Pittsburgh Democratic mayoral candidate A.J. Richardson reflects on recent brush with notoriety

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Sitting in his Sheraden kitchen last Thursday, a seemingly serene A.J. Richardson reflected on his recent brush with notoriety.

"It's been a blessing," he said, of the mayoral campaign that was interrupted the day before by the news of his arrest in the West End early Wednesday morning. He was found asleep at the wheel of his vehicle and intoxicated, and charged with failing to have proper registration and driving under the influence.

Before that, Mr. Richardson's debut on the local political scene had attracted relatively muted attention, with a perhaps disproportionate share of that focused on his impressive array of tattoos. Among the images that decorate his arms and face are the letters "F E A R" on the knuckles of one hand, and "L E S S" on the other. On one forearm, are the letters, "F T W" -- "Forgive the World," he explained.

On his forehead, surrounded by other inked images, is an elaborate cross, a reminder of the online ministry, the Mount Sinai 7th Day Holiness Temple of Christ, that he pursues with his wife, Felicia, a paralegal and the mother of their three sons. They smiled frequently at one another as they described the whirlwind of attention and introspection prompted by the arrest. Long-shot candidates have the perennial challenge of breaking through the fog of anonymity to claim a share of public and media attention. But this isn't the attention he wanted.

The couple sat in a home perched above the Ohio River, with a postcard view of the setting sun reflecting off the skyscrapers surrounding the Point. Mr. Richardson patiently answered questions about the overnight incident, but was understandably more interested in steering the conversation to the community concerns that he says changed his life and the spiritual message that he says he wants to promote through his candidacy as well as the online ministry he shares with Felicia.

"We need all the faith-based institutions in this city to start getting more involved," he said. "We all need to get more involved in nurturing our children ... keeping the young people off the streets. As mayor, I believe I could work better with rabbis and priests and imam and ministers under the heading of the spirit of brotherhood. Kids are being murdered in the streets, day after day. I'm tired of seeing fathers, mothers crying."

Mr. Richardson, who listed his job as bus monitor for FirstGroup on his nominating petition, hadn't been particularly involved in politics in the past. He believes that God called him to run for mayor, and despite the distractions of the past week, he said he believes God is overseeing his unlikely progress toward that goal.

"I don't want a comfortable office in city hall, I want to be out in the streets,'' he said in anticipation of his administration. "The first thing I get when I'm sworn in is a good pair of sneakers."

Mr. Richardson is black, but says he doesn't want to be thought of as a black candidate. Rather, he says, he'll be a voice for the powerless all over the city.

"Diversity is beautiful; that's what I'm about."

Upon his release from custody the day before, he had talked of conspiracy and mistreatment by the police. He doesn't retract any of that, but said he will plead guilty and take responsibility for his poor judgment.

Speaking of "an organized effort to target me," he said: "Definitely, they were looking for something and I gave them something.''

Felicia Richardson described the difficulty of hearing of the arrest from a police officer's call at 5:20 a.m. Wednesday and the overwhelming feeling that all was lost for a campaign that had barely started. But she said that had given way to hope and a focus on the future.

"But then it set in, from the Scriptures, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,' " said Ms. Richardson, whose conversation is punctuated with frequent biblical references.

"All of us have faults, all of us are fallible," she said. "Each day is a blessing to get it right ... to make each day better and you go on."

"I'm not perfect," she said. "As much as I wanted to hit him over the head with a frying pan -- and I really did -- but I know I'm not perfect myself."

Public records show that this was not A.J. Richardson's first arrest. In addition to several traffic stops, he was found guilty in April 2012 of a summary charge of harassment.

"I was defending myself," he said. "It was between me and another guy. There were no punches thrown or anything like that, but it got to the point he complained."

Before his concern over the community led him to pursue this race, Mr. Richardson appears to have had only a sporadic interest in politics. County election records show that in recent years, he voted only in the November presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, skipping all of the intervening municipal elections.

The voter registration records also raise questions about Mr. Richardson's eligibility to serve as mayor if he were elected. The Pittsburgh city charter specifies that mayoral candidates must have lived in the city for three years before taking office. Mr. Richardson was registered to vote at a variety of addresses in Allegheny County in the last few years. The files show that he changed his registration from a Clairton address to one in Pittsburgh in 2012. Mr. Richardson said those records are misleading in that he had a Pittsburgh residence, in Brighton Heights, at the same time that he was listed with the Clairton address.

"I lived in Brighton Heights and I have a lease to prove it," he said.

As he spoke, Mr. Richardson was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the late reggae singer Bob Marley, a hero he cited along with Gandhi and Harvey Milk. Despite the odds -- one recent survey assessed his support at 1 percent -- he insists he will prevail but said that even if he did lose, "If someone else runs because I ran, that's a win for the city. If that gang-banger or drug dealer decided to put that gun down and get involved with their community, that's a win for the city of Pittsburgh."

But that's not the outcome he predicts. With a confident smile, he cites, "a prophecy that will come to pass -- I will be the next mayor of Pittsburgh."

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com. First Published April 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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