Monday, April 2, 2007

Interview: Leah Kirkland

"With respect for the process ... and with respect for the headquarters ... and with respect for Jim Burn ..."

Leah Kirkland did not care for the decision to open the District 9 party endorsement up to a second vote. The first vote found her in second place, to a disqualified candidate. She saw the ruling as a sharp break with precedent.

"Not only that, but it's very hurtful to the candidates -- we're all back to square one." Candidates for council had been courting the same pool of committee members and ward chairs since January; the election is fast approaching. She was impatient to focus on the community at large.

Kirkland met us late at night; she was wearing a tracksuit and a Leah Kirkland for City Council tee-shirt.

The following afternoon, she would once again finish second, this time to Ricky Burgess -- but not by much, and well ahead of incumbent Twanda Carlisle.


The District 9 of Leah Kirkland isn't described by wards -- or even neighborhoods. She goes by streets. Derry figures prominently, as does Lincoln.

"I remember back when kids would play in the street ..." she stops herself and smiles sweetly. "Yes, I'm only 25. But I remember kids playing, and adults watching over them, out on the porches."

She recalls many aunties and uncles keeping an informal, effective Neighborhood Watch. She couldn't quite define what happened, but she wants to use the office of city councilwoman to bring it back.

"The last thing we need are new empty community centers" she insists. "We have enough of those." She describes a very service-oriented office, that connects and harnesses existing community assets.

For example, Kirkland has been active with a young preservationist society (unaffiliated with Preservation Pittsburgh) that is reclaiming on Apple St. what it describes as the First Negro Opera House in the country. She also helped to bring a Family Dollar store to a problem street corner, and continues to crusade against nuisance bars.

She says her community is tired of broken promises and pipe dreams; there's been no development in her community, she says, in 20 years. Economic development tops her list of priorities along with senior citizens, children and youth, and crime prevention.

When asked about policing, and the use of the BEAR, she said "It leaves a sweet and sour taste in my mouth." She readily concedes that there is a war in the streets, but "we can't come in like we're in Iraq. You're going to get that defense mechanism, you don't get that trust."

"You don't see them on foot patrol" she says of the police department. "You don't see that friendliness. There's a lack of a relationship."

When asked about city finances, she said there is certainly no "one cure", but we must get more efficient, and we must make sure more money is coming in than going out. She favors some kind of system for those who simply work in Pittsburgh, and enjoy its many services, to make contributions.

So, you mean a commuter tax? "Yes."

She says she has nothing against Carlisle, whom she describes as "a wonderful person," but she politely demurred when asked about Burgess.

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