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NEWS - Welch focuses on development, water issues in Pittsburgh mayoral bid

Welch focuses on development, water issues in Pittsburgh mayoral bid

April 16, 2017 12:00 AM

By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

He may be running for mayor of Pittsburgh, but you’re still likely to find the Rev. John C. Welch in church. It’s just that these days, he’s not always preaching about turning the other cheek.

Mayor Bill Peduto, he reminded a gathering at a Hazelwood church last month, dropped a lawsuit challenging UPMC’s tax-exempt status in 2014. While the argument for doing so was that “nobody can negotiate when they have a gun to their head,” he said, it “seems like a good tool to me.”

There’s a long Biblical tradition of challenging the powerful, and the 56-year-old East Hills resident said he’s running to “represent many of the people … who feel neglected.” Development in places like East Liberty threatened to displace long-term residents, he said, while other communities lack investment at all.

At campaign events, Rev. Welch’s presentation is restrained, his voice deep but not thunderous, even as campaign loyalists occasionally interject with affirmations. But as befits the former pastor of Bidwell Street United Presbyterian — the Manchester church where his wife, DeNeice, now presides — his words are chosen for effect. Too many children, he told a community gathering at a Knoxville church on Thursday, “go to funerals more often than they go on field trips.” And among the two dozen in attendance, heads began to nod.

Rev. Welch supported Mr. Peduto’s campaign in 2013, and “With his progressive agenda I had hopes that he would [deliver on] his promises,” he said. But on issues like affordable housing or how much UPMC gives to employees or government coffers, “He didn’t come through.”

While Rev. Welch supports some of Mr. Peduto’s initiatives, like a trust fund to finance affordable housing construction, he faults the slow pace of progress. The trust fund, for example, was established last year but lacks a funding source.

Rev. Welch’s sharpest criticisms concern the beleaguered Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. In recent months, lead levels in its water have risen above federal limits. Lead can be especially damaging to children, and Rev. Welch has called the problem “an atrocity,” likening it to lead contamination in Flint, Mich.

“The mayor needs to be in front of a problem when there is a crisis like this,” he said.

Mr. Peduto is seeking to restructure the agency while providing help to homes with lead waterlines. But he called comparisons to Flint “completely inaccurate.”

Allegheny County health director Karen Hacker said lead levels in Flint nearly doubled after it changed its water source.“We haven’t had any indication that something like that has happened here,” she said.

Lead levels in Flint reached 13,000 parts per billion, nearly 100 times the highest level reported (in a long-unused sink) by a PWSA test in December.

The county has investigated nearly 40 cases of lead in children since 2016, Ms. Hacker said, and in each case found the lead source “has to do with dust from lead paint” and soil contamination, rather than the water.

As for the UPMC suit, Mr. Peduto said its chances for success were “minimal,” and dropping it set the stage for a broader agreement, in which large nonprofits would support key education and other initiatives. He said a framework could become public this summer, though earlier such predictions have proven premature.

Mr. Peduto said crafting affordable housing policies also took time, because they required community input. Without it, he said, “People would say I was ramming this through.”

The mayor, meanwhile, has his own cause for disappointment. He appointed Rev. Welch to the Sports and Exhibition Authority board, and Rev. Welch has deep ties to the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, a progressive faith group Mr. Peduto has allied with.

Rev. Welch’s decision to run, Mr. Peduto said, “was like a punch in the gut.”

Unlike his fellow challenger Darlene Harris, a city councilwoman, Rev. Welch has never held elected office, though he’s been a police chaplain and a member of the city’s ethics board. He is dean of students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches ethics at the University of Pittsburgh.

His resume includes a chemical engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon University and information-technology work for IBM and other firms.

“I can’t think of a better representation of all the city has to offer,” said Audrey Murrell, Rev. Welch’s campaign treasurer. She also hailed Rev. Welch for empathizing both with police officers and African-American residents wary of police misconduct. “He always talks about safety on both sides and accountability on both sides,” she said. “That’s something you don’t often hear.”

“He was always an advocate for going outside of the gates — for living what we believe,” said Britney L.V. Knight, a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary graduate who directs a youth and family ministry in Erie. Such an approach “affects not just how we preach, but how we approach things like gentrification or racism.”

Rev. Welch frequently holds events in church buildings and often is introduced by black clergy, including the Rev. Rodney Lyde of Homewood’s Baptist Temple Church.

But there have been questions about Rev. Welch’s stance on gay rights. When he addressed the pro-LGBT Steel City Stonewall Democrats earlier this year, he spoke largely about public safety and other concerns. Shanea Leonard, pastor of the LGBT-welcoming Judah Fellowship, said, “I have never known him to be publicly a supporter of LGBT causes.”

Rev. Leonard, whom Mr. Peduto appointed to an advisory group on LGBT issues, called the mayor “a champion of the community.”

Told of Rev. Leonard’s concerns, Rev. Welch responded that he ordained her. LGBT residents, he said, “deserve the right to be respected like everyone else.”

Rev. Lyde noted that Rev. Welch belonged to a Presbyterian faith that backs same-sex marriage. “If he was a narrowly parochial person, he’d be in a much more narrow tradition,” he said. In any case, “People aren’t electing John to be pastor.”

Rev. Welch has raised nearly $29,000 and another $15,000 worth of “in-kind” donations, enough to furnish a campaign with a website, lawn signs and T-shirts. (Ms. Harris, by contrast, appears to have no campaign website, and has not held a formal campaign kickoff or filed a campaign finance report.)

But Mr. Peduto had nearly $700,000 on hand at the end of March, and is backed by Democratic Party leaders and labor groups. Given that edge, it may seem as though Rev. Welch’s best hope would be to proselytize for the progressive policies he wants Mr. Peduto to embrace. But the challenger says that’s not his aim.

“Am I looking to move Bill to the left? ... If that’s where the exit is, absolutely.”

He may be running for mayor of Pittsburgh, but you’re still likely to find the Rev. John C. Welch in church. It’s just that these days, he’s not always preaching about turning the other cheek.

Mayor Bill Peduto, he reminded a gathering at a Hazelwood church last month, dropped a lawsuit challenging UPMC’s tax-exempt status in 2014. While the argument for doing so was that “nobody can negotiate when they have a gun to their head,” he said, it “seems like a good tool to me.”

There’s a long Biblical tradition of challenging the powerful, and the 56-year-old East Hills resident said he’s running to “represent many of the people … who feel neglected.” Development in places like East Liberty threatened to displace long-term residents, he said, while other communities lack investment at all.

At campaign events, Rev. Welch’s presentation is restrained, his voice deep but not thunderous, even as campaign loyalists occasionally interject with affirmations. But as befits the former pastor of Bidwell Street United Presbyterian — the Manchester church where his wife, DeNeice, now presides — his words are chosen for effect. Too many children, he told a community gathering at a Knoxville church on Thursday, “go to funerals more often than they go on field trips.” And among the two dozen in attendance, heads began to nod.

Rev. Welch supported Mr. Peduto’s campaign in 2013, and “With his progressive agenda I had hopes that he would [deliver on] his promises,” he said. But on issues like affordable housing or how much UPMC gives to employees or government coffers, “He didn’t come through.”

While Rev. Welch supports some of Mr. Peduto’s initiatives, like a trust fund to finance affordable housing construction, he faults the slow pace of progress. The trust fund, for example, was established last year but lacks a funding source.

Rev. Welch’s sharpest criticisms concern the beleaguered Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. In recent months, lead levels in its water have risen above federal limits. Lead can be especially damaging to children, and Rev. Welch has called the problem “an atrocity,” likening it to lead contamination in Flint, Mich.

“The mayor needs to be in front of a problem when there is a crisis like this,” he said.

Mr. Peduto is seeking to restructure the agency while providing help to homes with lead waterlines. But he called comparisons to Flint “completely inaccurate.”

Allegheny County health director Karen Hacker said lead levels in Flint nearly doubled after it changed its water source.“We haven’t had any indication that something like that has happened here,” she said.

Lead levels in Flint reached 13,000 parts per billion, nearly 100 times the highest level reported (in a long-unused sink) by a PWSA test in December.

The county has investigated nearly 40 cases of lead in children since 2016, Ms. Hacker said, and in each case found the lead source “has to do with dust from lead paint” and soil contamination, rather than the water.

As for the UPMC suit, Mr. Peduto said its chances for success were “minimal,” and dropping it set the stage for a broader agreement, in which large nonprofits would support key education and other initiatives. He said a framework could become public this summer, though earlier such predictions have proven premature.

Mr. Peduto said crafting affordable housing policies also took time, because they required community input. Without it, he said, “People would say I was ramming this through.”

The mayor, meanwhile, has his own cause for disappointment. He appointed Rev. Welch to the Sports and Exhibition Authority board, and Rev. Welch has deep ties to the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, a progressive faith group Mr. Peduto has allied with.

Rev. Welch’s decision to run, Mr. Peduto said, “was like a punch in the gut.”

Unlike his fellow challenger Darlene Harris, a city councilwoman, Rev. Welch has never held elected office, though he’s been a police chaplain and a member of the city’s ethics board. He is dean of students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches ethics at the University of Pittsburgh.

His resume includes a chemical engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon University and information-technology work for IBM and other firms.

“I can’t think of a better representation of all the city has to offer,” said Audrey Murrell, Rev. Welch’s campaign treasurer. She also hailed Rev. Welch for empathizing both with police officers and African-American residents wary of police misconduct. “He always talks about safety on both sides and accountability on both sides,” she said. “That’s something you don’t often hear.”

“He was always an advocate for going outside of the gates — for living what we believe,” said Britney L.V. Knight, a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary graduate who directs a youth and family ministry in Erie. Such an approach “affects not just how we preach, but how we approach things like gentrification or racism.”

Rev. Welch frequently holds events in church buildings and often is introduced by black clergy, including the Rev. Rodney Lyde of Homewood’s Baptist Temple Church.

But there have been questions about Rev. Welch’s stance on gay rights. When he addressed the pro-LGBT Steel City Stonewall Democrats earlier this year, he spoke largely about public safety and other concerns. Shanea Leonard, pastor of the LGBT-welcoming Judah Fellowship, said, “I have never known him to be publicly a supporter of LGBT causes.”

Rev. Leonard, whom Mr. Peduto appointed to an advisory group on LGBT issues, called the mayor “a champion of the community.”

Told of Rev. Leonard’s concerns, Rev. Welch responded that he ordained her. LGBT residents, he said, “deserve the right to be respected like everyone else.”

Rev. Lyde noted that Rev. Welch belonged to a Presbyterian faith that backs same-sex marriage. “If he was a narrowly parochial person, he’d be in a much more narrow tradition,” he said. In any case, “People aren’t electing John to be pastor.”

Rev. Welch has raised nearly $29,000 and another $15,000 worth of “in-kind” donations, enough to furnish a campaign with a website, lawn signs and T-shirts. (Ms. Harris, by contrast, appears to have no campaign website, and has not held a formal campaign kickoff or filed a campaign finance report.)

But Mr. Peduto had nearly $700,000 on hand at the end of March, and is backed by Democratic Party leaders and labor groups. Given that edge, it may seem as though Rev. Welch’s best hope would be to proselytize for the progressive policies he wants Mr. Peduto to embrace. But the challenger says that’s not his aim.

“Am I looking to move Bill to the left? ... If that’s where the exit is, absolutely.”


JOHN C. WELCH MAYORAL CANDIDATE

 


PO Box 100216

 

Pittsburgh, PA 15233

 

Phone: 412-228-0279

 

Email: johnwelchmayoralcandidate@gmail.com