Keith Srakocic/AP

Bill Peduto talks about why he joined airport protests, his take on the Uber backlash, and the perils of a being a sanctuary city in the Rust Belt.

It’s not easy getting to Pittsburgh’s airport: There are no direct rail lines to Pittsburgh International; a 17-mile cab or Uber ride from downtown can easily cost as much as $50. And yet about 200 people found their way there last weekend to join nationwide airport protests in response to Trump’s executive orders banning people from certain Muslim-majority nations from entering the country. And standing with them was Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto, sharing the protestors’ message that “Yinz are welcome here.”

Pittsburgh, still recovering from decades of population loss and the dismantling of its once-mighty steel industry, has positioned itself as a city that welcomes newcomers in recent years. It has taken in thousands of refugees, including more than 200 last year alone. Many of those hail from now-banned nations, such as Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. Pittsburgh also hosts thousands of immigrants yearly at universities such as Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. These graduates are increasingly remaining in the city to work with companies like Uber and Google, which have played an instrumental role in the city’s innovation-and-tech makeover.

In a meeting at City Hall yesterday, Mayor Peduto talked to CityLab about defending Pittsburgh as a city that welcomes all immigrants, and how sanctuary cities plan to resist the will of the new administration.

As we speak, the #DeleteUber movement is taking off among people upset that Uber appeared to undermine a cab strike at New York’s JFK airport. They’re also objecting to Uber CEO’s Travis Kalanick’s relationship with Donald Trump. Given Uber’s considerable investments in the city, what’s your position here?

I sent their CEO a very stern text1 on Saturday night and I expressed my great disappointment not only on behalf of the city of Pittsburgh, but for every city on earth. It was more than a slap in the face. It was a complete disregard for the people who helped Uber climb the ladder, including their own tech workers, their drivers—many of whom are immigrants—and their clientele.

It also disregards the fact that Uber operates in cities, and no cities support [Trump’s immigration] policies. Uber is working against the very model that their business is created upon, which is urban transportation.

I know that Travis Kalanick stated he is going to bring [this] up on Friday at this business meeting with the president, and I would hope he would take the position of calling for the rescinding of these executive orders, or else he will leave that committee.

Are you concerned about the possible consequences of Kalanick taking your rebuke personally?

If Uber were to do something like leave Pittsburgh over this, there are autonomous vehicle companies that would line up to come in: Ford, Toyota, Google. But really it’s a question of the partnership they are trying to create with Pittsburgh. Partnership is based upon a two-way street, not a one-way street.  

Why is it important that you and the city of Pittsburgh be visible in these nationwide airport protests?

The reason people go to protests is that they feel they have to do something. They can’t just sit and let this happen. The protest itself becomes a civic action and there needs to be a way of telling people or letting them know that it does matter. So my role is as much to march with them as it is to say, “Thank you,” to the people taking time out of their weekend to do something, and letting them know that their actions matter. I’m 52 years old and I’ve never lived during a time when something like this has happened, where blatant disregard for the Constitution has been taken on through executive order and in such a heinous way that disregards people. It’s important that people understand that their actions will change this country over the next four years.

Pittsburgh has been working to establish itself as a welcoming city for immigrants from the Middle East, South America, and beyond. How is this compromised by Trump’s latest actions?

We walk the line on sanctuary status. When it comes to policing and how we handle people who are undocumented, the city does follow with strict adherence to what most sanctuary cities do, but beyond that we’re working hard to make new Pittsburghers feel welcome.

We have rules in place with our police that prohibits any legal activity by the federal government from being administered by Pittsburgh police. If there is a known criminal and a search warrant, we do cooperate. But in the realm of just trying to round up people or going after suspicious people or detaining people, we follow the Constitution and not executive orders.

On the question of whether the federal government or the president has the power to commandeer local law enforcement, the answer is no. This was proved recently when Washington passed background checks for purchasing guns and required local law enforcement to do background checks. Writing for the majority was Antonin Scalia, who clearly stated that federal government does not have that power to commandeer local law enforcement. That is guaranteed to states under the 10th Amendment. We’re very confident on all of these cases, even the selection of Muslims and being able to detain them without any cause or a warrant—all of these acts are unconstitutional.

In terms of Trump’s executive orders, cities like New York and L.A. can afford, in some ways, to be more defiant than a Rust Belt city that may be recovering from population and industry losses. How should smaller cities proceed with walking the line of being welcoming, but avoiding potential penalties?

First, there’s been precedent in the courts that when the federal government has attempted to bully local governments by threatening their federal funds, it has had limited success. In this case, they won’t be able to deny food programs to the hungry and the poor, nor transportation dollars for roadways. It would really only come down to public law enforcement, and the only federal funds we receive through that is a COPS grant. At best we get $2 million in law enforcement grants, and that’s in a really good year. It more averages out to around $800,000 annually. [Ed. Note: law enforcement funds were exempted from Trump’s executive order threatening to freeze federal funds for sanctuary cities.]

So, we’re not really that worried about it. We’ll go to court about it, with the other cities. I have been in touch with the mayor of Dayton, Ohio about it. There’s been a lot of communication with mayors all over the country, through the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. We’re putting together a game plan that includes creating a legal defense trust fund, understanding that if we go through this, we go through it together.

Voters in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania helped elect Trump—and a lot of them did so because they feared immigrants were taking jobs from working-class whites. Are you concerned about widening political polarization or furthering fracturing relationship between the city and the state?

On a personal level, no. The real question is how does this change the governance that we’re seeing, where cities are becoming the center of political activity? Whether it is on immigration, or climate change, or addressing inequity, cities are at forefront of creating the change. They’re not waiting for Washington or state capitals to come in any longer.  

But there are consequences to that, right? Allegheny County was a blue island stranded in Western Pennsylvania in last November’s election. When the state makes decisions about how to distribute resources, are you worried about further isolating the city politically?

I guess after going through the state budget crisis a few years ago when they weren’t able to pass a budget for over a year, you saw that it really affected a lot of the health and human services that are administered through the county. But when it came down to the city, the biggest impact was on grants for development. We don’t have health and human services administered through city government, so the state was more directly involved at least financially with the county than with the city.

However, just as it is unconstitutional for the federal government to make policy for local government, it is not so for the state. The state can commandeer local law enforcement. The state can demand different types of administrative rules on cities. Cities exist at the right of the state. So the state government has an incredibly powerful role in the administration of cities even though they may be limited in the finances. That’s why its very important for cities in Pennsylvania to have a democratic governor who has the power to veto those types of actions. And I do believe that once these executive orders get thrown out by the courts as being unconstitutional, then we’ll have a very different discussion, because then the legal rights are different than what they’re trying to do in Washington.  

  1. A CityLab reporter saw this text. It was indeed very stern.

About the Author

Brentin Mock
Brentin Mock

Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.

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