On Monday morning, Brendan Boyle donned a bright yellow vest and pushed around a mop and bucket at the Norristown Transportation Center, assisting a custodian. The U.S. Representative who oversees part of Northeast Philly and part of Montgomery County in the 13th District plans to visit several blue-collar work sites as part of a “Trading Places” program. He’s been a U.S. Representative since January after winning election in November. As a state Rep. in the 170th District, Boyle spent the previous six years focusing largely on education (he introduced the REACH scholarship program), and he also helped form the LGBT Equality Caucus.
But his name and his brother Kevin Boyle’s name have been in the news lately for another reason: their strained relationship with Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack. Boyle wanted former aide Seth Kaplan to run for his seat in the 170th District special election, but Stack’s pick, friend Sarah Del Ricci, got the nomination from the ward leaders. She ended up losing the election to Republican Martina White. Then last week, Mike Stack’s wife, Tonya Stack, reportedly flipped off Kevin and threw soda on him.
Billy Penn caught up with Boyle at the Norristown Transportation Center this week to ask him about life in the capital, Martina White’s victory in the Northeast and the infamous soda throw. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Your father actually does custodial work for a living. How did his work influence you?
My dad is a very hardworking guy, manual labor. This is his 40th year between working at an old warehouse in South Philly for 25 years and then 15 as a janitor for SEPTA. Knowing just his tremendous work ethic and that there are so many millions of Americans who share the same work ethic that go to tough jobs every single day, I feel they are often overlooked by those who are in office, especially in Washington D.C. I am not going to be one of those that makes that mistake. I have a personal, vested reason not to, but I also feel like it’s important to use my position to try to turn the spotlight on the jobs that hardworking Americans do that keep our country going.
What’s different about your job now that you’re representing Philadelphia in D.C. rather than Harrisburg?
It’s been more similar than not. Before I was dealing with education policy and healthcare policy and transportation policy and those things are the same. Where it’s different is obviously the whole foreign affairs realm. I’m on the foreign affairs committee and already in a few months we’ve had hearings about the Iranian nuclear negotiations and about ISIS and about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I like to joke, unless New Jersey started acting up we had no foreign policy at the Pennsylvania statehouse level. So that realm is entirely new. But the nice thing is serving six years in the state legislature really was great preparation for now serving at the federal level.
Republican Martina White won the seat you left. That was in an area where there are more registered Democrats than registered Republicans…
There’s always been a misnomer. That was one of the things that I think was reported and while technically accurate is very misleading. Most people are primarily concerned about the city elections. So what you’ll find is that a lot of Republican voters actually register as Democrats so they can participate in the citywide primary. Performance has actually been a better measure than strict registration. I point out that even on that election day the majority of voters who turned out were registered Democrats. Performance of the district is about a 55-45 Democratic leaning type district but I’m the first and still only Democrat to win that seat.
Given that, do you see the Democrats as needing to readjust strategies?
Candidate quality matters. One thing I’ll say is — and I’m very appreciative of it — Northeast Philly has a lot of independent-minded voters. Unlike certain areas where most Republican candidates or most Democratic candidates get around the same percentage, Northeast Philly usually has wide swings. You have a lot of people who vote based on the candidate. They expect to meet you. They expect you to knock on their door and talk to them and tell them about your ideas and what you’re going to do. Candidate quality is the number one most important thing and the willingness of that candidate to work. If there is a high quality Democratic candidate running next year who talks about some of the things that I talked about I think that Democratic candidate will do very well and has a great shot at winning. If there’s a poor candidate and Martina White does a good job then she has a good chance of holding onto the seat.
So is that a sign the Philadelphia Democratic Party needs to do some soul-searching?
We always have to be careful not to extrapolate too much into just one race. But I have long felt that we have a very closed political system culturally in this city. Even though we’re a big city and a modern city, our political culture is too stagnant and closed and we need to be more welcoming to newer people and younger people in the progress. I know a few Democratic ward leaders weren’t extremely enthusiastic when I started to get involved and my brother started to get involved. And I believe that we would improve the Democratic party and also the city if we had more people who are in it for the right reasons, who are hardworking, bright, cared about public policy and were willing to do the work and aren’t just interested in other things.
Last week your brother said Mike Stack’s wife flipped him off and threw soda on him. What is the relationship like between you and Mike Stack and have you talked to Kevin about this?
I heard about that from an aide, and it was reported by a number of people as well. There were about a couple hundred people there. It was a unique situation that we’d never faced. I saw Kevin’s comments. Whatever personal differences there may be … people have to behave themselves in an appropriate manner. And I think that certainly for my brother and myself we’d rather focus on public policy and issues and not some of the other stuff that will occasionally happen and in some ways distract from the good work we do.
What are three things Philadelphia can do to keep its population growing and keep the young people from moving out?
It’s one of the most exicting trends of the last 20 years. I’m somewhat biased because I’m in my 30s, but the fact that young people are flocking to the city, want to stay here, want to be part of Philadelphia’s future is (incredibly) exciting. At the same time we have to recognize that we want to keep them — making sure you have walkable and livable, safe neighborhoods with schools that are a real option. I have many friends my age right who are facing this. They’ve lived in Philadelphia for around a decade. They love this city. They were here single. They’re now married. They have a kid coming of school age. Do they continue to live in the city, be part of our future, or do they move to the suburbs where there are highly rated schools? So getting the education piece is absolutely vital.
Number two, making sure we have jobs of the 21st century that are in the city. The second half of the 20th century was tough for urban America because so many of the jobs moved to the suburbs. Now with the kind of jobs that are really in demand, there’s no reason they can’t be downtown jobs. Look what’s happening at the Navy Yard. You find that many people want to have a lifestyle that is more consistent with urban living rather than sitting in a car and driving for an hour. So making sure the city is marketing itself to those 21st century employers and making sure we have those kind of jobs that match the talent base and skill base that is here.
Then the third thing I would say is absolutely get involved in politics. You’re welcome, you’re needed. Sometimes you have to knock more than a couple times, but anyone who is interested in public policy and wants to improve our community should be playing a role in the political life of this city.