Jim Ferlo: a politician with soul of a protester

Will rub folks wrong way if for good cause

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Jim Ferlo came to Pittsburgh 40 years ago to protest a war.

Now, 20 years after he crashed the tent of power, he understands why people from throughout the country, and maybe the world, will be marching and shouting here in two weeks, when the G-20 economic summit attracts the shapers of a troubled world order.

The state senator is among those seeking permits to protest the summit, even as he hopes to maintain a recently wobbly relationship with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration, which is trying to figure out how to keep order during the summit.

"I'm sure maybe they're less than thrilled that I'm trying to fight and ensure civil liberties and the right to demonstrate," Mr. Ferlo said. But the man who was among those shouting outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and at many a protest since, isn't apologizing. "I've reached the latter stages in my life, and am still fighting unjust wars."

These days his battles most often involve revitalizing a neighborhood, saving a library or mitigating the effects of the global economy. He'll often simultaneously use both the inside game -- working the levers of power -- and the outside game of organizing and mobilizing people to achieve an end. The G-20 may be a test of those skills.

"I respect the senator's, and really everybody's, First Amendment right and am thankful for his willingness to lead that charge in one respect," Mr. Ravenstahl said Thursday. "But then in another respect, I hope that the senator will be a leader in making sure that we can control these protests and making sure they are peaceful protests."

Mr. Ferlo said he's all about peace, and doesn't want property damage, but won't rule out civil disobedience. And he wants Pittsburghers to think about the gulf between the things they fear -- unruly demonstrations, broken windows, blocked streets -- and the injustices some of the protesters will decry.

"When people talk about [protester] violence," Mr. Ferlo said Friday, "these [protesters] are folks who wake up every day and hear about an unmanned drone that successfully killed seven Taliban, and 70 civilians that are considered collateral damage."

Deep into his second term, the 58-year-old senator from Highland Park has wider influence than he probably ever imagined when he came here from Rome, N.Y., as a teenaged idealist.

He's the city's go-to guy in the Senate -- within limits -- and a member of its Urban Redevelopment Authority board. He works with towns from Wilkinsburg to Vandergrift to get state help. But he can't address all of the changes driven by the global economy.

"When working people from the three counties that I represent see plant closing after plant closing," he said, "there is a serious question on what is our role economically and how do we maintain a sustainable economy."

When the summit comes, he'll try to get a message out -- not so much to the leaders huddled in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, but to the thousands of journalists who will follow.

"These are people that are going back to their respective countries," he said. "They're going to be talking about free trade vs. fair trade, climate change" and military spending.

So he's working with academics, labor leaders and environmentalists on a People's Summit the week before the G-20, and a Sept. 23 pro-environment rally in Point State Park, which he hopes will feature former Vice President Al Gore. The latter plan puts him at cross purposes with Mr. Ravenstahl, who planned to use the park as a staging point for thousands of police officers.

"I don't have a formal permit, no," Mr. Ferlo said Friday. He does have a meeting scheduled with police. "I think we'll work through it."

He sent a staff member to a Pittsburgh City Council hearing on Wednesday to decry the imbalance between the attention the city is giving to public safety and its interest in civil liberties. He said he's worried that groups haven't gotten formal permits yet, distressed at the pending "de-facto, militarized, martial law situation in the Downtown corridor" and hopeful that police will respect protesters who go outside the lines.

"If people want to sit down in the street at the end of [a march], to me harkening back to the beginning of the civil rights movement," he said, "I don't think that should be demonized."

Before winning elective office, Mr. Ferlo was carried out of the Council Chamber in 1986 when he wouldn't stop demanding that Mayor Richard Caliguiri personally defend a complex subsidy for the Pirates.

He won a council seat in 1987, on his third try. Still, in 1991, he was arrested for defiant trespass and obstructing traffic when he tried to stop demolition of the Syria Mosque in Oakland.

"He's just not somebody who has unrecognizably compromised," unlike "everyone [else] who said they were going into the system to change it," said longtime activist Vincent Eirene.

Traditionally, council members do what mayors want. But Mr. Ferlo sent one of Mayor Sophie Masloff's memos back with a handwritten f-bomb on it. Mayor Tom Murphy in 2003 called him "a scorpion," summarizing their transformation from allies to bitter foes.

"I never need a mayor to get anything done," Mr. Ferlo said in a 2002 Pittsburgh City Paper profile.

In 2006, though, he got the mayor he'd wanted for years when Bob O'Connor was inaugurated. Mr. O'Connor's death eight months later brought to the office another friend, Mr. Ravenstahl. "He's been a supporter of mine from the very beginning," the mayor said Thursday.

Mr. Ferlo fought for Mr. Ravenstahl when Councilman Patrick Dowd challenged the mayor in this year's Democratic primary. Just four days before the May primary, Mr. Ferlo held a series of events -- touted in state-paid mailers -- for Mr. Ravenstahl in neighborhoods that are in both his senatorial district and Mr. Dowd's council district. Mr. Ravenstahl then won Mr. Dowd's home ward, dominated by Highland Park, by eight votes on his way to a citywide romp.

Seeing Mr. Ferlo lined up against you "is kind of exciting," said Mr. Dowd, who called the senator "a talented, talented elected official. ... You have to figure out how to navigate around someone like that."

"People are always saying he's the consummate insider, or he's controlling the mayor," said Mr. Dowd. "Sometimes he might be in the middle, on the inside, and sometimes he's not, and that's OK."

Mr. Ferlo's first big public disagreement with Mr. Ravenstahl came last month, when he voted for sweeping legislation to avert a statewide municipal pension meltdown. Among other things, it would have the state take over Pittsburgh's retirement fund.

Mr. Ravenstahl wants the city to replenish its pension fund with proceeds from leasing its parking garages. But Mr. Ferlo voted for the bill that would have the state seize the fund, plus give Philadelphia the right to boost its sales tax by 1 percentage point to deal with a cash flow crisis there.

When Mr. Ferlo and other area senators voted for the legislation, Mr. Ravenstahl publicly reminded them that they represent Pittsburgh, not Philadelphia. Mr. Ferlo shot back with a three-page letter, co-signed by Sens. Jay Costa and Wayne Fontana, rebuking the mayor for those comments, and listing 11 ways they'd improved the legislation.

Still, Mr. Ferlo's vote earned him some rebukes.

"He likes to portray himself as pro-labor. I don't view him as a pro-labor politician anymore in this day and age," said Teamsters Local 249 President Joe Rossi. He called the vote "a complete slap in the face."

"I think Jim has been put into a light that's not appropriate," countered Mr. Costa. "Not a single employee in Pittsburgh is affected negatively in any way except that their pension benefit is frozen."

On Friday, Mr. Ravenstahl said he won the support needed to get a two-year reprieve from a pension takeover. If it gets House approval and comes back to the Senate, "I would certainly be respectful of that," said Mr. Ferlo.

"Maybe the administration's not thrilled with me, but I want to continue to work with them."

Mr. Ravenstahl said he and the senator "talked after the pension bill, et cetera. And we've agreed to disagree on the issue. ... The good news is, 90 percent of the time, or 90-plus percent of the time, we agree."

On the URA board, Mr. Ferlo makes no apologies for directing development attention to his stomping ground. The city "had to [redevelop] South Side, and Second Avenue [in South Oakland], those are major priorities. But now we have the Allegheny riverfront," he said. "That time has come now. And it won't just be this mayor. It'll probably be two mayors."

When he joined the Senate in 2003, there were questions about whether an urban activist would serve a district that stretches from Brighton Heights in the city and Wilkinsburg on its doorstep up the Allegheny River and down the Kiskiminetas into Armstrong County. He seems to be working every corner of it.

"Sen. Jim Ferlo has been phenomenal for the Borough of Apollo," said that town's council president, John C. Ameno Jr. When Apollo wasn't big enough to get certain state development funds, the senator engineered the creation of the Freeport, Leechburg Apollo Group -- or FLAG -- allowing those towns to jointly get money they couldn't touch singly.

Mr. Ferlo also has worked -- sometimes in a suit, sometimes in coveralls -- on everything from sewer improvements to lot cleanups in the river towns, said Mr. Ameno.

When Sharpsburg was at risk of losing its library, the senator organized a fundraising concert involving the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, reeled in some state money, and identified a foundation that provided a grant to buy a new building for the much-needed facility, said Sharpsburg Borough Manager Ron Borczyk. The new library opened in January.

Even in Republican-voting Fawn, he's been a presence, especially after remnants of Hurricane Ivan caused flooding in 2004.

"Sen. Ferlo's office has been very helpful in assisting us with some of the remediation," getting labor and seeking money to fix the Bull Creek watershed, said David Montanari, chairman of Fawn's board of supervisors, a Republican.

Much of his district is more conservative than his Highland Park home ward and his Lawrenceville power base. But even if Mr. Ferlo appears on TV screens everywhere railing against the G-20 while protesters cheer, that's not likely to hurt his popularity when he presumably runs again in 2010, said several observers from the district's towns.

"There's a lot of concern, and one of the few rights that we still have is the right to be different," said Mr. Montanari. "Jim's just standing for that voice, and it's a welcome voice in today's world."

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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