Can John Welch rise above the circus surrounding the Pittsburgh mayoral election to be a viable challenger to Bill Peduto? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Can John Welch rise above the circus surrounding the Pittsburgh mayoral election to be a viable challenger to Bill Peduto?

“Welch’s campaign has been very much ignored in a lot of communities.”

CP illustration by Vince Dorse

Last week, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto got some new neighbors after tents were erected next to his home in Point Breeze. While no one has taken credit for the demonstration, the stunt is believed to be in response to complaints from North Side residents over a homeless tent community in their neighborhood.

Some believe the demonstration was spearheaded by Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris, who represents the North Side and who is running against Peduto in the upcoming election.

“Councilwoman Harris is exploiting some of our most vulnerable neighbors,” Peduto said in a April 28 statement. “In Pittsburgh we proudly take care of each other and help our neighbors in need. These are human beings, not political pawns.”

The demonstration near Peduto’s home is just the latest spectacle in this year’s mayoral primary election, which pits Peduto against Harris and challenger Rev. John Welch. As a longtime opponent of the mayor, both Harris’ standing in government and her penchant for spectacle has overshadowed Welch who, while equally critical of the mayor, hasn’t garnered the same level of attention.  

“Welch’s campaign has been very much ignored in a lot of communities,” says activist and former school board director Randall Taylor, a Welch supporter. “Harris is an interesting Pittsburgh figure; she’s well known. She’ll say provocative things and that’s always more interesting to some people. 

“There’s an aspect of politics that is show business. She’ll say something wild and that’s always going to get more interest than someone who’s really trying to talk about issues. He’s not screaming and hollering; he’s not making outrageous statements, he’s just talking about policy.”

If the history of mayoral elections in this city have taught us one thing, it’s that a three-person mayoral race doesn’t bode well for the two challengers against the incumbent. However, Welch is contending against even greater odds. While much of the press surrounding Harris hasn’t been positive, the candidate has had far more news articles written about her this campaign season. Further hurting Welch’s campaign are complaints from progressives. While Welch is running to the political left of Peduto — highlighting the need for affordable housing and policies to fight poverty and uplift minorities — many liberals say the reverend’s social views aren’t those of a progressive candidate.

“You have Welch who has his housing and poverty agenda, which is important,” says Sue Kerr, an LGBT blogger and activist. “But he’s not really left if he’s not pro-choice, and we don’t know where he stands on LGBT issues.” 

Ultimately, for Welch, the election will come down to whether he can put enough distance between himself and progressive Peduto — who many believe has earned his designation as the city’s most progressive mayor — and whether his message can rise above the circus surrounding Harris.

April was a big month for Harris in the media. It started with her failing to file a required campaign-finance report with the city’s Ethics Hearing Board. Later in the month, Pittsburgh City Paper posted a video of a driver, believed to be Harris, shouting at a cyclist. (The cyclist identified Harris as the driver, the voice on the tape sounds like her, and the vehicle is hers.) And perhaps the most headlines involving Harris came after she posted pictures of herself riding an elephant and camel at a recent circus here.

But despite the attention she’s received, Harris doesn’t appear to be running much of a campaign besides showing up to debates and sticking it to Peduto. Over the past few months, she hasn’t responded to multiple interview requests from CP, and she doesn’t have a website where voters can learn about her platform.

“The councilwoman can’t even seem to file her forms correctly,” says Christopher Nicholas, a veteran political consultant. “That’s a sign that the campaign is not really organized.”

But Harris, who’s long been entrenched in local Democratic Party politics, does have her supporters. She received 245 votes for the Allegheny County Democratic endorsement, but was beaten by Peduto’s 372. 

“I see Darlene Harris as a necessary evil,” says Kerr. “I don’t agree with a lot of the things she does, but she has some very good points, too. I think it’s really important that there is a check on the mayor, and I think Darlene fills that role even if it’s in a way that isn’t ideal. As a foil in the race, I think that is important because she’s a reminder that there’s other constituents whose needs need addressed. 

“People run in primaries for different reasons and it does help flesh out some of the issues. Darlene has helped keep Peduto on his toes a little bit and that’s a good thing.”

One topic that Harris and her fellow challenger Welch have shone a light on is the lack of affordable housing in the city. Both Harris and Welch have told stories throughout the campaign of residents being forced out of their neighborhoods by rising rents. It’s stories like these that Welch says inspired him to enter the race to begin with. 

“The main issues in the city of Pittsburgh and this campaign to date has been around affordable housing,” Welch tells CP. “I’m excited about this race. I think people in all of our neighborhoods really need to be represented. There are people who have lived in Pittsburgh for generations and generations and they’re not really seeing how they can participate in this new Pittsburgh. We need to not forget about the other people. I represent a demographic that has been left out.”

For his part, Welch says, “I really don’t think my campaign’s been affected at all by Harris entering the race.” But he is cognizant of the complaints from those on the left about his stance on abortion and the LGBT community. 

At a recent candidate forum, Welch, the dean of students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said he is both pro-choice and pro-life, citing instances like sexual assault as exceptions. And Welch failed to fill out an endorsement questionnaire from the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, an LGBT organization. 

“I think a lot of people have made assumptions that because I’m clergy, I’m not pro-LGBTQ, and they’ve made assumptions that because I did not fill out the questionnaire, my silence says I’m not supportive,” Welch says. “I am very much for women’s rights and I am very much for LGBTQIA rights.”

Welch says he received the Stonewall Democrats’ questionnaire too late to complete. But Kerr says such things are important for finding out where a candidate stands on the issues. (Harris didn’t complete the questionnaire either.)

“My concern is there’s a clear backlash against the LGBT community around the country and it’s really important that we hold Democrats to at least the standard of the party, and that includes a lot of the things Welch represents — anti-poverty, affordable housing — but it also includes LGBT equality as well as protecting reproductive justice and a woman’s right to choose,” Kerr says. “Bill Peduto has a stellar record on LGBT issues; he’s been an ally for a long time and he has the record to prove that. John Welch doesn’t. And that’s why these questionnaires are important. He’s never held public office.” 

Even if Welch does earn support from the left, experts say it’s very difficult for a non-incumbent candidate to win a three-person race, especially someone like Welch who hasn’t ever held public office. 

“The reverend seems very passionate, but he’s a dean at a seminary; he’s very far afield from the rough-and-tumble political life of big-city Democratic machines,” says Nicholas. “If you’re an incumbent, the best-case scenario is if you’re unopposed. The next best scenario is that you have multiple opponents, and that way any vote against you will go to multiple places. 

“What you have here is if you don’t like Peduto for whatever reason, you have option one and option two. Now those votes are going to be split up.”

The odds are typically stacked against challengers in Pittsburgh mayoral elections, where incumbents almost always find themselves on a path to an easy victory.

“When was the last time there was a contentious primary for mayor in Pittsburgh?” Nicholas says. “So it’s not surprising that an incumbent mayor is going to roll through re-election.” 

Despite the odds, Welch and his supporters say there’s still hope. Additionally, they say Welch’s message that minorities and low-income communities in the city are being left behind is an important one that will resonate with voters. 

“I think there’s certainly a path for Welch to win this election,” Taylor says. “But it’s hard to get that message out there. It’s difficult for someone in Welch’s position to get the word out because he’s not as provocative. It’s unfortunate; I do think he has a message that needs heard.”

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