes is ineffective on progressive priorities such as the environment, racial equity, affordable housing, and police reform.

In addition to growing support from minority and affluent voters, Gainey has the backing of activist organizations, Democratic socialist state legislators, and the SEIU Healthcare union – a political force in Pittsburgh, where the UPMC medical system, the state’s largest nongovernmental employer, is headquartered. Meanwhile, Peduto has received more traditional Democratic endorsements, including from labor unions, Congressman Mike Doyle, and state Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa.

Gainey, who has criticized Peduto for “overpolicing” in neighborhoods, has made a pledge to “redirect” police funds to social services. But Peduto has defended his record on progressive criminal-justice reforms, including the reallocation of $5.3 million in the police budget to community programs. Earlier this year, however, Peduto did refer to last summer’s protesters as the “radical left” (he later apologized). The mayor, moreover, has stated that most police officers are “good people” and that he opposes defunding their department. “In fact, if you’re talking to the leaders of the community, from the neighborhoods that are most affected by crime, they are not asking to defund or abolish the police, but they want to see officers who are more involved in the community,” Peduto recently told one state news outlet.

If Gainey pulls an upset victory, it would signal that today’s urban Democratic voters desire a more progressive mandate in Pittsburgh, where violent crime has increased by 90% from this time in 2020. As one retired police officer recently noted when talking about violence in Pittsburgh’s Hill District: “I was born and raised in this community, and we never ever have been plagued with this, never have.”

Five hours east in Philadelphia, voters’ tolerance for progressive policies on criminal justice and public order appear to be fading. As has occurred elsewhere in urban America since the mid-2010s, the politicization of law enforcement among big-city mayors and district attorneys has translated into rising crime and disorder. This is particularly evident in Philadelphia, where 499 people were killed in 2020 – the city’s second-highest total in 60 years. As it stands, the present homicide rate could break the all-time record.

This intensifying dysfunction, the start of which preceded the pandemic, has affected Philadelphia neighborhoods, including tourist-driven Old City, where a man was killed in front of a popular restaurant last month. “It feels that the government is leaving the economic epicenter of Center City to fend for itself. I have never seen it this way,” owner Stephen Starr, a nationally renowned restaurateur, told the local NBC affiliate. In West Philadelphia, many businesses are still recovering from last summer’s rioting after the killing of George Floyd. As one civic leader told the Philadelphia Tribune, a “large portion” of the neighborhood’s businesses wouldn’t recover from future urban unrest.

Philadelphia residents, including Starr, have lambasted Mayor Jim Kenney for his leadership amid the public-safety crisis. Previous mayors, such as Ed Rendell in the 1990s or Michael Nutter in the early 2010s, emphasized law and order. Widespread crime is a disincentive to economic development.

But it’s Krasner, the district attorney, whose left-wing approach to law enforcement is on the ballot this month. A former civil rights defense attorney who once called law enforcement “systemically racist,” Krasner has worked to transform the DA’s office since being elected in 2017. He has vowed to eliminate cash bail, enacted decriminalization measures – including for shoplifting under $500 – supported de-carceration, and sent gun offenders to diversionary programs. Philadelphia’s intensifying lawlessness has led to tragic outcomes.

Philadelphia voters – especially in minority neighborhoods – are moving against Krasner, who blames societal forces for rising crime. As Alan Butkovitz, a Democratic ward leader, recently told The Wall Street Journal, “a lot of pushback is coming from those areas that are experiencing a higher rate of gun crimes,” rather than low-crime, affluent neighborhoods. “The further you are away from the crimes, the more likely you are to be for [Krasner],” he added.

Krasner’s Democratic primary opponent, Carlos Vega, is a Bronx-born former assistant DA who was recruited by Rendell in the 1980s. In 2018, Krasner fired Vega, along with 30 other staffers. Now, as Vega puts it, he is running because of Krasner’s “failure to address violent crime, and his reckless approach to reform has made Philadelphia more dangerous today than before he took office.” Vega told the local NBC affiliate: “We are on track to lose 600+ Philadelphians this year, and Larry Krasner has yet to take responsibility for this crisis or provide meaningful solutions that will save lives.”

Vega, who is supported by police unions, has expressed his support for a “more common sense, responsible approach to [criminal justice] reform that doesn’t come at the expense of our safety.” The city’s Democratic Party has declined to endorse in the DA’s race, and Kenney recently dodged making an endorsement of Krasner. “I think people need to make up their minds as to what they should do,” he told Philadelphia’s ABC affiliate.

Indeed, Democratic voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will soon issue a verdict on progressive politics.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated support for Ed Gainey. SEIU Healthcare is supporting him; however, SEIU 32BJ is supporting Mayor Peduto. 

Charles McElwee is the editor of RealClear’s public affairs page on Pennsylvania. He is the 2020-21 John Farley Memorial Fellow, part of The Fund for American Studies’ Robert Novak Journalism Program. Follow him on Twitter @CFMcElwee.

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