PITTSBURGH — George Floyd's death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer — and the renewed racial justice movement that followed — sent shock waves through American politics over the past year. Here, a major ripple effect was felt just last week.
Pittsburgh is now on the precipice of electing Ed Gainey as its first Black mayor after a Democratic primary contest in which issues of police reform and racial equity were paramount. An incumbent was toppled for the first time since 1933 when the progressive, five-term state representative won on a platform of improving police and community relations, expanding affordable housing and reversing an exodus of Black residents.
His victory in last week's election is the latest sign of change in the hub of southwestern Pennsylvania, once famous for being the steel capital of America. The city has shifted its economy into the health care and tech sectors in the decades after mills closed their doors and the population declined.
"The message that we're sending is that we want a city for all," Gainey told NBC News. "We want a city that is an example of what modern America looks like today."
He beat out Mayor Bill Peduto, a progressive Democrat in his own right who was first elected eight years ago. He won 46 percent of the primary vote in a city where the Black population makes up roughly a quarter of its total, and he's on a glide path to becoming mayor later this fall.
"It was an impressive win — by any standard," T.J. Rooney, former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said in an email. "It speaks well for the organizing strength of the progressive movement in parts of [southwestern Pennsylvania]."
Peduto has earned something of a national profile, particularly on climate change issues, and continued to push Pittsburgh's economic transition. But he encountered political headwinds in light of last year's racial justice protests. He and Pittsburgh police face federal lawsuits alleging police used excessive tactics on protesters and that the city did not properly control its police department. Peduto was repeatedly met with groups of protesters at his front door demanding he resign, with the mayor labeling those demonstrators as "Alt-Left" on Twitter.
Mike Mikus, a western Pennsylvania Democratic strategist, said that Gainey was able to surge to victory by winning over "a large block of white progressive voters throughout the city while running up big numbers in the African-American community." Peduto's candidacy, he said, was also hurt by the presence of a third candidate, Tony Moreno, who was able to pick off a portion of more moderate and conservative Democrats.
"In the end, Peduto lost a large portion of his base from his two previous mayoral runs with no other voters to attract," Mikus said in an email. "Gainey did a masterful job of focusing on police reform and housing and was greatly helped by a well-organized activist base who helped him put a strong ground operation together. It was the perfect storm for Peduto and he couldn’t overcome all those factors."
In his campaign, Gainey argued that Peduto, the two-term incumbent, had not made enough progress on making Pittsburgh — routinely listed as one of America's most livable cities — more livable for all of its residents, pointing to roughly 7,000 Black residents leaving the city between 2014 and 2018.
"We don't just need a brick-and-mortar renaissance, we need a people renaissance, where people actually feel that they have access to opportunity in the city and want to be here," he said. "That's what beings unity. That's what brings togetherness, the ability to believe that it's an equitable system."
"And that's what we want to work on," he said. "That's the city we want to be known for. So that when elected officials talk about Pittsburgh, they understand and look at how people are flocking here because they believe there's opportunity. When we create opportunity for all, then we'll live up to the billing of being America's most livable city."
In recent years, Pittsburgh has garnered plenty of attention from national politicians.
Leaders ranging from President Joe Biden to former President Donald Trump have referenced Pittsburgh as a stand-in for American manufacturing and blue-collar workers.Biden launched his 2020 bid for White House here, while the metropolitan area served as one of the front lines in the general election fight. Both the Biden and the Trump campaigns visited the area extensively and spent large sums on television advertising.
Its relevance has only continued since. Just last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 GOP candidate, visited to speak with local Republicans. Whereas he boasted of signing controversial anti-riot legislation into law in his home state — a bill that critics have argued is part of a number pushed by Republicans in reaction to anti-police brutality protests — voters here two nights earlier elected Gainey and overwhelmingly passed ballot measures banning the police use of no-knock warrants and restricting the use of solitary confinement in the local jail.
"We talked about the issues that actually mean a lot to America," Gainey said of his campaign. "And also mean a lot to the city of Pittsburgh."