Credit: Bobby Chen/Billy Penn

For Melissa Murray Bailey, the hardest thing about being a Republican was having to tell her parents.

The daughter of public school teachers, Murray Bailey changed her registration from Democrat to Republican last year after she says she realized the Democratic perspectives in Philadelphia politics didn’t align with her values: Serving the public with fiscal conservatism.

Now, she’s running for mayor in a city with a 7 to 1 Democrat to Republican registration ratio against Jim Kenney, a former city councilman with a boatload of union support and all the political connections he could need. He also won the Democratic primary in a landslide, and is expected to do the same in the general election in November.

Murray Bailey doesn’t have any of that background. A relative newcomer to the city, Murray Bailey, 36, grew up in South Jersey, and now lives in a Society Hill home with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. She still works two days a week as president of the American branch of Universum Global, a market research firm looking largely at millennials.

She knows she’s a longshot candidate in a city where a Republican hasn’t been mayor since before the Vietnam War. But Murray Bailey has still managed to make some waves. Last week, she came out firmly against sanctuary cities — which follow certain laws, like banning law enforcement from asking about citizenship status, in order to shelter illegal immigrants  — sparking attention from multiple news organizations that began arguing with each other over what it all meant.

And Wednesday, Murray Bailey called for Department of Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams to step down after a series of missteps made public this year, including his decision to spend $15,000 running advertorials on Her call for Williams to step down sparked Kenney’s campaign to say it would fire Williams if he becomes mayor.

Billy Penn sat down with Murray Bailey in Headhouse Square this week to talk about education, jobs and what it means to be a Republican in a Democrat-controlled city like Philadelphia.

Here’s our conversation, which was lightly edited for brevity and clarity:

Billy Penn: Thanks for meeting with us. So you’re working with young people frequently in your day job, I see? Do you consider yourself to be part of this new faction of ‘young Philly’ that’s being talked about? Do you consider yourself a leader in that realm?

Melissa Murray Bailey: As I think about the new Philly, I’m definitely part of that new Philly. Because I’m someone who had a baby and decided to move into the city, where we see a lot of people who have children and move out of the city, and so I’m part of this new wave of people that wants to make the city work for families.

BP: How does having a 4-year-old give you a different perspective on policy? I assume that makes you think about education differently, as you have a child who is sort of very close to nearing that enrollment age.

MMB: It definitely does. You can think about problems on how they impact people, but when you actually have skin in the game and it’s something that is real for you, then getting it right is that much more important.

BP: So what’s going wrong right now? In education, specifically.

MMB: I think that we have had a school system that has had challenges for longer than we can remember, and I think we like to think all the of the problems began when the funding went away. And we need funding, that’s not in question. But the funding isn’t the answer to the question.

We have so many schools that are failing our kids without resources, and we don’t have a plan for how we’re going to fix them.

BP: What would be the tenets of your plan then?

MMB: The first part has to do with the funding, and it’s completely different than what anybody else is saying. We need to fund the schools first, and what I mean by that is, the people have spoken. They have said our No. 1 priority is education, and getting that right.

So we need to start our budget by saying, ‘What are we going to give to the schools?’ and then work on everything else in order of importance from there. You have to make choices, and we’re not willing to make the choices that get the schools funded.

The second thing is that people say there’s nothing the mayor can do except the funding. I reject that. I think that educating children is the most important thing a city has to do. You have educating children and then you have core and essential services. As mayor, I would make sure that my office specifically supports some of these things and that gets into the area of after-school activities.

BP: Back to the funding issue: do you worry at all that funding the schools first could be sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul? 

MMB: I don’t see it as that. I see it as prioritizing. It might mean we have to do a little less of other things or put a pause on some things. But I do think there’s a lot of room for efficiency in our government. We have duplicative efforts that are happening, and we have over-allocation of some departments.

BP: So you just declared as a Republican within the last year. Do you worry at all that people have the wrong impression of what that means? We see the Republican presidential candidates. What does being a Republican in Philadelphia mean to you, and does that differ from sort of the big ultra-conservatives we see on TV?

MMB: It definitely does. It’s one of the reasons why I was registered as a Democrat. Ya know, one of the hardest things I had to do was tell my parents that I was a Republican.

As I looked at what it means to be a Democrat in this city, that wasn’t where my alignment was either. And when I think about urban Republicanism, that’s very different. That is views on fiscal conservancy, about how we operate the government in a way that is in most service to the taxpayers and the community. It’s that government doesn’t answer all the problems.

In Philadelphia, the Republican party is much more representative of the people in the middle. In national politics, everyone has gone so far to the left or so far to the right. But when you talk to people, they either hop to the left or hop to the right.

BP: Being a high-powered Democrat in Philly has perks, though, when you’re fundraising. You have most of the unions behind you, for instance. How hard is it to come into that scene? Look at all the connections that Jim Kenney has in this city. All of the patronage that has gone on here for decades. How do you cultivate support when you don’t have that built-in network just from being a Democratic politician for two decades?

MMB: People discount me because I’m not part of the system, and the fact that who you know and connections you have are such an entrenched part of being a successful politician in Philadelphia.

I can make sure that the policies I’m putting forward are representative of regular Philadelphians. So I’m spending a lot of time in neighborhoods, at people’s houses talking to them and their friends about their experiences in the city. That’s why you don’t see me in these big group meetings. That’s not who I’m here to represent. I’m here to represent the people who don’t have a voice at those tables.

BP: How do you convince those people that getting into underserved neighborhoods is a priority? The Republican party can have such a bad reputation when it comes to that, true or not. You have a job in corporate America and live in a very upscale neighborhood. How do you convince people that you want to prioritize their neighborhoods and their problems that might be very different from yours?

MMB: I think what a lot of people don’t know about me is that i didn’t always have all of these things. I grew up on a dirt road. I’ve been working my butt of since I was 14. I wasn’t in a situation like many people in Philadelphia, my parents were teachers. But I didn’t grow up with this.

I have a job in corporate America. I have almost everything I could want. It is my obligation to use that for the betterment of other people, and the underserved communities are the whole reason I got into this race.

BP: It must be frustrating then to hear Jim Kenney constantly being called the ‘presumed next mayor,’ by us included. It must be frustrating to see headlines that say, ‘let’s pretend there’s a mayor’s race.’ How do you wrestle with that, and is it kind of personally offensive?

MMB: I think it’s disrespectful to the electorate, because it’s just assuming people aren’t going to evaluate anything. The reason they say I can’t win is because the registration is 7 to 1. They never say I can’t win because I have inferior ideas or inferior experience. They just say it’s because the registration is 7 to 1 and I don’t have any connections. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a good enough reason.

BP: Alright so let’s say you win. First couple months in — what are a couple things that are the first things you’d hope to get done?

MMB: Well we talked about education. We also need to look at things that ensure safety, and I think we need to do things that get more people working. That is changing from a city that has a school-to-prison pipeline to a city that has a school-to-jobs pathway. We’re not doing a good enough job of matching the demands of companies to the supply of people who need jobs.

We need to treat high school like colleges treat jobs. We need to bring that thinking into the high schools, that the objective of our high schools is the destination of kids and the number of kids that have a destination after high school.

BP: Recently you came out against Philly being a sanctuary city. There was some media attention that happened after that. Were you surprised by the large reaction to that?

MMB: I was very surprised. I’ve been saying stuff every day and sending things to the press about my views on things that are quite different from Kenney’s, and this is the one thing that really ignited fire in a discussion. I think it’s something that people have a gut reaction to and they automatically make assumptions about a person.

My view is really that we should enforce the laws that we have. If we don’t like the laws, we should work to change them. I was not at all saying that I don’t support immigration.

BP: Can you talk a little about some of your campaign strategies?

MMB: Part of it is bringing non-traditional political people in, and everyone we have on our team is someone who really believes in making Philadelphia better, and that’s why they’re in this. I’m a longshot candidate. It’s not people trying to make their next move. It’s people who believe Philadelphia can be better, and we can get a message out that puts pressure on the system. We’re actually trying to solve problems instead of come up with campaign messages. It’s really grassroots in every sense of the word.

BP: You admit you’re a longshot candidate. If City Hall doesn’t work out, what would you say your hope or goal would be for what comes out of the campaign?

MMB: I really want people in this city to believe that it can be better. A lot of people say it’s been like this for so long. It’s never going to change. I want to give people that hope that they can come together and work to make things better. And that’s what this is all about.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.