Leon Ford announces run for Pittsburgh City Council


Bader Abdulmajeed | Staff Photographer

Community activist Leon Ford (right) speaks with supporters at his campaign kick-off at East Liberty’s Repair the World co-working space.

By Kieran McLean, Staff Writer

There are challenges brewing in Pittsburgh’s political establishment.

Insurgent progressive state House candidates Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato unseated a southwest Pennsylvania political dynasty in last week’s midterm elections. Pittsburgh District Justice Mik Pappas won his race as an Independent last year against a two-decade Democratic incumbent, after promising to abolish cash bail and delay evictions for constituents who couldn’t make rent.

And now, community activist Leon Ford is challenging 10-year 9th District incumbent the Rev. Ricky Burgess for his City Council seat.

“We are here as part of a movement,” Ford said to a crowd of supporters from his wheelchair during his campaign kick-off at East Liberty’s Repair the World working space. “We are in this together.”

Pittsburgh’s 9th District includes the neighborhoods of East Liberty, Homewood, Friendship, Garfield, Larimer, North Point Breeze and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, which Burgess has represented since 2008. But between Repair the World’s nude brick walls and windows sporting motivational posters, Ford made the case that his personal history of being disabled by a Pittsburgh police shooting positions him best to be on City Council.  

“Six years ago, I was walking. And I was on a completely different path,” Ford said.

On the night of Nov. 11, 2012, Ford was pulled over by two officers who mistook him for a suspect with a similar name, according to CityLab. He was 19 at the time and complied with the officers’ request for his license, insurance and registration. But after Pittsburgh detective David Derbish jumped in Ford’s car and the two started to struggle, Derbish shot Ford in the spine.

Ford later woke up in the hospital to find that he’d been arraigned on charges of aggravated assault against a police officer. It took months for him to recover from his wounds, often handcuffed to his bed with no guarantee he would survive.

“My friends and family weren’t allowed in to see me … and I found out I could be facing 20 years in prison,” Ford said.

Ford was found not guilty of aggravated assault, and later filed his own suit in 2013 on claims of excessive force by the officers. He won, and the City awarded him $5.5 millon. But Ford said it was the moments after when he woke up in the hospital that pushed him into community work.

“I knew I was not alone. The grace of God was covering me,” Ford said.

Since then, he’s spoken in front of universities, and with celebrities and tech titans about police brutality. He’s released a book tilted “Untold” and was named Pittsburgh City Paper’s 2017 “Pittsburgher of the Year.” But during his campaign kick-off speech, he said that he hadn’t considered a career in politics until East Pittsburgh Police officer Michael Rosfeld shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr. last summer.

“I had about four different offers on the table for jobs over $300,000,” Ford said. “But after Antwon got shot … I was talking to the family and realized, ‘I’ve been there. That’s been me.’”

[Read: Community responds after high school student fatally shot by police]

Ford led a June protest in Pittsburgh’s South Side to pressure the district attorney to indict Rosfeld after the shooting. He also helped organize other protests, and in doing so, established the base from which he would launch his candidacy.  

Brandi Fisher, president of Pittsburgh’s Alliance for Police Accountability, worked with Ford during the protests. She’s currently working as an organizing manager for Ford’s campaign, and emphasized changes she’d like to see such as improving public education, protecting city water from privatization and facilitating meaningful employment for local teens who don’t go on to college.

“Ricky Burgess is an example of many politicians who lose touch with their community,” Fisher said. “We know change doesn’t happen overnight … but we need change.”

Elaine Houston, 30, from East Liberty, is also volunteering for Ford’s campaign. She was formerly his neighbor and is also in a wheelchair, and said she wants Ford to draw attention to police violence against people with disabilities and make the district more accessible for them.  

“Some of our storefronts are not accessible,” Houston said. “We want people to [engage in issues of accessibility] not just because it’s the legal thing … but to do it because it’s the right thing.”

But some speakers took a more cautionary tone. Former Philadelphia City Controller staffer Isaiah Thomas, who unsuccessfully ran for Philadelphia City Council in 2015, drove across the state to speak at Ford’s kick-off. He warned that a loss could hurt community morale.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             “Y’all gotta win,” Thomas said. “If you don’t, people will become even more disillusioned than they already are.”

State Rep. Summer Lee also endorsed Ford, citing her own difficulties in running against the Pittsburgh political establishment to encourage audience members to donate time and money to Ford’s campaign.

“Sometimes, the attacks come from inside the community,” Lee said. “[Ford] will need every prayer, every thought, every dollar and every door to win.”

But Ford said he believes overcoming previous adversities has prepared him for the coming race.

“I’m here today as a testament that anything is possible,” Ford said. “We can make this happen.”