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Leon Ford Kicks Off Campaign For Pittsburgh City Council

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Leon Ford and his French bulldog, Mini, gathered with supporters Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, to launch Ford's campaign for Pittsburgh City Council.

On the sixth anniversary of the police shooting that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Leon Ford, 25, formally launched his campaign for Pittsburgh City Council.

“I realized I wanted to be more than an inspiration, and I wanted to have a stronger impact on society,” Ford said of his decision to seek elected office.

“For a long time, I’ve seen a lot of ‘buzzword leadership,’ where leaders create platforms based on buzzwords of what they assume [the] community wants and needs,” Ford said at a gathering of supporters at the community organizing nonprofit Repair the World, in East Liberty Sunday.

“When they do have ... community forums, most of the time they already have things moving," Ford continued. "So, these forums are just to … pacify the community so that people won’t be outraged and protest.”

Ford will run as a Democrat in the city's 9th District, where the incumbent is Ricky Burgess. The District includes all or part of East Hills, East Liberty, Friendship, Garfield, Homewood, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, and Point Breeze North. Burgess has held the seat since 2008.

Ford said his council bid is the latest development in his efforts to improve police-community relations and to advance other social justice goals.

A motivational speaker and the author of a forthcoming book, Ford has emerged as a central figure in local activist circles. This summer, he played a prominent role in protests condemning the fatal police shooting of seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose and announced plans for a political action committee.

Ford himself was shot and paralyzed by a Pittsburgh police officer during a traffic stop on Nov. 11, 2012.

Pittsburgh officers Andrew Miller and Michael Kosko pulled Ford, then 19, over for traffic violations in Highland Park. The officers, who are white, suspected Leon Ford of being a wanted gang member and called Pittsburgh officer David Derbish to determine Ford’s identity. Derbish said he saw a bulge in the motorist’s sweatpants and worried it could be a weapon.

When Ford refused to exit the car for a pat-down, Miller tried unsuccessfully to pull Ford out of the car. Derbish then jumped in the passenger side. The car started to move, and Derbish shot Ford in the chest five times, paralyzing him. The officer said he feared for his safety.

Ford faced a series of charges. In 2014, an Allegheny County jury found Ford guilty of traffic violations, but acquitted him of aggravated assault. The jury deadlocked on other charges, including resisting arrest, escape and reckless endangerment. District Attorney Stephen Zappala decided not to retry Ford on those charges.

Ford brought his own suit in federal court in 2013. He accused Derbish of using excessive force. Ford also alleged that Miller committed assault and battery when he tried to pull Ford out of his car.

A jury cleared Miller in 2017 but deadlocked on the allegations against Derbish. The case ended in in January, with the city of Pittsburgh agreeing to pay Ford a $5.5 million settlement.

On Sunday, Ford said his top policy priorities include elevating the voices of people of color, engaging youth, and ensuring housing affordability. Ford, who uses a wheelchair, said he also aims to increase accessibility for physically disabled people. In addition, he said, he’s committed to working with the police to promote “healing” within the community.

The candidate said he’ll hold a “listening tour” over the next few months to learn what issues matter to District 9 residents.

“For a long time, I felt like my voice didn’t matter to [city] leadership,” Ford said. “And so, I’m just really committed to allowing the people to help me lead, so that their voices are amplified.”

Ford first announced his intention to run for city council in a video posted to YouTube last month.

At least two other faces, both familiar in the 9th District, might also seek the party's nomination in the May 21 primary. Among them is Judith Ginyard, a real-estate agent who has sought the seat multiple times, most recently in 2015. Ginyard said she was "not ready to make a decision just yet," noting that it would be her fourth bid for the office.

Still, she said," Anthony Coghill getting in on his fourth time is encouraging." Coghill represents the South Hills in District 4 after a years-long struggle that culminated in his 2017 win.

Former Pittsburgh school board member Randall Taylor said he, too, was eyeing a run. "I'm moving purposefully in that direction," he said.

Taylor was a former resident of East Liberty's Penn Plaza apartments, once a bastion of affordable housing in the rapidly gentrifying area. He was among those displaced by the developer in 2017, and says the experience "has opened up my eyes. The destruction of lives and neighborhoods is very serious. I have some things I want to share and I need a platform."

The interest in Burgess' seat is both a challenge and an opportunity for the incumbent.

Burgess failed to win an outright majority in either his 2015 or 2011 re-election bids, but he was able to earn the nomination because of a split field. Ginyard was one of three challengers to face him in 2015, and he faced two challengers, Lucille Prater-Holliday and Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell, in 2011. He beat the 50-percent threshold by less than one percent in 2007, when Ginyard and Taylor were among seven other candidates seeking the seat.

WESA's Chris Potter contributed to this story.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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