City Council-at-Large candidate, Pastor Nicholas O’Rourke and his wife, Leslie. The couple were at the Chestnut Hill Breakfast Boutique while campaigning last week. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

by Pete Mazzaccaro

There are 17 people running for seven City Council-at-Large seats on Nov. 5. Many expect all five Democrats to comfortably win five of those seats The other two seats have traditionally gone to Republican candidates – the current holders of those seats are Republicans Al Taubenberger and David Oh.

But strong campaigns from some of the independent and third-party candidates pose a serious challenge to those Republican seats. The most notable challenge comes from two candidates representing the Working Families Party – Kendra Brooks and Nicholas O’Rourke.

O’Rourke, a West Philadelphia resident who is pastor at Living Water United Church of Christ in Oxford Circle, and an organizer with the organization POWER, campaigned across the city last Thursday, Oct. 24, stopping at the Chestnut Hill Breakfast Boutique on 8630 Germantown Ave. The Local sat down for a quick 15-minute conversation, the transcript of which is below. It has been edited for clarity and space.

Local: How do you view the hurdles you face to get a seat on City Council?

O’Rourke: So what we have in our interest is a platform that many in the city are committed to – seeing an end to poverty, being committed to criminal justice reform and a good quality education. Our issues are the issues that the lion’s share of people in the city are in agreement with.

So we are getting folks to vote independent and recognizing that no Democrats will be harmed. It was the hurdle that we knew going into this: to make sure that we did a massive education process and a campaign across the city so folks know that this is how we get this done. No Democrats will be harmed in the process, and we’ll be able to take the Republicans out on a good platform.

So yeah, that’s the hurdle, and we think that we’re doing a good job of jumping.

Local: What is the single most important issue for you?

O’Rourke: As an organizer, every issue that I’m looking at is something that is absolutely important.

What I will say is this: We are the poorest big city in the country. And every single one of the issues that we’re lifting up is tied to the fact that we are the poorest big city in the country. When we are talking about education funding, we’re talking about a lack of resources.

We have impoverished schools. We have many folks who have been locked up. We’ve seen some reforms around this recently, and my focus point as organizer has been around criminal justice reform. And we recognize that one of the main drivers around the high rate of incarceration here in the city is one that is tied to poverty. When money is a part of what decides whether or not you should be behind bars or in front of them, that’s an issue. Of all people facing incarceration, 40% could not afford to pay a $100 bail. So we’re talking about criminalizing poverty, right? That’s a major issue.

This morning, I talked to somebody at the Olney Shopping Center who does business there, and he said, “You know, business is not that great.” So what will make business better? If folks have more money. The reality is Philadelphia still pays people legally $7.25 an hour. That’s a major issue. There are some folks who are making less than that in the city.

And so I will say that though all of the issues that I’m looking at, poverty is the one thing I think that ties it all together. And if we prioritize that, addressing problems and finding the ways that we can reduce that drastically, I think that we will see a major improvement unilaterally across the city.

Local: How do you feel about the 10-year tax abatement?

O’Rourke: One of the positions that we have taken is that the 10-year tax abatement needs to end. It may even preempt are being elected, because I believe they’re scheduled to discuss it in November. But our position is to see the reason why, because you are seeing a significant amount of money that the tax abatement has basically siphoned off from various parts of the city. You have folks like Comcast, you know, a multi-billion-dollar corporation that’s not paying property taxes right here to Philadelphia … but the school system is missing out on $60 million per year.

So we have conversations around what’s going on with SLA (Science Learning Academy), Ben Franklin High School and all these other schools. They’ve been filled with mold, asbestos and lead in the water, things like that. Students and staff are walking and learning in conditions that are dilapidated and unsafe and unhealthy. And that’s because we don’t have the resources, and we could get those resources.

Local: How do you feel about charter schools?

Charter schools have been the only option for many folks – folks I’ve had the opportunity to work with, folks who I pastor in my church and others I know – so we’re grateful that charter schools have been able to provide schools for many who felt like there were no viable, safe options.

Also, because charter schools are drawing from that same funding as the public schools, it’s siphoning off money that would normally go to the public school system. I think we are charter-heavy in the city. And I think what is appropriate now is if we call for a moratorium on charters. I’m not suggesting that we need to close them all down; I’m saying that we don’t need to build any more right now because we need to make sure our public school are actually getting fixed.

Local: What made you decide to run?

As an organizer, we believe in building power, right? To be able to change the kind of things we see in the city, we have to have relationships. And so, when you’re building that power and those relationships, what you tend to not want to do is leave any power left to chance. What we see on Council is that there are two seats that are basically being ceded to folks who do not align with the values that myself and the folks I have relationships with have, right? So this is a great opportunity for us to make sure that we that we advance our cause.

I also think we need to diversify the folks we have on Council. I represent a different kind of family dynamic, as I’m in an interfaith marriage with my wife. Oftentimes, as a black woman who happens to be Muslim in post-9/11 America, her voice is not heard and has often been kind of cast to the margin society. As a black man in society, I recognize that racism is often something that we deal with in a similar way. We are oftentimes targeted by police and by the criminal justice system … We need to make sure that we have people who are connected, as we say, who are closest to the pain on Council. It’s time to bring the folks who are on the outside to the center of the conversation so we can begin to really shift what it is that we talked about.