Sen. Jim Ferlo calling it quits

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Pittsburgh political institution Jim Ferlo will not seek re-election to the state Senate next year, citing the high hurdles of Republican-drawn boundaries to his redesigned district.

The Highland Park Democrat was not ready to say he is retiring from government for good, but it marks the end to 25 straight years in local and state politics, in which the 62-year-old was never a casual observer.

In an announcement on the Senate floor Tuesday, he said he plans to focus on constituent services in the year remaining on his term and will keep serving on various community boards.

"I'm still kicking. I'm like the Eveready bunny," Mr. Ferlo said after the announcement. "I'm still moving. So we'll see."

A native of Rome, N.Y., Mr. Ferlo came to Pittsburgh in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War, made a name for himself fighting over historic preservation and other battles on Pittsburgh City Council, and lately became a chief critic of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

A wild-haired activist for Peoples Oakland in the 1970s, Mr. Ferlo got his foot in the door of city government as a worker for then city Controller Tom Flaherty in the 1980s and won a citywide election for city council in 1987, on his third try.

In 1991 he was arrested while trying to stop demolition of the Syria Mosque in Oakland. Coming full circle, one of his latest pushes as senator has been seeking historic designation for the Alfred E. Hunt Armory in Shadyside, in an attempt to shield it from being razed.

Mr. Ferlo cast long shadows on the city's last three mayoral administrations. He began as an ally of Mayor Tom Murphy, then had a bitter falling out. While he left Grant Street in 2003 to join the Senate, he went on to become an important adviser and supporter of the next two mayors, Bob O'Connor and Luke Ravenstahl, particularly on development matters.

Morton Coleman, director emeritus of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh and onetime board chairman of the city's Housing Authority, has been on both sides of fights with Mr. Ferlo.

"I think he's been an important person in this region. Certainly, he's had his anger at the university ever since they tore down the Syria Mosque. He is a very passionate leader and I think he does have strong commitment to people in need," Mr. Coleman said. "He had strong opinions. He could be a strong ally, or, as I found when I was on the Housing Authority, he could be a strong antagonist."

Before it was changed, the 38th District Senate seat Mr. Ferlo represented contained a good chunk of northern Pittsburgh neighborhoods and snaked north into suburbs including those in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

"When I was first elected ... some people might have been surprised that an urban Democrat from Pittsburgh City Council could win this seat that they perceived as rural and suburban, but we did win handily and I have served with privilege for three terms. This district has been changed now," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Revised state legislative maps approved in 2012 shifted Mr. Ferlo's Senate seat (and a House seat in the city's South Hills) to the eastern part of the state. Mapmakers then shifted two Pittsburgh wards, including Mr. Ferlo's home base, into the Republican-dominated district currently held by Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, who won the seat in a special election after former occupant Jane Orie of McCandless was found guilty on corruption charges.

The maps were approved by the state Supreme Court earlier this year. Running for the office and introducing himself to new voters in the northern suburbs would be too expensive, Mr. Ferlo said, and force an unwanted change in his campaigning style. Instead he plans to help recruit another Democrat to run for the seat.

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581 or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. James O'Toole and Karen Langley contributed. First Published November 12, 2013 4:33 PM

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