Updated 1:17 p.m.
Leon Ford is running for public office.
Shot and paralyzed by Pittsburgh police six years ago, Ford announced today that he’ll run as a Democrat in the May primary for the District 9 seat currently held by three-term incumbent Rev. Ricky Burgess, also a Democrat.
No other candidates have declared interest in the council seat representing East Hills, East Liberty, Friendship, Garfield, Homewood, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, and North Point Breeze. Candidates have until March 12, 2019 to circulate and file nomination petitions in Allegheny County.
Burgess could not be reached for comment.
Ford told The Incline it wasn’t his own shooting that propelled his decision to seek elected office. It was the fatal police shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh in June, an event that prompted widespread demonstrations and what Ford has described as his own political awakening. Ford, who is 25 and lives in East Liberty, joined the ensuing political debate, publicly calling for the ouster of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. and announcing plans for his own political action committee.
Now he’s running for the first time himself, which some might call a natural progression given his years spent as a prominent activist, public speaker, author and police reform advocate.
“I’m a candidate now,” he said. “I never considered running for public office. In fact, there was a time that I was against it, but now I’ve learned more about politics and policy and, it’s like, I’m tired of protesting and showing up at community meetings where the decisions are already made.”
He added, “They hear our voices but they’re not listening. So I’m going to take my seat at the table so I can be the voice on the inside speaking for those on the outside.”
At this early stage, Ford continues to hone his campaign team (Jasiri X, a Pittsburgh-based rapper and activist, will serve as campaign chair) and the finer points of his platform (which he said will include affordable housing — a major issue in the East End where he lives and hopes to serve — police-community relations and environmental health).
But the wheels are now officially in motion: Ford publicly announced his candidacy at noon today in a video posted to his Facebook page, Leon Ford for City Council. He will host a campaign kickoff on Nov. 11 at Repair The World.
“I have so many layers of brokenness, just being shot by a police officer and reaching out to some of the elected officials who didn’t really speak out on my behalf,” Ford says in the four-minute clip. “Some of the elected officials who took pictures with me and posted these pictures on Facebook to show the community that they were rockin’ with Leon, but they’re standing behind legislation that’s hurting Leon.”
In speaking with The Incline, Ford stopped short of criticizing Burgess directly, saying only, “I have some private feelings, but he’s an elder, and I respect him, and I’ve been leading from a place of love and healing. I want to run a campaign that’s built on a foundation of love. […] I want to be the glue of this city.”
Ford echoed this sentiment when asked if he would be able to work with Mayor Bill Peduto whom Ford criticized over public commentary made amid Ford’s federal civil suit against two Pittsburgh police officers involved in his Nov. 11, 2012 shooting.
In that suit, Ford argued that the officers had violated his civil rights during a traffic stop in Highland Park which ended with Ford being shot five times at point blank range and left him with paraplegia.
The officers involved had mistaken Ford for a wanted gang member. The shots were fired as Ford’s vehicle began to drive away from the scene. Police said Ford was trying to escape amid a struggle inside the vehicle. Ford, who was unarmed, said the car was inadvertently knocked into gear and later that he had feared for his safety. Both officers were white. Ford is black.
Ford was himself charged after the shooting with a series of criminal counts, including aggravated assault on an officer. A jury found Ford not guilty of the most serious charges and deadlocked on other counts. Zappala eventually said he would not retry Ford for the remaining misdemeanors.
Ford’s federal suit went to trial and ended with a jury acquitting one of the officers involved and deadlocking on charges against the other. He settled the suit with the city for $5.5 million in January.
Tim McNulty, mayoral spokesperson, said he was aware of no prohibitions on ex-litigants running for or holding office in the city.
Rob Caruso, executive director of the state ethics commission, said there is nothing in the state ethics act prohibiting ex-litigants from being candidates for or holding state or local office.
If elected to council, Ford would inevitably have to work with the police bureau on spending items and more. But Ford sees no issue there. In fact, he believes his perspective makes him ideally suited for the task.
Beth Pittinger of the independent Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board said while rare as political candidates, survivors of police shootings like Ford offer “a unique perspective and enrich the quality of discussion and debate around public policy issues including police accountability and law enforcement’s role in society.”
Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police-involved shootings, had a different take.
“It might actually exacerbate the police-community divide, at least in the short term (police organizations and unions have not exactly been supportive of public officials who criticize the police, even implicitly), although I could see it actually advancing at least some police reforms,” Stoughton told The Incline in an email.
But Ford insists on his ability to forge alliances, adding of his existing relationship with law enforcement: “I’ve been a bridge builder. I’ve always been respectful toward law enforcement. I’ve actually met with police officers on several occasions and not just black officers, I’ve met with white officers as well.”
If anything, Ford sees candidates like himself as a necessary step in healing the regional and national divide between police and the communities — often those of color — that they serve.
“Not only in Pittsburgh but nationally, to have a survivor of police brutality now be a candidate for city council, it’s poetic, man. It’s a story from tragedy to triumph,” Ford said. “This is a new era here in Pittsburgh.”