10 stories that will continue shaping Pittsburgh politics in 2019

From contentious municipal races to another special election to a push for gun control

From left: District 9 Pittsburgh City Council candidate Leon Ford; state Senator-elect for Pennsylvania's 38th State Senate District Lindsey Williams; lieutenant governor-elect John Fetterman; state Rep.-elect for Pennsylvania's 34th state legislative district Summer Lee.

From left: District 9 Pittsburgh City Council candidate Leon Ford; state Senator-elect for Pennsylvania's 38th State Senate District Lindsey Williams; lieutenant governor-elect John Fetterman; state Rep.-elect for Pennsylvania's 34th state legislative district Summer Lee.

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In 2018, Pittsburgh politicians rallied together on the national stage in the wake of the mass shooting at Tree of Life. They undertook a push for local-level gun control measures inspired by the shootings there that left 11 dead. They dealt with potholes, landslides and continued to hear community concerns about water quality and affordable housing. And they touted or critiqued the region’s pursuit of Amazon’s second North American headquarters.

Amazon ultimately decided to go elsewhere, but many of these issues will remain potent political forces in the year to come. From guns to the city’s first unsupervised budget process in more than a decade to races for council seats to the race for District Attorney, all loom large as Pittsburgh heads into 2019.

Here’s a brief guide of what to keep an eye on in the coming year.


Leon Ford.

Leon Ford.

PHOTO COURTESY OF EMMAI ALAQUIVA

Contentious city council races  

Five Pittsburgh council members representing the odd-numbered districts are up for reelection in 2019. As with most council races in a heavily Democratic city, they’ll all but decided by the May primary.

Leon Ford, who survived being shot by Pittsburgh police and who this past January settled a lawsuit against the city for $5.5 million, is running in the May Democratic primary for the District 9 city council seat currently held by Rev. Ricky Burgess. Ford told The Incline that he was inspired to run for elected office by the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh. Burgess has yet to publicly say whether he’ll seek re-election to continue representing the neighborhoods of East Hills, East Liberty, Friendship, Garfield, Homewood, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar and North Point Breeze.

Ford’s national profile as a public speaker and advocate for police reform has helped him garner unusually high-profile endorsements in a hyperlocal race like this one, though it’s unclear to what extent those endorsements will influence District 9 voters.

Meanwhile in District 1,Chris Rosselot, 38, of Spring Garden, a former staffer to Democratic U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Bob Casey, has declared his candidacy for the North Side council seat currently occupied by Darlene Harris.

At least one other North Side resident, Quincy Kofi Swatson of East Allegheny, CEO of the nonprofit The Door Campaign, had announced plans to seek the seat before cancelling events following allegations he had engaged in non-consensual sex and assault.

Jeff Betten, general manager of Misra Records and chief operating officer at Wild Kindness Records, had also declared his candidacy but ultimately cancelled his campaign.

In addition to Burgess and Harris, council districts with races this year include those currently represented by council President Bruce Kraus of South Side, Deb Gross of Highland Park, and Corey O’Connor of Swisshelm Park.

Two people, Amy Schrempf, a South Side attorney, and Allentown resident Ken Wolfe have declared their interest in Kraus’ seat. Wolfe was formerly Kraus’ chief of staff and owes thousands in back taxes according to TribLive.

No candidates have declared interest in the other two seats.

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A sign held at a protest for Antwon Rose II in Pittsburgh

A sign held at a protest for Antwon Rose II in Pittsburgh

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

A DA race after Antwon Rose’s death

Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is running for reelection as Allegheny County District Attorney and will be challenged by former assistant DA Turahn Jenkins.

Jenkins launched his campaign for DA this past summer on the heels of the fatal police shooting of Antwon Rose II and amid criticism of Zappala’s handling of similar cases. Zappala’s office charged East Pittsburgh Officer Michael Rosfeld with criminal homicide in Rose’s death. Rosfeld’s trial is scheduled to begin in February but that could change. Zappala will be on the ballot in the May primary.

Jenkins, meanwhile, faced controversy over his views on LGBTQ issues soon after launching his campaign and lost the support of high-profile endorsers like state reps.-elect Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato. Jenkins’ campaign has continued, however, and he said he remains confident in his chances of becoming Allegheny County’s first African-American District Attorney.

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Members of Pittsburgh City Council are pictured.

Members of Pittsburgh City Council are pictured.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Open (budget) season

2018 saw the first budget season in Pittsburgh since the city exited the state’s Act 47 plan for financially distressed municipalities. But vestiges of the checks and balances imposed by state through the program remained in 2018, even after the city’s exit. That won’t be the case in 2019 when the city will see its first budget season without an element of state oversight in nearly 15 years.

Tim McNulty, spokesperson with Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, told The Incline that even though the city is no longer under Act 47 oversight, a process that required state overseers with the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority to sign-off on all budget proposals, the ICA was still involved in 2018.

“Due to a some language in the bill that created the ICA, the ICA’s still in existence, so the city will still be sending over an early version of the budget in late September as it has for more than a decade,” McNulty explained.

“The ICA bill said the ICA will be in existence until Act 47 goes out of existence or until the year 2019, whichever is later,” McNulty added. In Pittsburgh’s case, it was the latter.

With the ICA out of the equation in 2019, council members say the onus is back on them to maintain the financial responsibility imposed through the Act 47 program. But those members also anticipate growing pains and renewed pushes by city departments, bureaus and unions to free up funding that remained largely frozen under Act 47.

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11 people were fatally shot at Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.

11 people were fatally shot at Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.

LEXI BELCULFINE / THE INCLINE

Pittsburgh’s push for gun control

On the sixth anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and weeks after the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and members of council unveiled a set of ambitious — and critics say illegal — local-level firearm restrictions.

The bills would ban assault weapons, prohibit bump stocks and large capacity magazines, and allow the courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed an “extreme risk.”

Opponents say the bills violate state law which prohibits municipalities from regulating firearms. Those same opponents have promised to sue the city if it adopts the measures.

Council members have said they’re forging ahead in spite of the legal implications and that they hope to have the legislation adopted in time for the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.

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PWSA OFFICES

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority headquarters on Penn Avenue.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

PWSA will remain in the headlines

Pittsburgh continues to replace lead service lines across the city. Officials with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority say they hope to have replaced 5,000 to 5,500 of an estimated 12,500 residential lead service connections system-wide by the end of 2019.

Meanwhile, much of the discussion around PWSA late in 2018 involved private-sector interest in acquiring the system and discussions about the advisability of a potential public-private partnership to boost the struggling system.

Critics warn that privatization or even a public-private partnership could expose consumers to higher rates and the system to cost cuts at a time when greater investment is needed.

State lawmakers in 2017 passed legislation that placed the PWSA under PUC control in an effort to address PWSA’s chronic problems.

The city and PWSA are still working to amend a governance agreement, as well as address the “2025 option:” the current lease agreement allows PWSA to buy the system it manages for $1 in 2025.

In 2019, expect more discussions about this agreement, the privatization issue, proposed rate hikes and a 12-year plan to improve the system that the PUC has until November to approve.

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The 5200 block of Wickliff Street in Lawrenceville.

The 5200 block of Wickliff Street in Lawrenceville.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

After URA cut, expect affordable housing 

Pittsburgh City Council passed its 2019 budget with near-unanimous approval, but affordable housing advocates have raised concerns about cuts to the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, an agency designed to work on issues like affordable housing, neighborhood revitalization and equitable development.

Officials, including the mayor, insisted the $2.5 million cut in funding to the URA under next year’s budget doesn’t tell the whole story. Peduto and others said affordable housing is being addressed by other means. An administration official argued the city is spending more than ever before on housing for residents in lower income brackets.

But expect advocates to continue to press the issue in the year ahead.

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John and Gisele Fetterman.

John and Gisele Fetterman.

Courtesy of the Fettermans

A new Braddock mayor

After more than a decade at the helm, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman is moving on to become the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. He’ll be sworn in as LG on Jan. 15, and the search for his interim replacement in Braddock is well underway.

Braddock Borough Manager Deborah Brown says seven candidates applied for the interim mayor position, a high-level of interest for the largely ceremonial post. All were to be interviewed by a committee comprised of Brown, Council President Tina Doose and Vice President Robert Parker. Two candidates will be recommended to council and asked to present public pitches on why they want to be mayor at the borough council meeting in January or February at latest. The appointment requires a majority vote from the six-member council.

Whoever is appointed would have to run in the May primary to retain the seat, Brown and Doose explained.

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State Rep. candidates Sarah Innamorato and Summer Lee won their Democratic primary on Tuesday.

State Reps.-elect Sara Innamorato, left, and Summer Lee, right.

Courtesy of LINDSAY DILL PHOTOGRAPHY / Summer Lee campaign

Sara and Summer take office

Backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, state reps.-elect Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee both succeeded in ousting longtime Democratic incumbents in 2018, and their wins were looked to as signs of a leftward and youthful shift within the Democratic Party. Both Innamorato and Lee beat centrists in cousins Dom and Paul Costa, respectively, on populist platforms that were pro-police accountability, pro-immigration, pro-universal health care and pro-raising the minimum wage.

On January 1, both women will take the Oath of Office and begin their first terms in office.

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U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, PA-18, is pictured.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb is pictured.

MEDIA ARTS DEPARTMENT ROBERT MORRIS UNIVERSITY / FLICKR

Lamb takes (a new) office and another special election is on the horizon

Conor Lamb is already a member of Congress after winning March’s special election for the old 18th Congressional District seat. Now he’s a congressman-elect in the newly created 17th Congressional District, which includes Beaver County and portions of Allegheny and Butler counties. The new 17th District was crafted after a court ordered Pennsylvania’s congressional map be redrawn, calling the old map an example of an unconstitutional gerrymander.

Lamb, a Democrat, beat Republican U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus in the race for the new 17th District. Lamb will be sworn in as representative of the 17th District on Jan. 3 in Washington, D.C.

State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler will also be sworn in as the newly elected U.S. Congressman for the new 14th Congressional District — also created under the court order.

And this means there will be a special election to fill Reschenthaler’s current seat representing the 37th state Senate District of Pennsylvania, which covers parts of Allegheny and Washington counties. Reschenthaler’s office has not responded to requests for information about his resignation in the 37th. The special election for Reschenthaler’s former seat will be called by the lieutenant governor. And even though the details of that special election remain unclear, there are already reports of bipartisan interest in running for the soon-to-be-vacated seat.

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Lindsey Williams

State Senator-elect Lindsey Williams is pictured.

Ren Rathbone

Lindsey Williams’ residency challenge

Before she won the race for the 38th state Senate District, an effort was launched to see Democrat Lindsey Williams removed from the ballot. That effort failed, and Williams ultimately won the race by a narrow margin.

Now there’s an effort underway to keep her from taking office in the form of a residency challenge that alleges Williams didn’t live in Pennsylvania when she needed to in order to meet the four-year residency requirement for those wishing to hold elected office here.

Republicans are reportedly considering whether to block Williams from taking the office and are said to be reviewing documentation she provided in support of her residency. Williams would be sworn in Jan. 1. Republican leadership have said they don’t have a timeline for the conclusion of their probe.

If Republicans refuse to seat Williams with other members of Congress on Jan. 1, they could send the issue to the state legislature’s Rules Committee for hearings. The matter could end up before a court of law.

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