At-large City Council candidate Terrill Haigler is a 33-year-old city native and political novice who gained fame as 'Ya Fav Trashman'

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North Philly native Terrill Haigler started talking trash online a little over two years ago. Now he hopes to take that talk directly into city politics.

Better known as “Ya Fav Trashman,” Haigler on Saturday declared his candidacy for City Council, announcing his plans to run for an at-large seat in the 2023 Democratic primary. He made it official at one of his regular community clean-up events, in Francisville just off North Broad Street.

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Haigler’s political platform centers around cleaning up and beautifying Philadelphia, as a first step toward solving larger systemic problems. He contends, “A cleaner city is a safer city.”

It’s on the nose, given his claim to fame. Haigler, who turned 33 this weekend, has no background or experience in politics or political organizing. But he has been successful in inspiring Philly residents and rallying people to action. He built a huge social media following in 2020 when he started chronicling the challenges faced by city sanitation workers, and raised money for PPE to help workers avoid COVID-19 exposure on the job.

Riding that wave, Haigler left his city job to become a full-time advocate. He set up a nonprofit that organizes cleanup events throughout the city, and wrote a children’s book about a sanitation worker, from which some proceeds are donated to Philadelphia schools.

As a councilmember, Haigler told Billy Penn, he would be a champion for the neighborhoods “who feel like Philadelphia doesn’t care about them.” If elected, he said he’d pledge to respond to all constituent calls within a couple of days — a relatively common campaign promise.

All 17 City Council seats are up for election in November 2023, with the Democratic primary taking place in May. With several incumbents likely to resign to run for mayor, the races are expected to be competitive.

It’s early to announce, but Haigler isn’t the first. Michael Galvan, a former member of Mayor Jim Kenney’s staff who would be the city’s first openly LGBTQ legislator, announced their candidacy last week. Republican Drew Murray, former president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, announced his candidacy in the spring. Both are running for an at-large seat.

To Haigler’s knowledge, there hasn’t been any other former sanitation worker on City Council, at least not in recent history.

“Attacking the trash would be an added value to all the other initiatives that are going on in the city,” Haigler said. “Having the knowledge I have, and the connections, it would be a perfect opportunity to add my perspective to the table.”

Haigler in 2021 orchestrated a protest asking for the Streets commissioner to resign over lax trash pickup Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A viral sensation becomes a ‘liaison’

Haigler has never shied away from the spotlight. He graduated from the High School of Creative and Performing Arts, trained at Freedom Theatre on North Broad, and was Philadelphia dance company Danse 4 Nia’s first male member.

When he became a parent, at age 22, he decided to start looking for a steady job, even if that took him out of the arts. He applied to be a sanitation worker, doing other work while he sat on a long waiting list of applicants. Finally, in December 2019, he got hired. Less than four months later, the pandemic hit.

On his daily routes, he saw frustration among residents over late trash pickups due to COVID-19. They didn’t understand why.

“I had no choice but to try to be a liaison,” Haigler said. “I felt like it was God’s call on my life to speak up at that moment and bring a different perspective to the city of Philadelphia.”

So Haigler launched the Ya Fav Trashman persona on social media and quickly went viral. Residents rushed to donate thousands of dollars for sanitation worker PPE. The campaign got national attention. With friend Ariana Queenan, he created a formal nonprofit, Trash 2 Treasure Inc., and his focus expanded from COVID-specific problems to local environmental issues more broadly.

“My whole nonprofit is about a tangible outcome,” he said. “You see a problem, we get a game plan, we execute and then there’s a result.”

In addition to organizing cleanups, as well as expungement clinics, the nonprofit fundraises by selling merchandise and providing education to aspiring grassroots organizers. Haigler also briefly dipped a toe in political consulting for an aspiring municipal judge, and in February was appointed to the city’s Environmental Justice Advisory Commission.

Haigler with volunteers at a trash cleanup in August 2022 Credit: Lizzy McLellan Ravitch / Billy Penn

When lots of people know you — but not your real name

While getting attention in a municipal election isn’t easy for a political newcomer, connecting cleanliness and quality of life to safety and other hot-button issues could be an extremely fruitful strategy for a City Council candidate in the upcoming election, political observers who spoke with Billy Penn agreed.

But that only works if voters can connect Haigler’s viral persona to the name on their ballot.

Caroline Turner, a lawyer who ran for Philadelphia judge unsuccessfully in 2021, said she calls herself a progressive and agrees with Haigler’s position that sanitation and raising morale is key to solving the city’s systemic issues. Haigler is a friend of hers, and worked on her campaign. He was an asset in canvassing and he knows how to get people motivated, she said.

“There are a lot of people that are so keen to get in with the movers and shakers that they don’t pay attention to the everyday people. And that’s not Terrill,” she said.

The outsider City Council candidates who’ve been successful in recent years have usually aligned themselves clearly with progressive groups. Haigler isn’t doing that. While he is running as a Democrat, he’s hesitant to define where he lies on the spectrum of moderate to progressive. “For me, it’s not really about a label, it’s about my action,” he said.

Yet, his friend Turner suggested, he may need to embrace some common ideological rhetoric as he launches a campaign. “It would be a shame to me if he just got known as Ya Fav Trashman and nothing else.”

Haigler has collaborated with multiple councilmembers and other elected officials in his work over the past two-and-a-half years. Asked which ones he sees as potential allies on Council, he gave an optimistic answer: “Everybody.”

He plans to step down as his nonprofit’s CEO, but continue to do cleanups throughout the campaign. He says it’s not for political show — though his campaign staff will likely attend the events — but just to continue the work he’s been doing.

And, of course, it’s not a bad way to get out and meet Philadelphians.

“I hope people know my real name is Terrill… I’m not doing this as a gimmick for the brand,” Haigler said. “I’m passionate about the future of Philadelphia, and I really do believe I bring a perspective that needs to be at the table.”