The issues of City Hall from a year ago seem quaint these days. Last January and February, Council President Darrell Clarke was releasing a plan for creating 10,000 jobs through energy investment. Council approved appointees for a criminal justice reform committee. The most controversial measure was a band registry bill put forth by Councilman Mark Squilla that was later withdrawn.
And then November happened. And city government began to scramble, thanks to the aggressive agenda of President Donald Trump. Priorities and legislation are being steered to not only advance Philadelphia but to hold on to what the city offers in areas like healthcare, education and civil rights and to reassure citizens fearful of being affected by Trump and his early executive orders.
“Stressed” is the operative word around City Hall. Many Council members say their offices are fielding more calls, emails and social media requests. And what might have seemed an impossibility a year ago — a Council member leaving in the middle of the first meeting of the year to go protest — felt completely normal when it happened two weeks ago.
That first session featured Councilwoman Cindy Bass introducing a resolution calling for hearings about the potential effects of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) being repealed. Clarke called for action to examine what would happen to Philadelphia’s already precarious financial situation if Trump removes federal funding from the city because of its sanctuary city status.
“This is the most unpredictable and ominous climate for the City of Philadelphia,” he said in a statement, “I have seen in my 17 years in office.”
Said Councilman Derek Green: “We’ve had Republican administrations, we’ve had Democratic administrations. We may have disagreed on policy perspective but some of the fundamental dynamics of government have been similar.”
Ah, the good old days.
The change in roles goes beyond legislation. Helen Gym was the council member who left during that first meeting to join a demonstration. Before joining Council in 2016, she was always involved in the community. But her participation level has changed. Gym estimates she’s attended about three to four protests or rallies since the election last November, including the PHL rally she called for via Twitter when Syrian families were turned away and other immigrants were detained.
“You have to be responsive to what is moving people,” Gym said. “People right now are in an incredible moment of political consciousness building. We have a responsibility and opportunity to take advantage of that.”
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez says she is comforting people “all the time.” She’s talking to constituents especially bothered by Trump’s threats to remove federal funding to sanctuary cities, with teachers and principals fearful their students could be deported.
“I’m used to playing cheerleader to my district,” she said. “Now I’ve got to play cheerleader and counselor and assure people that this will level off and we’re going to be OK.”
Immigrant concerns have particularly been a priority for Nina Ahmad, deputy mayor for public engagement. Her department oversees the office of immigrant affairs. A year ago, her new department was just figuring out how it should operate. Now it’s been flooded with phone calls from immigrants worried for their safety.
The changes wrought by Trump could take a financial toll, too. Protests since the inauguration have cost the city about $3 million, and Lauren Hitt, communications director for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the city has been having discussions with outside attorneys about handling Trump’s executive orders regarding sanctuary cities and immigration. So far, she said, these talks have been informal and the city has not contracted with any firms.
Despite being put on the defense by Trump’s first weeks, most officials are attempting to see the bright side. The phone calls, the emails and the protests have rejuvenated them.
“This is a signal for us to come together more and be more vigilant,” Green said. “In some ways I think people became comfortable. Elections have consequences. This is a real opportunity to get more engaged and active.”