pols in their younger years
Billy Penn Illustration

7 Philly and PA politicians recall their 20s (with photos you won’t believe)

Being a twentysomething is awk. That got us wondering: how did our local politicians deal?

We reached out to a bunch of electeds at the city and state levels. We asked them what they loved the most, what they found most challenging.

The descriptions that they gave were recognizable. The overachieving student. The ambitious young attorney. The principled workaholic. Our mayor was the professional guy who made time for rock concerts. Our governor was the dude working his butt off in grad school.

Here’s how seven pols remember their 20s. Interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

State Rep. Brian Sims

1491691_579009195520529_736090540_n
Courtesy of Brian Sims

I knew my entire life that I was going to be a “Feminist Lawyer.” I took my LSATs when I was 16 with that goal in mind and it never really changed. It grew into Women’s and Reproductive Rights, and obviously LGBT rights, but that has been the driving force behind my professional career. Although my law degree is in International & Comparative Law, I came to Philly to practice law, first as a disability attorney and eventually as a policy attorney.

In a lot of ways that I’m very proud of, I was the same person [in my twenties]. Even throughout my teens if you’d have sat down next to me on a bus or in a class, I would have talked to you about women leaders and women’s rights. Doing it as a big football player probably caught a lot of people off guard but by the time I was back in Philly I was here practicing law so it seemed less unusual.

My first job out of college (graduated 2001) was at the Legal Aid Society of Central Michigan. I went straight from college to law school (graduated 2004) when I started law school that fall, I landed a job in the Career Services Department and at Legal Aid. I moved to Philly in May of 2004 and passed the Bar exam that year as well.

What were your favorite things about those years?

I became the captain of my college football team.

I went to a National Championship.

I graduated from law school.

I fell in love.

I made Philadelphia my home.

The biggest challenges of my twenties are still some of the biggest challenges of my 30s. I grew up with parents, and at a time, that supported graduate education. I always knew I wanted to work in law but I also always knew it would be some kind of public interest law. That adds up to not making the kind of money that most people really need to make in order to pay their loans and live in areas where they can work. Back then, I did the same thing I do now: I spend as much time as possible in the city’s free or low cost venues and use Philly’s amazing public spaces as much as possible.

Sims spoke via email.

City Councilman David Oh

fotorcreated2
Courtesy of David Oh

I clerked at a law firm as you can imagine. I taught karate for a couple months over the summer as I was getting ready for the bar just to have something to do. And I think that was it, outside of that, I was probably a full time student, and other than that I was probably helping my father who was the pastor of a church who had a lot of broken things all the time that needed fixing.

I did start a free legal service volunteer program. Right out of law school, I joined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, I was an assistant district attorney. I still had a weekend free legal services [program] for indigent Asian-Americans and anyone else who fell through the cracks. It was because at the time CLS did not do Asian languages. Yeah, this was a long time ago. This was 1985.

In 1988, I was 28 years old, I resigned from the DA’s office and I entered the army as private rather than as an officer. It wasn’t my desire to be an attorney in the military. I wanted to do something different.

I was not charting any course towards politics. (He laughs.) I was charting a course towards having a law firm— that’s what I wanted to do.

It was always my thought that if I were a successful attorney I would be able hire and develop young people to be become good lawyers, judges and hopefully elected officials.

I didn’t come from a wealthy family, wasn’t well connected. As an Asian-American, son of an immigrant and all that, I wasn’t in the loop. I understood that there was many things I wasn’t aware of.

When I wasn’t working or doing something like that. I would speak with my friends who were equally unknowledgeable as me so now in retrospect, I don’t know what we were talking about, but we were basically doing what [twentysomethings] do, we were mapping out the future of the world, and how things are going to be, plotting and planning our careers, so I thought it was time well spent.

It was important stuff I was doing, but I wasn’t a decision maker. I was a worker bee.

I’m so glad I’m not in my twenties anymore. What a disruptive time that is.

What made it so disruptive?

I believed that I would have a difficult time to achieve my goals. It’s not that there was so many surprises, [but] that the road was difficult and it was more just to stick with it. To be persistent and steady. Not to have ups and downs, [by that] I mean emotional highs and lows, just to take the good days as a good days, bad days as bad days, and put one foot in front of the other.

Oh spoke by phone.

Mayor Jim Kenney

Mayor Kenney, not yet in his twenties, still a high school student at St. Joe's prep; Kenney among a throng of fellow graduates at LaSalle.

Mayor Kenney, not yet in his twenties, still a high school student at St. Joe's prep; Kenney among a throng of fellow graduates at LaSalle.

Jim Kenney on Flickr

[Out of college,] I worked for my state representative. (Ed Note: He is not referring to his state rep. He was referring to his state senator at the time, Vince Fumo.) I started out as a constituent service representative and worked my way up to chief of staff.

I was working in politics already, but at that point, I really didn’t see myself ever becoming an elected official.

Looking back, it was a pretty challenge-free time, at least in comparison to the stuff that comes later in life as your responsibilities increase

You’re only accountable to yourself at that age. It’s pretty freeing.

What were your favorite things to do outside of work and school?

Concerts. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Phil Collins, The Police

Kenney spoke via email.

Senator Bob Casey, by phone

untitled
Courtesy of Bob Casey

I was teaching fifth grade all subjects all day, then coaching an eighth-grade basketball team for part of the year. So that was my first year out of college, second year was a paralegal… By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was married and in law school.

Politics, I have to say that I was not that engaged, engaged in a very limited way, despite the fact that my father had been involved in politics for years at that point. The period of time in my early-to-mid-twenties, he was out of politics. Then when I was 26, actually starting at 25, he began to get engaged again and running for governor again, so that kind of drew me back into it I guess.

I had decided after a lot of thought to leave law school for a year and to work in his campaign. So for most of the calendar year in 1986, starting in January, and continuing through the election and thereafter I was working on his campaign, which brought me again to Philadelphia. I was working as a field director… I was dealing with all 69 wards 1, their ward leaders, committee people, and elected officials, activists and labor leaders. It gave me a great introduction to Philadelphia politics.

Being exposed to the political system and the process and the players, the personalities. In that year, I worked with a campaign manager by the name of James Carville, who no one knew who he was then, but now most people in politics know a lot about who he is.

I went back to law school in 87 into 88. Fortunately passed the bar exam. But then after passing it, I went back into politics for working on the lead up and through his re-election in 1990, which gave me a great exposure to politics across the state.

Got married. Terese and I had our first daughter when we were 28. In addition to the obvious personal milestones, which are significant, I think it would have been working on the 86 campaign and being a volunteer teacher in the 82-83 school year. As challenging as being in a campaign can be, it was not nearly as challenging as being a volunteer teacher.

I think that the kids I taught— I learned from their lives and their struggles more than they did from me.

I was doing a job I didn’t necessarily feel prepared for. I didn’t go to a higher education institution that focused on education and teaching. I was an English major at a liberal arts college who decided to be a volunteer.

It was a great introduction to a big city. It was a great introduction to communities that are struggling, I just happened to be there during the terrible recession of 1982. The unemployment rate in the state was very, very high, probably statewide in the double figures. Therefore in lower-income communities, like the communities in North Philly where I was, the unemployment rate  in some neighborhoods was… oh, I can’t even imagine— 14 percent, 15 percent? A lot of economic trauma.

As a volunteer, I lived in one community at 23rd and Tioga and then taught at 17th and Thompson at the Gesu school.

Didn’t have a car, so either had to get there by way of the 33 bus, or taking a bus over to Broad Street and getting on the Broad Street Line… Just getting to know public transportation, which I didn’t get to know growing up in Scranton because you didn’t get to go very far and normally someone had a car.

I have a better appreciation for public transportation as a public official because of that experience.

Casey spoke by phone.

City Commissioner Al Schmidt

albert
Courtesy of Al Schmidt

[I was] a lot more serious than I should’ve been.  Always pushing forward, but with no particular goal in mind other than public service.

Social anxiety is – and has always been – the biggest personal challenge I’ve confronted in life.  I can’t say that I’ve ever successfully addressed it.

I went directly from college to graduate school.  My first job after getting my Ph.D. in political history was as a Policy Analyst in Washington D.C. for the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.  After that, I worked as a Senior Analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Being at GAO was an incredible experience working with a talented group of people to make government more efficient and effective.  We would spend months, or years, analyzing issue areas or particular government programs before reporting our findings and recommendations to Members of Congress.  We had the ear of decision makers on Capitol Hill, but it was a discouraging thing to see the policy makers we advised making decisions that were politically expedient, rather than what was right.  So, I decided that I wanted to be a decision maker instead of someone advising a decision maker.  Getting into politics was a means to an end.

What were your favorite things to do, outside of work?

N/A

Schmidt spoke via email.

City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell

Blackwell in her younger years

Blackwell in her younger years

In my “early 20’s” I was hopeful, focused, still trying to save the world!

The first place I worked was at West Park Housing a Philadelphia Housing Authority site, teaching Pre-K or Kindergarten.

Outside of work my favorite things to do were writing poetry and having dinner with my best friend, Delores Wilson, who taught French and Spanish at West Philadelphia High School.  

I loved teaching and wanted to be a principal or run my own school after teaching seventh, eighth & ninth grades. I met a parent named Lucien E. Blackwell, who changed EVERYTHING!! (Ed. note: They married in 1972.)

The biggest challenge I faced during that time was trying to help raise Lucien’s six children.  Any challenge can be faced with God’s grace, patience and consistency.

Blackwell spoke via email.

Governor Tom Wolf

1890619_267167720121636_967437479_o
Wolf for PA on Facebook

I was 19. I dropped out of college and went off to the Peace Corps. I had my 20th birthday in India. I loved it. I was there like two years and four or five months. Best two and half years of my life. The closest Peace Corps volunteer to me was an hour away by bus, so I was in this remote village. I pulled my water out of a well.

The biggest challenge for me was to get people to embrace the idea of high-yielding rice. I spent a lot of time trying to convince them that this kid from York County, Pennsylvania actually had something that might work.

I finally convinced some folks to try it. Worked some small farms, they were tribals actually, and the rains held, so they had a ten-fold increase in their yield. But that was a big challenge to get that done.

So, when I came back, I finished Dartmouth. At that point, I was 22. I guess I went through in less than three years. Then a master’s degree at the University of London. Did that for two years. Enjoyed that. Really, at that point, I got really serious about the fact I wanted to be an academic. So applied to MIT— there was some professors I wanted to work with there. Came back to MIT and got my Ph.D.

I went back home to write my dissertation. That’s when I started working in the family business.

MIT was tough for me. I enjoyed it, and I got all these awards, and it worked very well, but I worked really hard there.

It was the pre-PC, pre-internet era. It was still a interesting place for anyone who had a natural curiosity about the world.

In my early twenties, I actually had hair on my head. By the end of my twenties, I didn’t.

Treasure the experiences and realize nobody really cares… I quickly had to get over that anyone would have the same appreciation for what I went I through. That’s just life. At least for me, my experiences led to me really do my own calculus on what those experiences meant to me.

Were you nervous about spending such a long time in your twenties in class? Did you get to want to get out more?

Well, I think that’s what led me to drop out of college and join the Peace Corps in the first place. It seemed like a big adventure and it turned out to be just that. I used to read when I was my teens stories on Peace Corps Volunteers and I thought it was coolest thing in the world.

Wolf spoke by phone.

×