Pittsburgh City Paper has conducted policy interviews with all four of the Pittsburgh mayoral candidates who will appear on the Democratic Primary ballot with these factors in mind. All interviews were conducted before publishing, as to ensure fairness, and that all discussed topics are the same. Links have been added in places to provide more detail on certain topics.
This is in hopes of discussing each candidate's goals and specific plans concerning the city’s ability to tackling climate change and environmental issues, transit and land-use, and police reform. City Paper chose these topics because they are areas where a Pittsburgh mayor can make both immediate and long-lasting change.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was interviewed first, then state Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Lincoln-Lemington), and retired Pittsburgh Police officer Tony Moreno followed. Now, Oakland resident and math tutor Michael Thomspon is up. This interview was conducted on March 29 and has been edited for clarity and length.
CITY PAPER: So my first question is about climate change. There are a lot of big bold plans out, but I wanted to focus on what your mayoral administration would do in the immediate to tackle environmental problems and climate change on a municipal level and what voters might expect to see if you were elected?
MICHAEL THOMPSON: I take a different approach to this issue. OK. Climate change is a global problem that needs global solutions. I certainly think the Paris Agreement is great and all these big, bold plans are good at the global level. Not to cast aspersions on this, but we have to talk about things we can actually fix. And at the local level, we have the ability to deal with the shitstorm headed our way. Let me rephrase that. We need to deal with the reality of the situation of the future.
I'm 38. In 30 years, Pittsburgh’s gonna look like a different place. My opponents won't be around, they’ll be retired. Consult an actuarial table, they'll be retired or deceased. But me and my friends, people like you and me and my generation, we're going to have to live when the reality of the world that is coming.
If we stop global emissions tomorrow, science states that we have to live in a world that's much warmer. We have a choice of a world that's much warmer or a world that's uninhabitable. There's a good book called The Uninhabitable Earth. It's very good reading. It's very sobering and presents the reality of our situation. We have a choice between Earth that is hot or so hot that it is uninhabitable for human beings.
There are places right now, they're uninhabitable for human beings. A lot of the migrants coming from Central America, they live in an area that’s uninhabitable for human beings. They are dying of kidney failure because it's too hot. When the wet-bulb temperature gets above 130, humans just start dying, and many parts of the Earth will be that hot.
Pittsburgh will not, OK, and so you have to deal with the reality of the future, and your job at the municipal level is not to have press conferences and not to say how I can reduce the global emissions by 0.0001%. If we as Pittsburgh reduce our emissions to zero, we're all still screwed.
And I think this as a Make-A-Wish kid with a brand new liver. We need to have hope, we need to have resilience, OK? I'm the most hopeful candidate on the ballot. But we need to focus on things we can fix. Regularly Pittsburgh floods and people die. I'm an Uber driver, I drive by the deceased body spot where people die regularly.
The flooding is getting worse. Houses are sliding off cliffs. We need to focus on — this is where I get the actual policy — things we can fix. You have to deal with a warmer world, and what the city can do to deal with that. Now if you look, climate change affects every region differently. California, my sister's a climate change refugee, she just moved to Colorado. OK, if you live in California, and you are going outside smoking two packs a day, and you have two kids, and you turn on the AC and black smoke drifts in. California is going to burn like that for the next 30-plus years. There are 250 million dead trees in California, OK? And 3% of trees burned this year and 3% of them are going to burn every year. California is just on fire now for the rest of our lives.
You don't want your kids to breathe that air. They had the worst air pollution in the world for a while in California. She has two kids. Anyway, she now lives in Colorado, working remotely.
We will take in climate change refugees in Pittsburgh. Climate change refugees are skilled workers who are looking for a place to live. It's habitable and in 30 years, people are going to move here from places that are no longer habitable.
In my lifetime, Miami will be underwater. But what are people to do when your coastal town is underwater? You move somewhere safe. It’s not on the coasts. It's safe, it's not going to be on fire. All the studies show it will be wetter and hotter, and the weather will be more unpredictable.
But we were one of the safest places in the country to be. It is a sanctuary. We are a sanctuary city. Pittsburgh’s a sanctuary city for the future of America. We have the infrastructure, we need to work on it. We need to welcome people. We're the least welcoming city in America, according to the studies. We don't want people, we don't like new people.
Try getting some good Tex-Mex in America. I spent a summer in Houston. I worked in a homeless shelter. I helped set up the new part of the homeless shelter with a government grant. I have actual experience helping homeless people. And as a city, you're able to help homeless people, and we're gonna have millions of homeless people in my lifetime because climate change creates climate change refugees. We need to house them and feed them and shelter them.
Reducing our emissions is not going to change the reality of what's coming. And what I do now is set up a 30-year plan to put that forward. I'll get no credit for it. Between now and 32 years from now, I'll be mayor. And whenever that happens, you have to set in plans that will get you no more votes. You have to do the right thing. You have to fix things and have fewer press conferences.
CP: OK, so what do we need to do?
THOMPSON: Oh my God, we actually have to focus on infrastructure. We have to make sure that all of Mount Washington doesn't slide down the cliff. We have to actually focus on what 20 degrees warmer means. All of our buildings are built for winter. Right. And we will have milder winters and warmer summers, so we have to actually change our building code to accommodate the warmer world and do so in a 30-year plan. All of our trees need to change. Our arborist needs to get to work to figure out what our 30-year tree planting strategy is.
And they all have to work together. There's a new podcast called Timber Wars that goes over how to save some of our oldest trees. Old-growth forests is a new term that was created in 1990. We all agree what old-growth forest is. And in 1980, old-growth forests didn't exist. We didn't have a word for it, they were just trees. At some point, we realized what the environment means.
We [need to] sit down with all the people. I know people don't do this as much as they should. You should meet with all the people and you should come up with a comprehensive plan. So you want me to say exactly what to do. I'm not an expert, I don't have a PhD in climate change science. You're sitting next to the arborist. You have to make sure they talk. And it's a slow process.
And at the end of four years, you have a comprehensive plan to push things forward. At the end of the next four years, hopefully you're going to get started. And at that point, you need to fire me. OK? Term limits are important. I get eight years. OK, everyone gets eight years. Obama gets eight years. George Washington gets eight years, eight years. Ed Rendell had eight years as [Philadelphia] mayor and then eight years as governor.
Eight years is enough, eight years is enough time as a mayor, OK? We don't want tyrants who are in power forever and tweet away. There's no good tweet that covers the future of climate change in Pittsburgh. We have to literally set up the most boring plans, the most effective, most boring plans.
CP: Right, what are those?
THOMPSON: I can't give you a great sexy quote about how we're going to solve all the world's problems because we're not. I can't promise you the world. I can promise you that we will live through this, it will get better, and we will survive. We will survive this, it will be OK. Life will get better. But again, I can't lie to you and give you a tweet about the wonders of the future. As you've noticed, the five-year plans aren't really happening. And we need to live in the reality of the world we currently live in. The world that me and my children and your grandchildren will inherit will be messy. And we need practical plans for infrastructure, stronger communities, resiliency, because problems are coming. But problems have always been coming. This is the nature of American history.
As a historian, I studied history. The most stressful time brings out the best leadership. And I'm only running because these are stressful times. If they were unstressful times, I'm more than happy to let someone else share the burden, someone else should be mayor. If these are normal times, you will elect a normal mayor. For abnormal times, you elect an abnormal mayor, and nothing about me is normal.
CP: Well, we'll move on to the next question, which is another kind of …
THOMPSON: Did you ask about the environment or climate change?
CP: I asked about both.
THOMPSON: Oh, let me just say briefly on the environment, our rivers are uninhabitable, and basically we're putting tons and tons of raw sewage in the river. Other cities, Cleveland and Columbus, they've decided that they want to live in a world with clean water, and we've decided to countersue the government because we want to live in a world of filth and feces. So we need to stop putting feces into our rivers.
Our mayor talks about climate change while he supports tons of feces going into the rivers all the time. Now if you want to go in the river and not die, you have to check to see how much feces are in the water today. So we have to release as required by law, the feces count and the river on a regular basis. I know because I know someone who enjoys going in the river because they're insane.
All the candidates have suddenly committed to living in a world where we put tons of feces directly into our water supply. I want a feces-free river. There's no reason to put human waste into our river. Other cities have decided to invest in the future and take the hard choices and to stop putting feces in large massive quantities and the river. We have rivers that no one can swim in. That's not the future I want.
[Editor’s note: The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority released a plan in 2012 to remove billions of gallons of sewage-laced stormwater from area rivers and streams. The plan saw some alterations just last year, but it has not yet been implemented.]
CP: How do we stop the sewage runoff from going into the rivers?
THOMPSON: We redo the system. It's a 30-year plan to change the system in America and in Pittsburgh. It's going to be hard, it's going to be expensive, it's not going to be easy, but it's the right thing to do.
CP: What are you proposing?
THOMPSON: I am proposing that we literally do what other cities have done when they get sued. And we have to come up with a comprehensive system-wide solution to prevent runoff, an engineering solution to stop that issue.
CP: Right, what is it exactly? What is your proposal?
THOMPSON: We have to redo the sewers to prevent sewage going in and you need to engineer the solution. Basically from an engineering perspective, the solution is you have to separate wastewater from sewage water, and when you separate wastewater from sewage water you don't have overflow. I mean, I could give you the policy details.
CP: This is a policy interview, so yeah, I was hoping.
THOMPSON: Well, you have to separate. It's not simple, and it's not easy. So my policy proposal on this is you have to separate the wastewater from the stream water. We have to build a system that basically separates.
CP: Something that gets lost a lot in political campaigns is transit and mobility. Mayors have a pretty good amount of power in terms of how they can sway those policies, how they can provide services for residents, they can put in capital investments to make certain parts of town better for mobility, better for transit, better for congestion. What kind of efforts should Pittsburghers expect if you were elected?
THOMPSON: Well, I get asked a lot when I talk to voters, "How can you fix the bus system?" And the reality is, you can’t. The government in Allegheny County is set up in a bifurcated way with a mayor in charge of something and the county executive in charge of something else. So if we wanted to rescue some people from dying of Coronavirus, the county executive could shut down the airport and save some lives.
He did not. The mayor has no power over the Allegheny County Health Department, nor does the mayor have power over the bus system. So what you have to do is you have to make sure that the person who everyone thinks has the power to fix things, actually has the power to fix things. Ideally, between now and 30 years from now, someone like me, doesn't have to be me, will be mayor. And someone similarly, like me, doesn't have to be me, will be chief executive, and then one of the two people will get fired. Because you don't need a chief executive and a mayor.
The system of government is not working very well. Other cities, Louisville, Lexington, they've just been merging the governments because it's such a chaotic mess. The mayor should be in charge of the bus system, the mayor should be in charge of the Allegheny County Health Department.
I mean, time and again, every time you want to go for help, you find out you don't have any city services. I mean, if you go look at being gay in Allegheny County, God help you. I hope you're gay in the city limits because if you're fired in Pittsburgh, you get a lot of help for being discriminated against. They’ll help you sue, help make sure that you get justice. If you were one mile outside the city, it sucks to be gay there. There's no support whatsoever if you’re fired.
CP: That's not true, Allegheny County has a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes gay and trans people.
THOMPSON: The funding and then the reality of their lived experience when you try to get services. Have you looked at the article about what happens when you try to get services and how it's funded?
CP: I'm not arguing that, I'm just saying that there is a nondiscrimination ordinance and the human relations committee in the county serves people outside of the city limits. [Editor’s note: Thompson later sent CP a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from 2014 on funding and implementation problems at the county Human Relations Commission.]
THOMPSON: That's a fact. But unfortunately, they're not run together, like there's no ... they both exist, however, we have two systems. One in the city and one in the county. And one works and one doesn't. ...
But your question was on transportation. I think the mayor has the funding to put up bus shelters. We talked with people who are out and about, you know, because we didn't want to harass people in their homes. And time and again people are waiting for the bus. These are our key people that sign our petition. They would like some bus shelters. OK, I live on Niagara Street, across the street on Boulevard of the Allies, there is a very nice bus shelter out there, and it was very good for rain [cover]. I’ve certainly waited for a bus there myself.
Under the Peduto administration, someone did some violence, they smashed a window, and their solution was to remove the bus shelter. And so I would like that bus shelter back for me and all my neighbors. In time and again once what happens, they're removing not adding bus shelters, and that is something we should do, that is something that the city can fund, even if the Port Authority doesn't want to. And then the city can provide shelter from the rain. We need to provide shelter for our residents, shelter for people who are waiting for the bus in an accessible fashion. This is not a huge expense. It is something we could do.
CP: Great. So, my final question is about police reform in the city of Pittsburgh. And the question I've been asking candidates is, how do you propose balancing the many aspects to accomplish police reform? Those being negotiations between the police union, calls from some residents who might want more policing because they see violence or perceived violence in an area, and then the other calls for more accountability among officers who are participating in misconduct or have been violent against people themselves. How do you balance those things to achieve reform?
THOMPSON: Well, we're living in a disaster. If policing was working well, I wouldn't be on the ballot. Policing is so bad, and so abysmal that I'm on the ballot, hands down. I'm Jewish, tikkun olam, we need to heal the world, you have to be nice to others. It's a mitzvah. You have to be kind to your fellow human beings.
I don't know when the police union forgot this. But they're running an anti-Jewish value system. And as a Jewish person, that is against my faith. You have to ask, “Who deserves to be tear gassed?” No one. It's that simple. Literally no one deserves to be tear gassed. It's not right. People are people. We're all human beings, and we're treating each other poorly.
We have a bunch of politicians talking about the same old, same old. And I don't care for that. I don't want to be liked, I don't want to be loved. Who's making sure that bad police stay on the force? Who is the problem here? There is one very, very evil system in Pittsburgh, it's called the police union.
And their contracts coming up. You be like Ronald Reagan and sit them down and you say, “Farewell, we no longer need your services.” There are many great police officers, and you're making them all look terrible because of the actions of the police union. I fire you once or twice, and you come back. Everyone else in the force looks terrible. And so the homicide solve rate in New York, off the charts. Pittsburgh, terrible.
[Editor’s note: The homicide clearance rate in New York City was about 50% in 2020, and the Pittsburgh homicide clearance rate was 44% in 2020.]
We're not doing as well as other cities. I mean, that's the reality of the problem.
CP: You were talking about the police union contract. So if you were mayor, you would draw a hard line on that?
THOMPSON: I am gonna bust the police union one way or the other. We have a three-part plan. Yeah, so when they come up for negotiation, you say, “You're no longer unionized.” And if they don't like it, we'll just do the East Pittsburgh plan that now, no one talks about what happens in East Pittsburgh. And everyone says there's no justice, and every one of those officers was fired.
CP: Right because they dissolved it [the East Pittsburgh Police Department].
THOMPSON: Now, it may take four years, but Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania can easily be patrolled by the state police. What, you have to train new state policemen. You have to work with the governor. I looked out this summer and saw thousands of people not being treated like people. Thousands of people not being listened to. All sorts of people being ignored. And I'm like, “This is unacceptable.”
Who is going to address this? And the answer is no one. OK, at that point I'm running for mayor. And you may not like it, but we need someone talking about real innovative solutions. They need a public policy nerd from Brown who spends his time studying how to fix things, whose family invented the telephone. OK, you need to fix it. You need to innovate. And we need to try harder.
I am an Uber driver. I am in East Pittsburgh all the time, the poorest African American communities take Ubers the most in the pandemic. 50% of my passengers are African American, and East Pittsburgh is much better now than it was before. The new police are respected by the residents. They stopped murdering people. It's a step up. We have the legal right to follow the East Pittsburgh plan. East Pittsburgh has got a better Mayor than we did. They prevented a riot. They murdered a young man and there was no riot.
CP: Do you worry the comparison between East Pittsburgh police, which was I think was a handful officers, versus the city of Pittsburgh police, which is hundreds of officers, is unfair?
THOMPSON: I think it's a perfectly fair comparison. How public policy works is you start small with a model, and you expand the model. Is it more difficult? Sure. I don't want an easy job. I'm not going to be a mayor that sits around looking for easy tasks. When you take on hard, difficult tasks that are very, very hard to do, you have to do them anyway. Now, if we disband the union, the good officers are free to cross the picket line. And the bad officers are gone. You’re fired, you're fired. There are plenty of private cities in America like Reston, Virginia, that have non-unionized police officers, and they work effectively, and we can do that too.
Plan B is to get the state police in. We have to play hardball. And I want officers to be respected again. And I want citizens to like the police, and I want better police relations. No one in America becomes a police officer to harm others. They do it because they like law and order, and they like protecting their fellow man. And they want someone to say, “That's a police officer, he's protecting me.” And that is what we need and we can get there. But to do that we have to get rid of the impediment, which is the union.
And our pro-union man, I hope they unionize every Amazon factory in America and warehouse in America. I think every housing authority guard in the city of Pittsburgh should be unionized.