• 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.