Corry Sanders explores new options after receiving a full pardon from Gov. Tom Wolf
by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
Forget about a City Council seat; Corry Sanders wants to run for mayor of McKeesport, and this time, nothing can get in his way.
For those who are familiar with Sanders, wanting to become mayor in the city in which he was raised isn’t breaking news. From the barber shops, to the barber schools, to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office Downtown, to the Center for Victims offices on the South Side, it seems like Sanders’ destiny is for him to land him in McKeesport’s mayoral chair.
It’s Sanders who knows what it’s like to grow up in McKeesport, which has had its share of good times and bad times. It’s Sanders who was an astute businessman as owner of Kool Kutz Barber Shop in McKeesport for 20 years. It’s Sanders who has dedicated his life to bettering the lives of others, particularly young African Americans in this region.
Today, you can find Sanders at the Center for Victims as a Diversity and Inclusion Community Specialist. Center for Victims is a community-based nonprofit that bills itself as “the largest, most comprehensive, inclusive provider of services, advocacy, and education for victims of all crime” in the state.
Sanders has spent the past two years helping the clients that Center for Victims serves, but he also plays a vital role in making sure the professional staff at Center for Victims can better relate to the men and women who come to the center. He meets with the center’s social workers and other therapists, with a client present, and Sanders gets to “strip the picture that they (Center for Victims professionals) have painted (about the client or client’s situation). I reframe it and then I change the lenses they see it through.” Sanders said a person’s perception is only what they go through personally.
“So, instead of looking at a young kid at the age of 13, 18 or 16 and you’re so quick to just ‘cut his head off’ and just say ‘it’s criminal, throw them away,’ you can look at the person just like you would look at one of yours, with more care. That person might be dealing with addiction, or abuse inside the household, any number of things. But a person really doesn’t understand why that person is acting that way until they understand their mindset. And your mind controls everything.”
Sanders, now 50, was referred to working at the Center for Victims through County DA Stephen Zappala. Ironically, according to Sanders, Zappala was the one some McKeesport officials allegedly were “running to” after Sanders, fair and square, won a seat on McKeesport City Council in the November 2015 election.
Sanders had won the fourth and final open seat on McKeesport City Council; then pandemonium ensued. An “anonymous tip” to the County DA’s office revealed that Sanders had a prior felony drug conviction in 1993. He had pleaded no contest to felony possession of a controlled substance, with the intent to deliver, and served four years in prison.
Pennsylvania law bars anyone from holding public office who’s been convicted of a felony.
It was a WWE-style piledriver of a decision to Sanders when he learned of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Joseph M. James’ ruling on Feb. 24, 2016. Judge James effectively confirmed the blocking of Sanders’ serving on McKeesport City Council until he received a full pardon from the governor.
“It is unfortunate that this situation has arisen given the fact that Mr. Sanders has put his past indiscretions behind him and, by all accounts, lived an exemplary life since then,” Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Kevin McCarthy wrote at the time. “Nonetheless, we are all called upon to uphold the Constitution and laws of Pennsylvania and must follow the law and procedures laid out for us. I am certain and satisfied that Mr. Sanders will one day be eligible to serve the people of McKeesport and I am sure that you, like me, look forward to that day.”
Sanders, undeterred, made it a point to be granted a full pardon from Governor Tom Wolf, who has held the state’s top office since 2015. John Fetterman, who at the time was the mayor of neighboring Braddock, lobbied Gov. Wolf to grant Sanders a pardon, knowing firsthand the pillar in the community Sanders had become. Others in high places soon backed Sanders, too, including Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff, State Reps. Ed Gainey and Jake Wheatley, and Austin Davis, who became a State House member representing the McKeesport district, among other municipalities, in 2018. As Sanders filled out the necessary paperwork and paid on court costs, he still kept his Kool Kutz Barber Shop running. Not only was it a place in McKeesport where young people could get a fresh cut, but they heard Sanders’ positive advice and positive outlook on life. The young people would take those words of wisdom with them for their future endeavors.
JUDGE DWAYNE WOODRUFF, the Court of Common Pleas’ Supervising Family Court judge, of Corry Sanders: “Corry Sanders is the best ‘comeback’ example that I can give to youth who are adjudicated in my courtroom. Sanders’ story shows kids that they don’t have to let the mistakes of their youth determine their future. Like Sanders, they can get on the right path, work hard, and be a leader in their family, church and community. (Photo by Harry Funk/The South Hills Almanac)
In 2016, Sanders found himself front-and-center with instructors at the Barber School of Pittsburgh; the school’s owner heard of Sanders’ trials and tribulations with his Council seat through the media, and eventually offered Sanders the title of head instructor.
Instructors from the Barber School of Pittsburgh’s Monroeville and Ambridge sites would come to the West End location, where Sanders would stress to them that teaching “is more than just teaching.”
Not only do you have to be a people person, Sanders said, “you have to be a facilitator, counselor, and master educator,” he told the Courier during an exclusive interview, Oct. 29. “Every class is going to be different depending on the set of students that you get, and you’re dealing with 15 to 30 students every 10 months.”
Many of the students at the Barber School of Pittsburgh, who were between the ages of 20 to 38, were interested in opening up their own shop one day. Sanders was there to provide guidance on that front, as he employed anywhere from 8 to 12 barbers consistently during his ownership of Kool Kutz.
Pardons don’t happen overnight
That’s the estimated time it takes for a clemency application to make it to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, the Courier has learned, and even then, it’s not guaranteed that a hearing for the applicant will be granted. Pardons, which are a form of clemency, are usually granted by the governor or the president in the U.S. States vary in their pardon process; In states like Oregon, New York and New Jersey, a governor makes pardon decisions without the advice or recommendation of an independent board. In locales like Montana and Michigan, the governor consults with an independent board, but can grant a pardon against the advice of the board. In states like Pennsylvania and Texas, the governor cannot grant a pardon without an independent board first recommending in the affirmative a pardon for the applicant.
From 2016 to 2018, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons reviewed 971 clemency applications, and recommended 878 for a public hearing. From those 878 hearings, the board recommended 723 pardons. As the recommended pardons appeared before Gov. Wolf’s desk, he officially granted pardons to 718 of the 723 (99 percent).
When Sept. 11, 2019 came, Sanders was both excited and nervous. He had learned beforehand that his application would be heard by the board, and on Sept. 11, he appeared in Harrisburg before the board, which was chaired by Fetterman, who had become Lt. Governor. The other members—Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Corrections Expert Harris Gubernick, Psychiatrist John P. Williams, MD, and Victim Representative Marsha H. Grayson, Esq.—listened attentively as Sanders made his case to be pardoned.
The board decided, unanimously, to recommend a pardon for Sanders. It was one of 292 pardons the board recommended to the governor in 2019. Given Gov. Wolf’s propensity to grant the vast majority of the pardons recommended by the state board, Sanders figured it was only a matter of time before Gov. Wolf signed on the dotted line.
An entire year went by.
But a few months ago, on Monday, Sept. 14, Sanders left the Center for Victims to get something at his home that he needed for work. Just before he left the house, a mail carrier arrived at the front door and asked Sanders to sign for a certified letter.
“Is that from Harrisburg?” Sanders asked the mail carrier.
“How did you know?” The mail carrier replied.
The female mail carrier and Sanders never discussed what could have been inside the big envelope. Sanders signed for it, then took it in the house, opened the letter, and inside was his full pardon certificate from Gov. Wolf, signed on Aug. 27, 2020.
“Therefore, know ye, that in consideration of the premises and by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution, I have pardoned the said Corry J. Sanders, born on May 28, 1970…of the crime(s) whereof he was convicted as aforesaid, and he is hereby thereof fully pardoned accordingly,” the certified letter read, as the gold Pennsylvania seal was prominently displayed.
Among the first to learn that Sanders was officially pardoned was Judge Woodruff.
“Corry Sanders is the best ‘comeback’ example that I can give to youth who are adjudicated in my courtroom,” Woodruff, the Court of Common Pleas’ Supervising Family Court judge, said in a statement to the Courier. “Sanders’ story shows kids that they don’t have to let the mistakes of their youth determine their future. Like Sanders, they can get on the right path, work hard, and be a leader in their family, church and community.”
Wanting more than a Council seat
Corry Sanders is “living his best life,” as the kids say these days. Married with four children, he continues to provide expertise at the Center for Victims, where he was lured to the job by Zappala. The DA approached Sanders in late 2018 with the opportunity to take his teaching skills he perfected with the Barber School instructors to the Center for Victims’ untreated trauma unit. Sanders told the Courier he’s been welcomed with open arms at the center, located at 3343 E. Carson St.
But he wants it known that he also has his eyes and his heart on the mayor’s chair in McKeesport, the town he knows so well. He graduated from McKeesport Area High School in 1989, and feels he has the political clout necessary to attain the public funding desperately needed to make improvements in the city.
“I’m a different product of the streets of McKeesport,” Sanders told the Courier. “I’ve been on both aisles; I have one hat, but have many feathers in it. I can connect across the board with young, old, Black or White. I have a lot of common sense. I’m a businessman, an educator, and I have the connections and the resources outside of McKeesport that can bring those grants every mayor needs to help rehab and rebuild the city.”
Current McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko was re-elected to another four-year term in November 2019. Sanders told the Courier that when 2023 rolls around, he’ll definitely be on the ballot.
“McKeesport needs real, true change in leadership, and they need to be able to connect to the people, hear them, understand what it is they need; and then actually put for the effort in making it work,” Sanders told the Courier exclusively. “I will be running for that mayor’s seat because, being granted my full pardon, there’s nothing I can’t do, and no one can call foul. My whole past is completely shredded and gone.”