By J. Dale Shoemaker
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
Did Pittsburgh City Councilman Anthony Coghill spend the last three years in office going “back to basics” — paving South Hills roads, ensuring streets are plowed quickly and effectively, and cleaning up graffiti — or did he falter on his no-frills promises?
That’s one of the questions Bethani Cameron hopes to litigate this spring on the campaign trail as she runs in the city’s Democratic primary to unseat the freshman councilman, a man who ran four times for the seat he now holds and has emerged as one of Council’s more conservative voices.
A workhorse of progressive Pittsburgh politics, Cameron has served, respectively, as an aide, chief of staff and adviser to Pittsburgh City Councilors Natalia Rudiak, Deb Gross and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner in recent years, and before that started her career as an organizer with Clean Water Action. Now seeking political office herself, Cameron said she wants to deliver on a “pragmatic” yet progressive vision for the South Hills neighborhoods she’s called home for the past 10 years.
A current resident of Overbrook, Cameron is a single mother raising a nine-year-old son, a key motivator of her politics, she said. She and her son “can’t wait another four years” for the city to improve life for South Hills residents. Born and raised in Michigan, Cameron first came to Pittsburgh to attend the University of Pittsburgh in 2000, though didn’t finish her degree and stuck around for work. Despite a stint in California, she’s remained in Allegheny County since.
I first met Cameron three-and-a-half years ago when I was reporting on an issue in Brookline and we’ve gotten to know each other well since then, having a number of in-depth conversations about city politics. Even though I no longer live in, or report on Pittsburgh, I wanted to interview Cameron about her first run for public office. We reconnected over a video call for about 90 minutes last week, and she explained some of her platform, politics and philosophy.
Cameron explained how she would cut and reimagine the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in light of nationwide protests to defund police departments, as well as how she would fight for UPMC workers and lobby for more funding for the South Hills neighborhoods. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, appears below.
When I met you a couple years ago, you were working for Natalia Rudiak, former District Four City Council representative. And I know since then you’ve also worked for several of the other progressive women elected officials in Allegheny County. Talk to me a little bit about how they did or didn’t influence your decision to run for this seat?
I guess I’ve been a nerd that wants to fight to make things better for folks for quite some time. I think what having the opportunity to work with those elected women did for me was it showed me that you can be a normal person and run for office and win and do a good job at governing. It really made me understand for the first time that not only could there be a place for me in representative government, but also that my perspective could potentially add to this equation. I don’t see a single mom’s perspective represented, so it was really important to me. Every day that we’re not taking a look at city processes, and figuring out what we could do better, or if they’re working at all, is a wasted day…And these kids deserve better.
In a blue city with all blue representatives, how would you define your politics? You’ve worked for progressives throughout your career, your district is a little bit more conservative and I know you to be a relatively pragmatic person. How would you define where you fall on the spectrum?
Honestly, pragmatic is the word…I love big ideas, I love the philosophy of things. But what we need is to make sure that the work gets done, and make sure that the trash gets out. And that there’s food in the house, and the bills are paid. I’m absolutely a Democrat and I’m fairly liberal. I think we’ve spent a lot of time talking about where folks are from. And I think that that can be important. But I think right now, what we need is to focus on what we agree on, and get some serious things done.
So explain to the voters in your district why you’re the right person to represent them from that perspective, and what sorts of concrete things you’re going to push for to actually materially improve their lives?
I want to represent District Four because I think we need a bit more of a fighter in there. We’ve all heard the message that South Pittsburgh doesn’t get the same resources as the rest of Pittsburgh for years and years and years and years. And bringing it back to my kid being nine, I don’t want to wait another four years. I think we need leaders who can stand up to the mayor’s administration.
Give me a couple of examples of specific things that the people in your communities need that you will stand up and fight for.
When it comes to parks maintenance, we don’t get the big park money because we don’t have any of the big parks. We’ve also just seen very little when it comes to real infrastructure projects. I’ll give an example: It was over the spring or summer when we were allowed to do a little socially-distanced hanging out. I have a patio and I had a plan to have two friends over. Nice and far apart, to see each other and reconnect. And I had to cancel. And I had to cancel because it was raining.
You get a sense after a while of how quick and how hard the rain has to fall until Route 51 is going to be flooded, Route 88 is going to be flooded. Becks Run Road, the dip after Brownsville Road before Madeline Street, that dip is gonna fill up with water. And that means that I can’t go that way off the hill and I can’t go this way. I guess I just wonder how long it is that we’re going to accept that.
I know the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority has done some amazing work to basically give the water someplace to go. So at the same time, I know the Water & Sewer Authority was going to do a big project at the old Overbrook school; PWSA wanted to turn that into a project where people could enjoy the area, but it would also catch the extra floodwater. And instead of that happening, there’s a self storage unit. When it comes to concrete things, we can’t keep planning to have a city on hills, built on shale with ever increasing precipitation. We can’t just keep waiting for the landslides and reacting after the fact. We’re going to need to be proactive and it’s going to take a lot more than a little 1% or 2% of the operating budget.
Since you brought up flooding, parts of the South Hills have seen bad flooding in recent years. Landslides, like you mentioned, have also seemingly become more prevalent. And this is due, at least in part, to climate change. Talk to me a little bit more specifically about what funding you need to combat flooding and landslides and what other policies you would push for.
We don’t even have to worry about that label, climate change. What we do know is that we’ve been getting more and more and more rain and snow every year. What we also know is that we’re built on shale. We know how shale works. That’s why it works for fracking, because you can crack it. You get water down and in a crevice, in a crack, it freezes and gets bigger, widens that crack. And because of that shale, we also are more prone to these natural springs popping up out of nowhere. And we don’t have a way or a system to deal with these in the city. They happen all the time and it’s really not good when all of a sudden you have water pouring down a hill…That creates a very dangerous situation for drivers, it can cause some real damage to the roadway and property. What I feel very strongly about is that we need to invest in engineering, folks that understand how water and shale interact.
Does that look like beefing up (the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure) or the Department of Public Works and saying, you know, ‘Here’s an extra $10 million for you guys, please come into my district and figure out how to get this water off the road?’ Is that what you’re talking about?
I feel pretty strongly that if we got a water soil engineer, or perhaps a team of them, [to] evaluate areas that might seem like they could become troublesome or have had a historical problem. You know, we need folks that actually can look at it and evaluate the situation and tell us how urgent it is and then help us to figure out what we got to do first. But we just aren’t doing anything like that. We’re just waiting for the landside, and then connecting a family with the United Way when their house is gone.
One issue that’s gained a lot of traction this year is defunding police departments. Can you explain to your voters where you stand on that issue, and why?
So, first of all, I have pledged not to accept donations from the police union.
I think this comes down to: Is what we’re doing working? Do we feel safe? Could we feel safer? I think a lot of people would answer that they could feel safer. And I think what makes people feel safe, is knowing sort of that if everything goes wrong, there might be some help.
For folks that are using opioids, that’s a way to just disconnect from this life, just disconnect your brain entirely. And if that’s what somebody needs to survive, that’s heartbreaking. Why is it that they’re not able to be in our community and just be?
We can continue to arrest folks for using substances, arrest folks that are dealing with homelessness, or we can get folks who know how to deal with those things and we can employ them to solve the actual problems instead of expecting police officers to solve every one of our problems. Police officers want to do police work, not social work, they didn’t sign up for it, it’s not fair. They’re already sacrificing. They’re already putting their lives on the line. And then we just keep piling more responsibilities on them.
When it comes down to public safety and policing, it’s inexcusable that my son’s best friend is nine and he is afraid of interacting with police because of the color of his skin. That is something my son will never experience. And that’s not okay. Police should be a resource and everybody should have the opportunity to feel comfortable. The police are supposed to protect and serve, so let’s let them do that. And let’s find the really serious issues that are making us less safe and say, ‘Hey, mental health matters. Substance use matters. Being able to work and put food on the table or earn enough money to pay all your bills, that matters.’
One thing that you stated on your website is that, “police want to do police work, not the social work we have forced them to take on.” You said something similar just a minute ago. I want you to explain a little bit more in depth what you mean by that? Would you be in favor of removing funding from the police department and creating a separate emergency response department staffed with social workers, mental health and addiction specialists who would instead, you know, respond to 9-1-1 calls as opposed to police officers? I want you to think about that scenario I just presented and kind of unpack what you meant by those words.
Essentially, we just shift duties off of police that don’t belong in policing. And we need, exactly as you said, to get folks that are qualified to address this stuff and are passionate about addressing it. And I think that we’re overlooking a lot of opportunities for that because we have a really excellent School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, we have a pretty active mental health professional culture in Pittsburgh. So if we want to be safe, we can essentially address the problem with the right tools.
I can’t imagine being a police officer expected to just know how to do that stuff. That’s not reasonable. And it’s not working. The thing that I’m primarily focused on is, we need to shift duties away from the wrong department and we need to create the services that actually solve those problems and don’t just perpetuate them or make them worse.
Just because I do want to nail you down on this a little bit, is that something that you are in favor of, of shifting monetary resources away from the police and towards other projects and programs and positions within the city?
That goes along with shifting the duties to the right place. My grandfather told my dad this, my dad told me this: You’ve got to use the right tool for the job. Our priorities, I think, are messed up. And we’ve got to align how we spend our money with where our values are. And I think that the first thing to do is look at the duties that we put on police and say, ‘Sorry, let’s take that off of you, we shouldn’t have done that in the first place.’ And let’s move this to somebody who has the training to deal with that situation. I think there are lots of opportunities to do that in affordable ways, but yes, I’m sure it will eventually look like another sort of 9-1-1 service.
On the subject of police, I think it’s important to note in any discussion about police, that the Pittsburgh police have caused a lot of harm to residents in the city. In the last decade alone, Pittsburgh police have injured and killed a number of people, including Raymone Davis, Christopher Tompkins, Mark Daniels, and the city settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit with Leon Ford. I believe Raymone Davis lived in your district. So if you are elected as a council member, what types of things could you do to fight for justice for the residents of the city of Pittsburgh who have been harmed by the police?
Primarily, we need to make sure that police officers are not discharging their weapons, once they absolutely have no other choice and are being threatened. We’ve seen all around the country so many instances and here, too, of people that we absolutely know were not a threat, were running away unarmed or were completely restrained, face-down on the ground and force kept escalating.
People often talk about, ‘Oh, it’s a bad apple.’ And we’ve seen conversations about the process of discipline in police. It’s not necessarily like it is in every other department of the city, so we have to work within those parameters. There are ways to train folks to minimize force and to minimize the excitement of a situation.
If we’re able to work with the communities that have been the most negatively impacted by policing and over-policing, to start to rebuild some trust, to say, ‘Okay, what’s working and not working?’ Because also, do we want to paralyze people and then do million dollar settlements with them? Is that the right approach? I don’t think so. Again, this goes back to what are the results that we want? We don’t want our people to die or be maimed or injured. And we want police officers to be able to feel safe and to understand and be given the skills to cool down situations.
I want to shift now to the other big topic in Pittsburgh: UPMC. In 2013, former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl sued UPMC challenging its nonprofit status, alleging that the health care system should be paying payroll and property taxes to the city. When Mayor Bill Peduto came into office, he ended that lawsuit saying that he wanted to work with UPMC in good faith on a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement. So in your opinion, has Mayor Peduto’s strategy worked, or should the city seek to sue UPMC again for tax revenue?
It’s interesting because [we used to] get millions of dollars from UPMC every year and then Mayor Peduto dropped that suit and said they were negotiating. That was in 2014. And we haven’t gotten a dime from UPMC since 2014. So, no, I don’t think the Peduto administration strategy is working, at all.
I’m absolutely interested in working collaboratively. So if UPMC wants to support mental health services and put in a big pot of money towards that specific cause…and they do the same with addiction, if we can negotiate, okay, let’s actually negotiate. But unless and until UPMC becomes a partner again to the residents of the city of Pittsburgh, whose tax dollars, create the roads that go to their hospitals, the buses that transport their employees work, unless they’re, and until they’re a willing partner, and a being a good neighbor, and a good citizen, yeah, we’re gonna need to get tough on UPMC.
Following up on that, you said that part of your platform is fighting for workers rights. The fight to unionize UPMC workers has grown in recent years, despite efforts by UPMC — and this is affirmed by the National Labor Relations Board — to union bust and stop that effort. A key part of that unionization effort is better pay for hospital staff and other workers in UPMC, hospitals and facilities. Now, I know you know this, the city doesn’t have much control over UPMC formally though the city does have several multi-million dollar contracts with UPMC and large campaign donations from UPMC officials are fairly common among city council members. So talk to me about how you would approach issues related to UPMC. There’s the big picture of, we should maybe sue them or be aggressive with them to get them back to the negotiating table. Then there’s the meat and potatoes stuff. How would you, on a day-to-day basis, approach issues related to UPMC, whether it’s a contract renewal, a land development deal, or some other policy that may benefit UPMC?
UPMC doesn’t exist without Pittsburgh, right? I think on a day-to-day basis, we’re gonna have to actually consider deeply every time they want to redevelop something or any time we’re going to extend or grant a contract to them. Because…we want to contract with folks that are investing in our community. Again, we just have to go through and say, ‘Are we getting our needs met in this situation?’ So when there’s a contract that comes up, we need to say, ‘Okay, so what is UPMC doing?’ Because all of those are leverage points. You don’t have to play hardball unless folks aren’t willing to negotiate and to work in good faith. But you do have to be willing to play hardball when they’re not.
Will you accept campaign donations from UPMC officials?
I will not accept campaign donations from UPMC officials.
Other parts of your platform, as stated on your website, deal with some issues that the city doesn’t have direct control over. Education is one that you mentioned which is obviously the purview of Pittsburgh Public Schools. And some of the environmental issues that you mentioned fall under the Allegheny County Health Department or even the state. So with that said, what are some city-level policies that you want to push for to improve air and water quality and education in the schools?
I will start with air and water quality, because the first thing that we could do to improve water quality is control flooding, give water someplace else to go. When we put roads where the streams used to be, then all the water gathers there. And what’s on the road? Car stuff: Oil, gasoline, salt. So if you want to improve water quality, get less water in places that it shouldn’t be. And literally, that right there would improve water quality, it would be washing less nasty stuff into the rivers.
When it comes to air and water quality, the folks that regulate that stuff, as you mentioned, the health department does some state does some, the federal government does some. We can work better as leaders of the city when we work with those entities, to make sure that they understand what’s happening to our neighbors every day. Clairiton is not in the city, but I doubt there’s a person out there who would say what’s happening there is okay. There are a number of ways that we could work with other levels of government or entities to ensure that as bigger decisions are being made, that our input is taken in consideration that our kids will be taken into consideration.
We’re a Pittsburgh Public Schools family. And they do some really wonderful work. But…our schools aren’t the only way to educate people. I think a really excellent example of folks that are going above and beyond when it comes to educating kids and parenting resources for kids is an organization called Brookline Teen Outreach. They provide tutoring, counseling, they do civic education for kids…and they have fun. And that is absolutely a model that the city should be looking at and saying, How can we replicate this?
Okay, I’ll give you a fun one. Anthony Coghill, current councilman representing District Four. He ran on a “back to basics” platform that some could argue resonated with the working class and the older voters in your district. He ran on this message that the city had been too focused on its East End compared to the South Hills, a point you’ve also made. Has Coghill followed through on his promises to go “back to basics?” Why or why not? And does that message still resonate with the voters in your district?
I don’t think he’s wrong. I think that a lot of folks could agree that East End has got a lot more attention than the South Hills… However, what we’ve also seen is three years in office–and [Coghill’s] chaired the Public Works Committee–we had the worst snow response in the five years. I appreciate folks that can have good relationships with the mayor’s administration. But we absolutely need more. And so in order to do that, we’re going to have to be a little tougher, and say, ‘This is just not acceptable.’When it comes to the basics, it’s making sure people can get around safely. It’s making sure that when we have vacant lots or city-owned lots, that they’re not a hub for folks that are looking for a place to use illegal substances, or that they’re a hub for rats because they’re so overgrown.
I feel very strongly that if South Pittsburgh is going to get the resources we need from the city, we’re going to have to fight for them.
I am a fighter. It drives me nuts when I see situations that I know could be improved and when I see that politics gets in the way of improving people’s lives, I just see red. I think there’s so many ways to be collaborative but I can’t wait another four years.
But also, if you’re not going to work with us, if we’re still going to be getting 1% of the operating funds every single year, we’ve got a problem. And we can’t just sweep that under the rug anymore. We have to address these things. You know, why do you think we’re not getting the resources? Still? I think it’s because nobody’s stood up to the administration.