Leonard Staisey in 1967 was no stranger to election campaigns. Prior to that year Staisey had been elected to the City of Duquesne Board of Education in 1949, served 2-terms in the Pennsylvania State Senate between 1960 and 1966, and had competed in a tightly contested, yet ultimately unsuccessfully, race for Lieutenant Governor in 1966. Candidates for Allegheny County Commissioners in 1967, Staisey and fellow democrat Tom Foerster campaigned for progressive initiatives amidst growing social tensions that would explode in 1968.
Leonard Clifton Staisey, born in 1920 in Duquesne, Pa., suffered a brain tumor when he was seven years old and was left permanently visually impaired following removal surgery. Never one to use his impairment as an excuse, Staisey attended and graduated valedictorian from the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in 1940, earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in 1944, and a juris doctorate three years later. Following his admission to the Bar of Allegheny County in 1948-becoming the first blind lawyer ever admitted-he was appointed assistant district attorney two years later, again earning the distinction of being the first blind lawyer in the United States to serve in such a position.
Perhaps it was the political tendencies of the Pittsburgh region in the 1960s, the public mood of discontent with the political discourse, or a combination of both that secured Staisey and Foerster an overwhelming victory in the November 1967 general election. Of the 1,061,488 votes cast for the six candidates, Staisey won 269, 530 and Foerster garnered 245,548, respectively, with Republican William Hunt receiving just under 200,000.
Inaugurated in January of 1968, Staisey began his first term as social, political, cultural, and economic unrest swept across the United States, including throughout Pittsburgh. Labor and union strikes, race riots, unemployment and housing issues, and aging public infrastructure all generated a bevy of problems for the commissioners to tackle in their first term.
Staisey and his fellow commissioners worked to improve the lives of those living in Allegheny County. They initiated job training through the expansion of the Allegheny County Community College system and the establishment of both a police and fire training academy, and spurred job creation via the Industrial Development Authority and Department of Manpower. The commissioners invested in modernizing the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport and upgrading public transit systems, commenced the first program of county aid to municipalities involving roads, parks, water, and sewers, and strengthened county welfare, mental health, and rehabilitation programs. Additionally, ground was broken for Three Rivers Stadium in April 1968, a venue that would be a symbol of Pittsburgh for 30 years.
Leonard Staisey served as an Allegheny County Commissioners until 1976. Three years later he became the first blind lawyer in Pennsylvania to be elected Judge for the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, serving on the bench until his sudden death in 1990. Throughout his distinguished 40 year career, Staisey never let his lack of sight impede his personal vision. While he received numerous awards and recognitions for his outstanding efforts towards the betterment of the lives of all citizens of Pennsylvania, his accomplishments while in public office speak for themselves.
Visit the Heinz History Center’s new exhibit, 1968: The Year that Rocked America, to learn more about the events that shaped Pittsburgh and the country in 1968.