by Elizabeth Coady
“This is a lot like speed-dating,” said City Councilmember-at-Large candidate Eryn Santamoor, looking campaign trail-ready in a bright blue blazer at a ‘Meet the Candidates’ mixer hosted Monday night, Feb. 25, by the 9th Ward Democratic Committee.
Indeed, the night was very much about first impressions as 40 candidates, their staff and volunteers worked the meeting room inside the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House, wooing area constituents for votes and signatures to qualify for the ballot in Philadelphia’s May 21 primary election.
An audible buzz powered the night, which doubled as a fundraiser for the 9th Ward Democratic Committee. Candidates paid $150 in order to directly appeal to area residents who have a reputation for being more progressive and independent than voters from other city districts.
The event drew a crowd of about 150, said Barbara Thomson, a 9th Ward committee person who co-chaired the event.
The turnout “exceeded our expectation,” said Dante Zappala, chair of the 9th Ward’s Democratic Committee. “… Many of the candidates told us that this was the best event they had been to.”
State Rep. Chris Rabb (D-200th), the 9th Ward’s Leader, who called the event “outstanding,” spent the entire evening recording videos of 38 candidates that he uploaded immediately to the 9th Ward Democratic Committee Facebook page.
“I didn’t realize that I would be doing this nonstop, because there’s so many people,” Rabb said. “I didn’t get a chance to eat; I didn’t get a chance to do anything.”
As Rabb spoke, Committeeperson Sid Evans swung by to shake hands on his way out the door. “Best one ever,” Evans told Rabb.
All told, 40 candidates registered to attend, including 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and her two challengers, community activist Tonya Bah and Patrick Jones, a former Bass staff member. In her short video clip with Rabb, Bass appealed to voters for re-election and cited the unfairness of the city’s tax abatement plan as an issue she wants to tackle during her next term.
“We need those monies for city’s services and, most importantly, for our school district in Philadelphia,” Bass said. “Our children deserve nothing less.”
Tonya Bah, a community activist seeking to oust Bass, said she is campaigning for greater “transparency” than her opponent offers, and against the privatization of public education. She also said that she would like the Keystone standardized tests to be eliminated.
“I think that we should definitely get rid of the Keystone exams as an exit exam from high school,” said Bah, who has twins enrolled in Philadelphia public schools. “Algebra, biology and English are very important, but our educators are very well-suited to understand and to assess, and they can come up with final exams like what we used to have.”
Among the candidates for a judgeship on the Court of Common Pleas was Henry Sias, who would be the first transgender man to serve as a judge in the United States. He said he seeks to diversify the bench and to inspire other transgender people. “They really need to see Philadelphia as a place where they can have hope for their future,” he said.
Kahlil Williams, a committeeperson in the city’s 8th Ward who is running to serve on the Philadelphia City Commission which oversees city elections, was also in attendance.
“I would venture to say that I’m the most qualified person to ever run for this position,” said Williams, a Columbia University law school grad whose background makes a convincing case of his claim.
Per his website, KahlilforPhilly.com, Williams worked as “a Policy Analyst for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, focusing on redistricting reform, campaign finance reform and felon disenfranchisement.” Prior to that, he was a Fellow for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and was employed at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., where he worked to reauthorize expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to his site.
In a brief conversation, City Councilwoman-at-Large incumbent Helen Gym said she wants to focus on affordable housing, revising the current tax abatement program and improving city schools.
“We are just only now reversing years and years of disinvestment in our public institutions, and our public schools in particular, and we can see enormous advantages when they happen,” Gym said. “Whole neighborhoods are turning around. Families are staying in our city. So we want to continue those investments. But I think that the biggest challenge that we have right now is about whether this is a Philadelphia that will feel affordable and accessible to every single family, not just 10 years from now but even five years from now.”
She also called President Donald Trump’s efforts to build a wall on our southern border “insane,” crediting the influx of immigrants to Philadelphia with revitalizing the city.
“I think it’s critically important for Philadelphians to recognize that we reversed five decades of population decline in part because new families and new communities, including immigrants, have come back to our city,” she said. “They’ve revitalized our economic corridors, they’re flowing into our public schools and making them vibrant; they’ve added to cultural vitality and diversity of our city. It’s what people want when they come to Philadelphia.”
Eryn Santamoor, a former Deputy Managing Director for Philadelphia, who takes credits for helping to develop Philly311, said she was running for the at-Large position because she wants to take a broad approach to solving the city’s problems.
“For me, I really want to take a holistic approach to city management, which is my background,” she said. “How our services are working in every neighborhood matters to me, and how we map that out, and how we make more strategic investments. You really need to take a full citywide look at that, because I believe fair is not equal. And we have to have new approaches to resolving some of our biggest challenges.”
She named several key concerns: poverty, schools, transportation and policing. But one issue that particularly resonates with her, due to her own life experience, is addiction treatment and counseling. She said her husband is a recovering drug and alcohol addict and that the city government could do more to create “wraparound” services for the entire family.
“We have a lot of challenges in our urban setting,” she said. “We don’t get to issues early and we don’t help the entire family that’s impacted … Our teachers are begging for help when it comes to counseling services for the schools.”
And as one might expect at a Democratic party event, attendees expressed frustration with the current administration.
“Everyone’s politically motivated, given what’s going on in the country right now,” said Chuck McNabb, a committeeperson who described himself as a “lifelong voter and a lifelong Democrat.”
When asked to elaborate, he paused before answering.
“The present administration has made our choices pretty stark,” he said.
“Immigration, healthcare, our relationship with our allies and that sort of thing – all of them I think are in danger right now. It’s time for everybody from the Democratic side and on the Republican side to stand up and make the choices that need to be made.”