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First Pittsburgh mayoral debate is low-key

Mayoral hopefuls Darlene Harris and John C. Welch knocked Pittsburgh incumbent Bill Peduto for much of their inaugural debate Wednesday night, criticizing his administration over its handling of Uber and public water problems.

But Mr. Peduto delivered few return jabs during the hour-long broadcast. He said later that he wanted to focus on “a good message” about his record and priorities, although he acknowledged concern that he could lose the May 16 race for the Democratic nomination.

“Look who’s in the White House,” Mr. Peduto said after the debate, held at WTAE-TV studios in Wilkinsburg. “I never would have predicted that in 1,000 years.”

Questions focused early on the troubled Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which is trying to ease lead contamination, brush up customer service and fix deteriorated infrastructure. Mrs. Harris, a City Council member, said Pittsburghers have endured PWSA problems “for probably this whole administration.”

“I would declare a state of emergency seeking funding from the federal government and from the state,” said Rev. Welch, dean of students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He said he would prefer advanced, individual filtration devices over announced plans to replace underground lead service lines across the city. He argued the latter approach would not guarantee clean drinking water.

Mr. Peduto, in his fourth year as mayor, said he didn’t think an emergency declaration was necessary, asserting that more than 5,000 other water systems in the U.S. have elevated lead levels. He has cast the PWSA’s problems as years in the making. His administration is working toward a likely organizational overhaul at the authority, designed to generate revenue and rebuild infrastructure.

Among other issues Wednesday night:

• Mr. Peduto said he would favor Pittsburgh’s receiving “sanctuary city” status, a variable term that often refers to municipalities that don’t cooperate fully with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE. He said Pittsburgh already follows many provisions that fall under the common definition. Mrs. Harris said she would oppose the designation, adding that the city could not afford to lose federal funds that the move could jeopardize. Rev. Welch said he would not want Pittsburgh police to act as an extension of ICE.

• In a slam on Uber, Rev. Welch ripped the San Francisco-based ride-share company over corporate ethics, adding he would “have no problem asking them to leave.” Mr. Peduto has encouraged the group’s research in Pittsburgh, including with self-driving cars. But “if we’re going to be a 21st century city, we’re going to have to make sure that we have companies that respect women, respect minorities and respect the vibrancy and the spirit of the City of Pittsburgh,” Rev. Welch said. Mr. Peduto said he would keep pressuring Uber “to do the right thing.” Uber did not immediately answer a request for comment.

• The candidates diverged over how to approach large nonprofit organizations, such as UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh, for financial contributions to the city. “There should be frustration” that the city has yet to reach an agreement, although earlier litigation under former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was “a dead end,” Mr. Peduto said. His administration has said it’s working productively toward a long-term funding deal. Mrs. Harris said the past litigation, withdrawn under Mr. Peduto, should have continued. Rev. Welch said wouldn’t hesitate to pursue UPMC in court for tax revenue.

• The candidates disagreed over pending state legislation that would allow the release of video footage from police-worn body cameras — but only if authorities agree to the disclosures. Rev. Welch said the public always “deserves a right to have access to that information.” Mr. Peduto said such video evidence should be withheld only in extreme circumstances. Mrs. Harris said the footage should not “be opened up widely” and that “we have to trust our police.”

Moderated by WTAE broadcaster Sally Wiggin, the debate hosted jointly by the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh was the first among several expected before next month’s primary. Post-Gazette political reporter Chris Potter joined three other panelists: KQV-AM reporter Elaine Effort, WTAE reporter Bob Mayo and Brianna Horan of the league.

A rebroadcast is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday on WTAE. It can also be viewed here:

Adam Smeltz: 412-263-2625, asmeltz@post-gazette.com, @asmeltz.