Pittsburgh's Mayor, an 'Adopted Jew,' Tries to Hold City Together in Darkest Hour

Pittsburgh's Mayor, an 'Adopted Jew,' Tries to Hold City Together in Darkest Hour

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during a press conference on the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Suspected gunman Richard Bowers, 46, has been charged with 29 federal counts in the mass shooting that police say was fueled by antisemitism.

SourceJeff Swensen/Getty

Why you should care

Bill Peduto has devoted his life to politics. Now the progressive is coping with tragedy — and taking on Donald Trump.

It would have been easy to overlook Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto sitting quietly among the mourners who filled Rodef Shalom Temple in the city’s Shadyside neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon. Packing the sanctuary, aisles and balcony, they gathered to lay to rest brothers David and Cecil Rosenthal, two of the 11 people killed on Saturday when Robert Bowers opened fire during services at Tree of Life Congregation in nearby Squirrel Hill.

Peduto, 54, wasn’t the only familiar face in the crowd — there, too, was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin, as well as former Steelers great Franco Harris. But on this day, the athletes and the mayor blended into the assemblage of dark clothing, easy to miss. They were there simply to grieve.

It is undoubtedly part of a mayor’s job description to unite his constituents following a tragedy — this one, the “darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history,” as Peduto said in a news conference Sunday. But in this major city that can often feel more like a small town, Peduto’s words of comfort and the calls to action reflect more than an attempt to pay lip service.

This is a horrible time, and he’s trying to guide us through it.

Bryan Carey, friend of Bill Peduto

While serving in the Pittsburgh City Council between 2002 and 2014, the Democrat represented parts of Squirrel Hill, where about 40 percent of the population is Jewish. Though he was raised a devout Catholic, the youngest of four brothers, Peduto considers himself an “adopted Jew” thanks to his work in the 8th District. On Monday, Peduto told The Forward, “I feel a personal bond through the friendships that I have been able to build over the past couple of decades, and I feel a personal loss about what happened on Saturday.”

Those friendships have earned Peduto, a progressive who calls himself a “Reform Democrat,” support around the entire city — which elected him to his second mayoral term in November 2017. But the residents of this part of town, in particular, reciprocate the bond he feels with them. Peduto is a regular at Cappy’s Cafe, an unassuming watering hole in Shadyside. Owner Bryan Carey, who says Peduto has been coming in as long as he’s been there — 21 years — considers him a good friend.

“This is a horrible time, and he’s trying to guide us through it,” says Carey. “You can tell the pain we’re all experiencing — including myself; I lived in Squirrel Hill for almost 10 years — he’s experiencing too.”

A native of Scott township, in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, he was student government president in high school and dropped out of Penn State in 1989 three courses short of a political science degree — so he could work in politics, naturally. He finally earned the degree in 2007, making him the only member of the city council with a college degree at the time. It wasn’t the only thing that made him stand out during his three terms, when Peduto’s independent streak and sharp elbows didn’t always endear him to colleagues.

He mounted mayoral campaigns in 2005 and 2007, dropping out of the latter Democratic primary against then-mayor Luke Ravenstahl — a bitter political rival for years — when polls showed him trailing badly. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board at the time criticized his “political cowardice.”

That’s not a term many would use to describe Peduto today, five years after winning the post at last. Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Peduto has taken a leading role in rebuffing the president on behalf of Pittsburgh. In June 2017, when Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the president declared he was elected by voters of Pittsburgh, not Paris. Peduto fired back on Twitter:

In this week’s clash between Peduto and the president, the mayor urged Trump to consult the families of the shooting victims before traveling to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to pay his respects — with some critics saying Peduto was politicizing the event. “We do not have enough public safety officials to provide enough protection at the funerals and to be able at the same time [to] draw attention to a potential presidential visit,” Peduto said. “If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead.” In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Peduto criticized Trump for suggesting increased armed security could have prevented the shooting. “I don’t think that the answer to this problem is solved by having our synagogues, mosques and churches filled with armed guards or our schools filled with armed guards,” he said.

Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh on Tuesday was quiet and somber. The president, accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, visited Tree of Life and met with the injured at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. After the Trumps paid their respects, Air Force One carried them out of town. The funerals continue on through Friday, says mayoral spokesman Timothy McNulty, and Peduto will keep showing up, dressed in black.

“Bill’s a tireless worker,” says Carey. “He’s not sleeping when anything happens in this city. You’ve got people murdering innocent people in a synagogue. He’s not going to sleep for a long time.”

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