Sozi Tulante
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Philly’s city solicitor with an incredible backstory is itching to fight Big Soda

“I could give you the answer everybody does that every lawsuit is important,” Sozi Tulante says. “But some are more important than the others.”

The tiny bottles of Hug came in all flavors and colors: Blue, green, red, orange. Their common ingredient was always pure sugar. Sozi Tulante drank them growing up at the bodegas and corner stores in his North Philly neighborhood.

“To call it juice is to do a disservice to juice,” Tulante said. “There’s nothing in it.”

They were the drinks of his childhood, from a lifetime ago. He’s now a three cups of coffee and one bottle of water guy, not to mention the city’s lead attorney. It’s a far cry from the days he drank Hug. Then, he was an 8-year-old refugee from Zaire who dreamed of being a drug dealer until a run-in with a police officer so infuriated his father it set him straight. After attending Philly public schools, Tulante went on to Harvard and Harvard Law. He joined a private practice in Boston and then moved back to Philly for a stint with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Last December, Mayor Jim Kenney hired him to be his city solicitor.

Tulante’s first major task dealt with the Hug beverages, sodas, sports drinks and the other hundreds of sugar-sweetened beverages that will be taxed 1.5 cents per ounce. He had to ensure the city crafted legislation that would hold up in court. Now, weeks after the landmark decision was approved by City Council, a legal challenge from Big Soda appears likely, and Tulante’s expertise will be put to the test with Philadelphia soda tax in the balance.    

“I could give you the answer everybody does that every lawsuit is important,” Tulante says. “But some are more important than the others.”  

Philadelphia is home for Tulante. He lives in West Philly and says he feels he owes the city a “severe debt.” For so long, it was a place he couldn’t understand.

Tulante expected the gleaming skyscrapers and easy wealth of “Dallas,” “Knott’s Landing,” “Falcon Crest” and the other TV shows he’d seen in the 1980s. Instead, when his family immigrated here in 1983, they got a crowded home in a drug-infested stretch of Hunting Park near 9th and Erie streets. His father, who had been a military leader and educator before Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime arrested him as a political prisoner, took the job as a cab driver he would hold for the rest of his life. His mother, nine months pregnant when they arrived in Philly, largely stayed home to care for Tulante and his three siblings.

“When we arrived here one of my first reactions to my parents was, ‘When are we going to get to the United States?’” Tulante says. “My parents are like, ‘This is the United States.’ The notion of poverty and segregation was something that never occurred to me, that people would be divided strictly by class and strictly by race…A lot of refugees, not immigrants, you have PTSD because you think ‘Wait a minute, I’m here and living in places the country had forgotten.’”

Wanting to be a lawyer or any type of professional, Tulante says, “would have been a cruel joke.” So in his early adolescence he set his sights on becoming a drug dealer. Like many other ambitious young people from his neighborhood, he helped as a lookout and yelled anytime he saw police.    

One night Tulante decided to run away from home but didn’t think far ahead, not even remembering a toothbrush. A police officer caught up with him after about half a day and brought him home. He told Tulante’s father the next time he saw Tulante he would arrest him. The incident led to a long discussion and a successful attempt to get Tulante a change of scenery with a spot at Conwell Middle School in Kensington.

Rather than get in fights, he started achieving perfect attendance. Tulante got into the magnet program at Northeast High School and quickly became one of the best students in his class. Back then, the top 10 students in each Philadelphia public school graduating class were honored at an assembly, the names read in alphabetical order along with each student’s college choice.

“They announced Harvard and that crowd went berserk,” says Han Nguyen, a longtime friend of Tulante. “Actually my friend Andy was next to be announced and went to Cornell, and I don’t think anyone heard Andy’s name or the school. The crowd could not stop screaming.”

Among friends, Tulante is in high demand. Everyone wants to spend time with him, Nguyen says, and some even brag about how often they have lunch or how recently they spoke to him. His profile has risen even higher since his appointment as city solicitor. The move, thrusting him into a public leadership position, was expected by those close to him. And for Tulante, it was about repaying that debt he feels he owes the city and getting in a more proactive role, in many ways opposite of what he’d been doing as a federal prosecutor.

With the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he largely worked on major drug cases. He would look at defendant’s pre-sentence report every time and see “how they have been failed multiple times, you know, by the schools, social services and everything.”

“They make mistakes,” Tulante says. “People make choices without a doubt, but here they are.”

The Kenney Administration wants the soda tax as a means of increasing educational and recreational opportunities for children, as well as for bringing more revenue to the city’s fund balance. Big Soda is expected to challenge on two fronts: That the soda tax is a sales tax and would require passing by the state and that the soda tax violates Pennsylvania’s uniformity clause because it would be taxed differently than similar items.

Tulante said Council had the authority to pass the law and that it’s not a sales tax because the tax is on distributors. For the legislation to violate the uniformity clause, Tulante says, the inclusion or exclusion of a particular good would have to rise to a level of irrationality. He says that is not the case.        

“Taxation is about line drawing,” he says.

Nguyen, who considers Tulante one of the brightest people he knows, says, “If Sozi has counseled the city to say that this soda tax is constitutional and will work, then it will work. It doesn’t’ matter what lawyers or what law firms the soft drink lobbies hire. And frankly, I hope if it ends up in an oral argument I hope he handles the oral argument. If you’ve spoken to him you will know he’s very persuasive with his words.”

Nguyen wouldn’t be surprised if city solicitor was just the beginning of Tulante’s career in politics. He could see his friend as a future mayor. For now, Tulante is focused on protecting the legislation passed by City Council in what could be the biggest case of his career.  

“We,” he says, “have to properly defend the city.”

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