Philly’s going to elect a new mayor next year. Chances are, that mayor will be a Democrat.
Why should you care?
If you’re struggling to even name one of the four officially declared mayoral candidates, you’re not alone. (For the record: Ex-D.A. and avowed email hater Lynne Abraham; state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams; Terry Gillen, a former Redevelopment Authority official and aide to mayors Nutter and Rendell, and ex-City Solicitor and ex-federal prosecutor Ken Trujillo.) Don’t fret; more will likely emerge. (Update: On Friday afternoon, ex-judge Nelson Diaz revealed he’ll announce his bid in the new year.)
But guess what? Young voters could actually swing this race. (At least that’s according to former Republican Mayoral candidate-turned-documentarian Sam Katz — who says voters like you won’t actually vote.)
So what issues could motivate young voters? We looked around.
The biggest single issue dominating politics in Philadelphia over the last few years has been educational funding for city public schools, or rather the lack thereof. Nearly everyone has agreed that Philly’s public schools need more state support, a consensus that may have been the driving factor behind the end of Governor Tom Corbett’s political career.
However, exactly what the next mayor should or even could do address this issue is unclear. Harrisburg is dominated by interests that are hostile to Philadelphia, so all the next mayor can basically do is ask nicely for more money from the state. Some educational advocates have called for the abolition of the School Reform Commission, the state body that runs the district, to return the district to local control, but this too would need state authorization.
Most of the current candidates have yet to distinguish themselves on this issue at all. Williams stands apart for his support for the controversial “school reform” movement, which has attracted a great deal of criticism for diverting money from traditional public schools to feed unrestrained growth of charter schools. But Hardy, so far, has been mum on his school reform objectives if he were elected.
$15 minimum wage?
Some councilmembers have tentatively thrown their support around the idea, going so far as to assign a lawyer to look into its legality. But it’s a big deal for young voters, particularly those who work while attending one of the city’s many colleges and universities. The next mayor isn’t powerless to affect this issue; at least promising to explore the achievability of a higher local wage would be a good start. As a pushing council to pass a bill that would force large employers to provide paid sick leave would be another easy platform to ride.
Cut the wage tax!
Millennials’ paychecks could go up in another way too: By reducing the city’s notorious wage tax. Philly worked for years to gradually reduce a wage tax that was the second highest in the nation, trailing only New York City, but those efforts had largely stalled in recent years. Many have said the tax drives employers to the suburbs, an source of great anxiety for millennials struggling to find employment or lacking long term job security.
There’s only so much a mayor can do to influence an immigration policy largely crafted at the federal level. And Philadelphia is actually a relatively welcoming city for immigrants — Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order this year ordering the police to stop detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal immigration authorities. But Fernanda Marroquin, a member of DreamActivist PA, which advocates for immigrant rights, said more could be done — and while the next mayor can’t change those laws, he or she can use the office’s bully pulpit. “The mayor has the ability to voice an opinion that will go out to a larger group of people than grassroots organizations can reach,” Marroquin noted.
Look at the makeup for the second round of Ferguson protests in the city. After the big protest the night the Ferguson, Mo. grand jury’s decision not to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown, a new round began. Why? The area’s college students were on Thanksgiving break when the grand jury report came in; once they got back to town, the protests began. So this is an age bracket that’s paying close attention to the Brown case, as well as that of Eric Gardner in New York City. Will the next mayor be paying attention?
Activists like Marroquin believe the next mayor needs to come into office ready to perform a top down investigation.
“Our struggles are interconnected across all people of color. We need to look at police violence, Stop and Frisk,” Marroquin said, “and the issues in Ferguson and how that impacts Philadelphia.”
Better city services
Jim Saksa, a freelance writer and member of Young Involved Philly, says nitty gritty urban policy like better public transit, anti-litter strategies and better urban planning often get lost in the rhetoric about problems like poverty or crime. But Saksa said little fixes — SEPTA starting 24-hour subway service, or Parks and Rec taking advantage of laws that allowed new beer gardens — can create the impression that the city is moving in the right direction.
The next mayor may not be able to tap into a transformational amount of new transit funds to improve SEPTA or fix up city parks, but Saksa believes there is still plenty of low hanging fruit that can make a big difference in residents’ lives.
“We did a Young Involved Philly member survey and, after education, the number two issue was ‘I want one of those Big Belly trashcans on my block.'” he said, referring to the solar powered, auto-compacting trashcans common in Center City. “Getting new trashcans can be a big deal…creating a more pleasant environment to live in matters. Perceptions matter.”
The rent is too damn high
Philly, overall, is a pretty cheap place to live — just compare rents here to other big cities. But those rents are still going up, and a wave of new construction in the city is mostly producing new housing for the wealthy. Part of the rise can also be traced to neighborhoods like Point Breeze, where developers’ efforts to revitalize housing is changing the makeup of residents. The city’s response to gentrification grates on Saksa, whose YiP primarily represents the interests of young people and transplants in Center City, an area that has seen some of the sharpest increase in housing costs.
He said he thought the city’s affordable housing efforts so far had been inadequate.
“We’re doing a shit job of dealing with gentrification,” he said. “I believe [gentrification] is not a force for good or evil, it’s an economic force that creates winners and losers. But right now we have a system that’s not doing anything to address the issue that poor people’s rents are going up.”
Saksa suggested methods like rent control as a fix, but far-reaching proposals to increase rental assistance may be too high a mountain for Philly’s next mayor to climb.