“Do you mind opening us up with a prayer?”
Rev. Dr. John Welch isn’t the one praying — or the one asking for the prayer, for that matter.
It’s a Thursday morning in late April at Arch Court Apartments in the War Streets, and one of the senior residents is asking the mayoral candidate for an appeal to the Lord. Welch is there to give his stump speech to about a dozen residents of the Section 8 building for seniors, but he readily asks his campaign volunteer — also a reverend — to offer up a prayer.
“Father God, we thank you for the purpose of this gathering. We thank you for Dr. Welch, father God, and what you have instilled and installed in him,” the volunteer prays. “Father God, for this city, for your people, we thank you that you have given us a Dr. Welch, who will use his words for the uplifting of your people.”
Welch launched a campaign for mayor in January, running on the slogan “Building One Pittsburgh.” He’s made elevated levels of lead in Pittsburgh’s water a central part of his campaign, along with affordable housing and inequality.
If elected, he would be Pittsburgh’s first black mayor.
But as Welch paints himself as the left-of-progressive choice to Mayor Bill Peduto, detractors point to his personal views on issues like abortion access and bike lanes, ideas more expected from fellow candidate council member Darlene Harris.
Welch doesn’t seem to care how people want to characterize his views. He regularly invokes Fred Rogers — who, he’s happy to note, graduated from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, his current employer — to explain his worldview.
“If you can’t live off of the spirit of generosity and neighborliness, then we cannot claim Fred Rogers as our hometown hero,” he told The Incline over tea at Arnold’s on East Ohio Street.
When asked about how he would fund programs that contribute to his vision of a better Pittsburgh, he points to the city’s “deeply rich philanthropic community.”
“Government may have challenges on finding funding to support children and seniors through various programs, but we can lean on the philanthropic community,” he says.
There are also people in the surrounding suburbs who consider themselves “from Pittsburgh,” and those people, Welch theorizes, could contribute to a fund to help fill funding gaps while the city rebuilds its population. “Let’s see how neighborly you are,” he says. He throws out that there could be buttons or bumper stickers that say “I’m a neighbor” for people who contribute.
This is probably setting off all the alarms at Pittsburgh Cynics HQ, but Welch doesn’t appear to be a blind optimist — rather, he thinks America has lost sight of itself. “We’ve become so individualistic and riding the wave of self interest,” he says, adding that he wants to see a community spirit that’s strong in some of the city’s neighborhoods permeate through all of Pittsburgh.
“Arlington has been waiting on a water park since who knows when,” he says. (The answer to that is at least since 2008.) “I have guys up there who say, ‘We’ll build it ourselves.’ … All we need to do is empower these folks and give them a few dollars to help them do it.”
“That’s old Pittsburgh,” Welch adds, “and that’s what we need to bring back.”
Before he had reverend and doctor attached to the front of his name, John Welch was a child in the Hill District, born to two deaf parents.
He graduated from Central Catholic High School and received a B.S. in chemical engineering and economics at Carnegie Mellon University. He also has a Ph.D. in healthcare ethics from Duquesne and a masters of divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he’s currently dean of students. He now lives in Homewood with his wife, Rev. B. DeNeice Welch of Manchester’s Bidwell Street United Presbyterian Church, where he was previously pastor.
Welch’s decision to run came in spurts, he says. It started in 2013, under Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, when news broke that then Police Chief Nate Harper had given special treatment to a friend who ran a valet parking service. The Jordan Miles case, when three white Pittsburgh officers were accused of using excessive force against an unarmed black teen, was ongoing.
“It was sort of a flash in my mind that things could be done a little bit better and differently,” he says.
Fast forward to 2016 and the evictions of Penn Plaza’s low-income residents in East Liberty by a developer who wanted to build market-rate housing and a Whole Foods on the site. The final straw, Welch says, was the resignation of Chief Cameron McLay.
“We had a nationally recognized police chief who had the fortitude to make serious changes in the police department,” Welch says. “The mayor gave in to the pressure of the FOP.”
Peduto, who counted Welch as an ally during his 2013 mayoral campaign, has said McLay’s decision to resign was his own. When Welch raised this criticism at a forum at Rodef Shalom, the mayor said McLay was “hurt” by the FOP’s vote of no-confidence and that “very few people stood up for him.”
Welch has some personal experience with the police department. He’s been chief chaplain for Pittsburgh police since 2008 and says he was involved in writing the bureau’s anti-bias policy, at a time when “racial profiling … was happening to the immigrants.”
He’s also been involved in the social justice movement for years and has an arrest to prove it. Welch and other clergy members were arrested in 2014 protesting UPMC’s anti-union efforts.
“If I’m not a universal candidate, I don’t know who is,” he says.
But Welch is also decidedly not a traditional progressive in some ways. He describes himself as “pro-life,” although, at a forum in Homewood, he said he’s also for a “woman’s right to choose.”
“I don’t believe we live in a binary world,” he said. “I will not allow myself to be categorized as either of those.”
At that same forum, he refused to support Planned Parenthood because of founder Margaret Sanger and her views on “forced sterilization” of African-Americans. “Until they admit to that, I will not support Planned Parenthood,” he said to applause. (This claim, invoked by other politicians, has been rated False by PolitiFact.)
Welch has also been criticized for failing to fill out a questionnaire from the LGBTQ group Steel City Stonewall Democrats. He told Pittsburgh City Paper he received it too late to fill it out, and said at the Homewood forum he “supports marriage equality.”
His views on bike lanes also found him at odds with the city’s progressive bike boosters, who consider Peduto a champion of their cause.
While Welch has (several times) clarified that he’s not opposed to bike lanes, he told The Incline he’s concerned flat parts of the city with bike lanes will becomes areas of “concentrated affluence,” as opposed to “concentrated poverty.” In other settings, he’s said existing bike lanes leave riders at risk of being doored, or he has evaded the question completely by bringing up dim street lights in certain areas.
“I would kick out Uber and go with Google,” he said. “I want these people to come. I like the billion dollar investment [like Ford’s in Argo AI]. And certainly I would like to see something like the Almono site in Hazelwood. But Hazelwood will have to benefit from it.”
Welch has focused much of his campaign’s attention on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, holding several press conferences on short notice to respond to the day’s news about the troubled body.
After Peduto’s administration announced it would distribute free water filter pitchers to residents, Welch held a press conference to announce his own plan to install point-of-entry filters at the residences of all 83,000 PWSA customers. The cost, he estimated, would be between $64 million and $100 million, while Peduto says replacing lead service lines would cost $411 million.
When prompted to compliment an idea from a fellow candidate at The Incline and WESA’s mayoral forum, Peduto said the point-of-entry filters were worth looking into.
Welch also has his own idea about how to fund an affordable housing trust fund to the tune of $10 million a year. Council has proposed raising the realty transfer tax by one percent, an idea back by Peduto but opposed by Welch. Instead, Welch wants to see money from expiring Local Economic Revitalization Tax Act District redirected to this purpose. Welch, however, was unable to say how much money that would actually provide.
He has also been able to use the turmoil at Penn Plaza, where dozens of residents were forced out, to target Peduto’s donations from developers. In January, the Post-Gazette reported that the mayor’s Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin, who also chairs the Urban Redevelopment Authority, had solicited donations from developers as a private citizen.
Welch, a former member of the city’s Ethics Hearing Board who teaches business ethics at Pitt as an adjunct, says while the solicitations weren’t illegal, they were unethical. (Peduto has denied any impropriety.)
That’s at the heart of how Welch says he’d prevent another Penn Plaza. “What you would do differently is you cannot participate in a pay-to-play process and expect that you’re gonna represent all the residents of the city of Pittsburgh and that your interests are not going to be tilted more to favoring developers,” Welch says.
“If a grandmother wants to contribute ten dollars to your campaign, that’s gold compared to $2,700 from the principal of a development corporation,” he adds. “I’ll just look for 270 grandmothers.”
He’s also clearly going after socially aware millennials. Welch’s campaign bought a two-page spread in City Paper’s 2017 election guide edition that touts his “movement for the People’s Campaign.”
“Dr. Welch is one of my mentors,” millennial volunteer Ben told The Incline after the Homewood forum. “He’s just been a catalyst for my personal development and my change, and he does that on a national level, and that’s very inspiring for me.”
Lauren, also a millennial Welch supporter, says she was “really surprised” to find out Welch is chairman of the faith-based Gamaliel Foundation, “which Barack Obama was a community organizer under.” She adds that Welch helped her revise her resume and find a place to work after she moved to Pittsburgh.
“Again, I have nothing to offer him, so I knew that he was a genuine, compassionate person,” she says.
Welch sees grassroots organizing as a simple way to empower communities that haven’t gotten their fair share, something he also sees in people in their 20s and 30s.
“That activism, that vocalization, that bonding together, and not just necessarily looking out for myself, I see is huge with the millennial generation,” he says.
Even at the apartment building for low-income seniors on that April day, Welch told the residents concerned about their broken security camera to organize. “Politicians don’t listen to anything but votes,” he said.
Of course, he’s facing an opponent who has presided over a time in Pittsburgh’s history when the city appears more attractive to millennials than ever. Peduto may seem like the natural choice for these voters.
“He’s also considered the popular candidate, but it depends on what lens you’re looking through,” Welch says. “I have a good, strong millennial following. I have a good, strong middle-aged following. I have a good, strong senior following. I think my chances are very good.
“Especially if we have a strong voter turnout, I’ll win.”