State rep La Shawn Ford, advocate for ex-offenders, hopes he doesn't become one

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State rep La Shawn Ford: I’m fighting to keep people out of jail, out of the system, and now I’m in the system. Its just crazy.
  • Seth Perlman/AP
  • State rep La Shawn Ford: "I'm fighting to keep people out of jail, out of the system, and now I'm in the system. It's just crazy."
State representative La Shawn Ford is trying to stay hopeful. "I love Austin," he says on a recent drive through the west-side neighborhood at the heart of his district. "If only we could get it right and allow opportunities to be here. Otherwise . . . "

He doesn't finish the thought before a couple of buildings on Chicago Avenue get his attention. "There were two banks here when I was growing up," he says. "And now there are no banks."

Ford has an affable personality and a resonant bass voice that usually makes him seem relaxed and confident. But lately he can't avoid showing some frustration.

"Things were getting better when the real estate market was good. Everybody was doing renovations. Look at this one." He points to a frame house with a new roof. The house is boarded up. "When the bubble burst, the people who did the new renovations, they lost their homes."

Only substantial public investment can stop the bleeding, he argues—like incentives for new businesses. Instead, the government seems to be cutting its losses. Ford waves toward McNair Elementary School, a recently rehabbed brick building that stands out on a troubled stretch of Cicero Avenue. It's on the list of schools that Mayor Rahm Emanuel may shutter this spring. "That's not a good sign, when you're going to close a school you just spent $50 million to renovate," Ford says. "It just doesn't make sense."

It's not the only thing that doesn't add up right now for Ford. Not so long ago, he was one of the feel-good stories in politics. Now he's hoping to avoid prison.

Ford, 41, was adopted as a baby by his grandmother; his father was never in the picture and his mother was lost in drug addiction. His grandmother still lives in the modest Austin home where she raised him. As a young man Ford considered the priesthood, then taught elementary school for several years. When he was 20 he bought a building in the neighborhood, rehabbed it, and sold it for a profit, and within a decade he had a prosperous real estate business.

But he was still drawn to community work, and in 2006, on his third attempt, Ford beat incumbent state representative Calvin Giles, whose family had been entrenched in west-side politics for years.

In Springfield Ford has established a reputation as a criminal-justice reformer willing to buck the Democratic hierarchy. In 2010 he and colleague John Fritchey called for the national guard to deploy in Chicago to help quell street violence; the idea was promptly rejected by then-Mayor Richard Daley. Two years ago Ford, along with Fritchey, was among the first elected officials in Chicago to publicly declare his support for decriminalizing marijuana, which led to a new city ordinance allowing police to issue tickets rather than locking up low-level users. He's repeatedly sponsored legislation to help ex-offenders find work and stay out of prison.

But Ford has been mired in his own legal problems since November, when he was indicted in federal court on 17 counts of bank fraud. Prosecutors allege he falsified records to increase his real estate loans from now-defunct ShoreBank, then used some of the funds on personal expenses, including car payments, political campaigning, and checks to the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond.

The charges prompted headlines about yet another Chicago politician headed to the courthouse, if not prison—but also sympathy from Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin and constituents who showed up at his first court hearing.

Ford says he's still reeling from the indictment. "They hit me right in the gut," he says. "I hope I don't become an ex-offender."

He insists that he's not guilty—that he kept careful records and had the same account with ShoreBank for 15 years, so they knew exactly where the loan money was going. "I thought about taking a plea. I don't want to go to trial. It costs so much—so much. But how can I take a felony for something I didn't do?"

As we approach Laramie and Division, Ford interrupts himself to point out a single-family home he rehabbed a few years ago. He pauses a moment before resuming.

"I'm sure people look at me now and question my integrity, and that hurts more than anything," he says. "Living in the neighborhood where I grew up and knowing I go out on the corners and talk to the people who are not in school, who are probably selling drugs, who are struggling with life, and just saying, 'Just go to school, stay away from drugs, do the right thing, and then you can make it'—and now they're looking at me, because they think that I'm in bank fraud. Or they think, 'Man, I know he did the right thing and guess what? He's in worse shape than I ever could be in. He's got 17 counts!'

"It's horrible. But who am I to not be persecuted? I mean, they persecuted Jesus Christ, and I'm no comparison to him."

A trial could be months away. In the meantime, Ford says has no plans to resign and is trying to focus on his work. He wants legislators to try to slow or stop the school closings, and he plans to introduce legislation that would essentially replicate Chicago's pot ticketing policy statewide, potentially keeping thousands of people out of jail or prison. "We'll keep fighting," he says.

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