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Man of the people: How Jim Ferlo helped define city politics for a generation of Pittsburghers

As voters in Pittsburgh choose among candidates Tuesday, many old-time political operatives are mourning the loss of one of the city’s longest-serving and most original politicians, Jim Ferlo, who passed away on Sunday.

Ferlo served as a city councilor from 1987 to 2002 and then in the state Senate until 2014. Ferlo was a strong liberal with activist roots before that became commonplace in the city, said Tom Flaherty, the longtime city controller and now a judge on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

“Liberal politics seems to be popular today, but back then, it wasn't all that popular,” Flaherty said. “But he could articulate his issues so well; he was able to prevail on a lot of them.”

Ferlo gained fame for chaining himself to the Syria Mosque, a unique building in Oakland, to prevent it from being bulldozed. And apocryphally,it was in jail that Ferlo came up with the idea for Preservation Pittsburgh, the historical preservation group that went on to play a big role in local development.

His career was marked by political losses, where he’d dug in against the prevailing political winds: He opposed the destruction of the old civic center and the construction of Heinz Field and PNC Park. He tried to stop fracking for natural gas right as western Pennsylvania was in the middle of a drilling boom.

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Even though sometimes he lost, the region won because he helped community groups learn how to wield power, said Mik Pappas, a former Ferlo staffer and now magisterial district judge.

Yarone Zober, his chief of staff at city council, said that Ferlo’s idealistic progressive streak was unique: He worked with developers in town to get things done, Zober said, inspired by but not constrained by his idealism.

To those who worked with him and knew him best, Ferlo’s personal qualities drove what they described as a singular political success story.

“Jim Ferlo came here to Pittsburgh at [15] years old, openly gay, without a penny in his pocket,” Pappas said. “And he rose to be one of the most prominent leaders.”

Noah Brode
90.5 WESA
Jim Ferlo, right, at a press conference.

The following is a brief account of Ferlo’s rise according to some of those who knew him best: his sister, his first political boss, his chief of staff and his protégé.

The exile

Ferlo left his home at 15 to get away from his father.

Ferlo was the ninth of 10 children in a family that was “1,000% Italian,” said his sister Lyn Ferlo, the oldest girl in the family. They lived in Rome, New York, a small industrial town that was divided by ethnic and racial groups. There weren’t any books or magazines in the house, she said. Their mom stayed at home, and the girls were expected to take orders from the boys. When their father came home at night from his jobs as a bartender and city water inspector, they were expected to get quiet.

So when Ferlo declared that he opposed the Vietnam War, his father was furious. Three of Ferlo’s brothers were serving in the military, including one in Vietnam.

So Ferlo left home and moved in with his sister, who had moved to Pittsburgh five years before. He worried for years that people would find out that he never graduated high school. Instead, he got involved protesting the war and organizing residents in Oakland.

“You see people like this from time to time who just are what they are,” Lyn said. “He loved working with people. He liked to get them organized to have that unity and neighborhood and pride.”

The politician

In the 1970s and 1980s, Ferlo was known as a “rabble-rouser” in Oakland, Flaherty said. Ferlo would show up to city council meetings when Flaherty was on the council.

“He wouldn't be shushed or gaveled down at a meeting,” he said. “If he was making a point, he would keep speaking.”

Flaherty saw his political skills and hired him as a staff member in the controller’s office. It was, he said, a political alliance. Ferlo was in the unique position of having been hired, fired, rehired and then finally laid off by Flaherty. A few weeks after being fired, Ferlo came back smiling, calling Flaherty “Thomasina” and opening his arms wide for a big hug.

“So I hired him back,” he said. “We had that kind of relationship.”'

Tom Flaherty stands in his office on the fifth floor of the County Courthouse.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Tom Flaherty stands in his office on the fifth floor of the County Courthouse.

They would often go out after work to either Mitchell’s, Downtown, or the old Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, to talk policy and gossip. But when the lottery numbers came on the television, Ferlo would excuse himself and head to a nearby payphone. Ferlo recorded the daily lottery numbers on his personal answering machine, as a service to local community members. People used to call the number across multiple counties, Flaherty said, to check their lottery numbers. It was a way for Ferlo to get his name out.

These kinds of political skills led Ferlo to win a city council seat in 1987, on his third try. Eventually, he served as president of the council for three years before winning a state senate seat in 2002.

After he was elected to city council, Flaherty said Ferlo's style changed. “He started to look pretty dapper. He'd wear a tie and suit. When I knew him, it was strictly sweatshirts and jeans.”

The city councilor

Yarone Zober, a then 22-year-old Americorps volunteer, went to the city-county building to hand out flyers on lead poisoning when he stumbled on a press conference about a Regional Renaissance Initiative. The county had proposed raising the sales tax by a penny to fund new stadiums and a new convention center in 1997. Zober thought this was a great idea and put on a supportive button.

“And a not-so-tall man walked up to me and said, ‘What are you doing here? Who are you? Did you even read the legislation?’” Zober said. It was typical Ferlo: in your face, arguing the points.

That was Zober and Ferlo’s first political fight but not their last. “To love Jim Ferlo was to know that you were going to get into a fight with him,” Zober said. “He loved the fight.”

Zober quickly became Ferlo’s chief of staff.  Ferlo’s motto at the time: “No excuses. Just results.” And Ferlo would say, “Get it? Get it?” because Ferlo wanted justice to be the center of everything his office did.

Ferlo did what he thought was right, Zober said, “regardless of whether or not it was popular at the time or even if his friends supported it.”

That meant Ferlo had a lot of conflicts. But he didn’t stay enemies for long, Zober said. He often found himself negotiating deals with companies that, only a year before, he had been out picketing against. “Jim cared about the issues,” he said. “He also cared about making things happen.”

One of the ways he built his political support was to throw big parties and hold large community rallies. “Old-time rallies that don't really exist anymore, where you give out hot dogs to folks and the old ladies from Lawrenceville would have their babushkas on and stuff them in their purses.”

At the time, Zober wasn’t communicating with his own father. “What he really cared about was people,” Zober said. “He was like a friend to the friendless. He was a father to so many of us who were sort of fatherless. He gave voice to the voiceless.”

Years later, after Zober and his father had reconciled, his father met Ferlo, and Ferlo gave him a piece of his mind. “Wow, you were lucky to have somebody like him to be a father,” Zober’s father told him after the encounter.

Ferlo was short and round. When he was running for state senate, he worried about facing a tall, dapper opponent, Zober said. One day when they were driving in the car, Zober asked Ferlo if his appearance was holding him back from starting a family.

“Can we help find you the right girl and help you settle down? Have some kids. Maybe that'll be really fulfilling to you,” he said.

Ferlo looked at him with a smile: “Never presume another man’s heterosexuality.”

The state senator

When Mik Pappas was growing up in East Liberty, his mom was having a hard time paying utility bills. Her neighbors told her: Go talk to Jim Ferlo.

Pappas, now a magisterial district judge in Allegheny County, went to work for Ferlo in 2008. He was impressed that Ferlo had endorsed Barack Obama when nearly every other Democrat had endorsed Hillary Clinton.

When West Penn Hospital was threatening to close, Pappas said, community groups in Bloomfield were fighting over who was going to take the lead in protesting the closure. But Ferlo made it clear that if they wanted to succeed, they needed to be unified. “And everybody just kind of fell into place,” Pappas said. This was part of whatled Highmark to take over the hospital and form the Allegheny Health Network.

Ferlo knew the rules of these kinds of battles. “He knew the city code better than anybody I've ever met and also how they interacted with state law and how all of that kind of played together with getting community-based development projects done,” Pappas said.

Mik Pappas, a magisterial district judge in Allegheny County, reminisces about his six years working for Jim Ferlo in his office in Highland Park.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Mik Pappas, a magisterial district judge in Allegheny County, reminisces about his six years working for Jim Ferlo in his office in Highland Park.

People would walk into Ferlo’s office in Harrisburg and say, “I know Jimmy,” as a kind of permission that they owned the place. Ferlo kept more staff locally than in Harrisburg, Pappas said, because he believed his primary mission was serving constituents.

Pappas believes that it was in no small part due to Ferlo’s reputation as a community advocate that, when the G20 country leaders visited Pittsburgh in 2009, there wasn’t rioting or violence like there had been at other G20 meetings. Ferlo had advocated to make Point Park University property a staging ground for residents rather than for the Secret Service.

“When people saw that kind of advocacy happening from one of their most prominent public leaders,” he said. “They understood they had a voice in government and that they would be heard and that they did not have to resort to vigilantism or otherwise to to be heard.”

In 2014, Ferlo decided on the spur of the moment to come out as gay during a speech to support a hate crimes bill. “I’m gay….Hundreds of people know I'm gay,”he told the crowd. “I never felt I had to wear a billboard on my head. But I'm gay. Get over it. I love it.”

The decision made national news and was even referenced on Saturday Night Live. Pappas remembers hearing from high school students who were inspired by Ferlo’s decision.

“As someone who [was] a gay man in an age where it wasn't entirely safe to be outwardly gay,” Pappas said. “I think that that certainly motivated his understanding of his purpose in life to speak for other marginalized persons.”

There will be a memorial service for Ferlo at noon, Saturday, May 21, at the Butler Street gate to Allegheny Cemetery. After the ceremony, some of the people who knew him best are throwing a big party, Lyn said, like the political parties Ferlo used to throw.

Corrected: May 19, 2022 at 9:53 AM EDT
Mik Pappas was originally misidentified as judge in Court of Common Pleas. He is magisterial district judge in Allegheny County.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.