In local elections, voters are often more concerned with salting roads than with social issues. But civil-rights advocates say that even local officials can do much to advance — or hinder — causes like reproductive freedom and LGBT equality.
"From same-sex partner benefits for city employees ... to economic development initiatives, mayor[s] can have a huge impact on the rights and opportunities of women and girls," says Heather Arnet, CEO of The Women and Girls Foundation.
Mayors can also decide police presence at women's health clinics, and use appointments to determine the demographic makeup of city boards, and authorities and commissions. Those agencies, Arnet says, "create the majority of policies and budget decisions that impact the lives of residents."
The three major contenders in this year's Democratic primary — Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto, state Representative Jake Wheatley, and former state Auditor General Jack Wagner — all have broadly similar positions on LGBT equality and reproductive rights. But they arrived at those positions in different ways.
While all three candidates have earned strong marks for their stance on LGBT issues in recent years, Peduto has received the most love in return. His mayoral bid has been endorsed by three LGBT-advocacy groups: statewide advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania, as well as the Steel City Stonewall Democrats and the Gertrude Stein Political Club.
He supported efforts to create a citywide domestic-partner registry, which allows same-sex couples to formally declare a committed relationship. (The registry has no legal authority, but can be used by employers as a basis for providing domestic-partner benefits to employees.) And at an April 18 forum hosted by Planned Parenthood, he suggested constructing new buildings with bathrooms designated for transgender occupants. "[T]here has to be accessibility for all," he said.
Peduto, whose mayoral run has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, backed a 2005 "Medical Safety Zone Ordinance," which set up a 15-foot buffer zone around women's health clinics — and an 8-foot "bubble zone" around patients entering or leaving. That measure, supported by pro-choice groups, was later overturned when a judge ruled it infringed on the free speech of abortion opponents. (Currently only the buffer zone remains.) But at the April 18 forum, Peduto said his support for access hadn't changed: "If it does require an officer to be there to remind [observers of] the rights of all individuals, I'll certainly have an officer there."
Wagner's position on LGBT equality has evolved over the course of his political career. As a city councilor, he opposed a 1990 ordinance to include gays and lesbians in the city's anti-discrimination law. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that while Wagner acknowledged "incidents" of discrimination, "I don't believe that [Pittsburghers] discriminate in any systematic manner against homosexuals."
But during a 10-year stint in the state Senate, Wagner championed numerous pro-LGBT bills, including measures to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to punish attacks on gays and lesbians as hate crimes. In this year's mayoral race, he told the Steel City Stonewall Democrats that he backed "full equality under the law for members of the LGBT community," including "the right to marry."
During his failed 2010 gubernatorial campaign, some anti-choice groups touted Wagner as an ally, but while Wagner described himself as a "pro-life Democrat," he also said he "support[ed] the current state law" — which permits abortion. In any case, Wagner's campaign told City Paper that he pledged to "enforce [clinic-access] laws appropriately." He also pledged to initiate a gender-equity pay audit, to weed out any disparities in pay, and to ensure his appointments "reflect the demographics ... of our city" — particularly in terms of gender.
While Peduto edged out Wheatley for Planned Parenthood's endorsement this year, Wheatley earns high marks from the group as well. In Harrisburg, he's supported pro-choice causes, including state funding for family-planning programs. Wheatley has also co-sponsored a 2009 measure requiring comprehensive sex-education courses in public schools. And when the legislature took up a bill to impose stringent — and arguably arbitrary — standards on abortion providers in 2011, Wheatley voted in line with Planned Parenthood's position.
At the Planned Parenthood forum, he joined Peduto in pledging to uphold clinic-access laws. "We need to enforce our laws and protect our citizens regardless of [if] it is coming out of a reproductive center or if you are walking down the street in Homewood," he said.
Wheatley is a member of the legislature's LGBT Caucus, a group of lawmakers who support the cause of LGBT equality. Wheatley, too, has co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. In 2006, he voted against a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. And as he told the Steel City Stonewall Democrats in 2010, he has long been involved in "fighting back laws that would discriminate against individuals within the LGBT community."
Additional reporting by Chris Potter