You might not yet know his name, but it seems like Anthony Phillips’ lock on a Democratic Party endorsement for City Council was never in doubt.
Five days before Phillips was officially nominated by District 9 ward leaders to replace Cherelle Parker after she stepped down to run for Philadelphia mayor, he was among the crowd at her 50th birthday party at Rivers Casino. Parker coaxed him onstage — and into the spotlight.
“Anthony Phillips, come up here!” said Parker, as she invited a host of elected officials onto the platform at the September bash, a see-and-be-seen event for local movers and shakers.
Sometimes selecting candidates for special elections in Philadelphia is fractious and requires heavy hyperlocal organizing, like in the case of District 7 nominee Quetcy Lozada, chosen to replace Maria Quiñones Sánchez for the City Council seat representing the North Philly area around Kensington.
Other districts moved with a bit more unity. Phillips’ selection to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot was unanimous, with a clear mandate from Parker.
Her words about Phillips the night of her party were revealing.
“When I gave the big guy my letter,” Parker began, referring to submitting her Council resignation to Council President Darrell Clarke, “I thought long and hard, worked with every ward leader … So you know we’ve been working on this. [Phillips is] one of the best and the brightest in our community and he cares about the people, so I want y’all to remember his name.”
That name is now on ballots for Philadelphia’s District 9. It appears alongside Republican candidate Roslyn Ross and Libertarian Party nominee Yusuf Jackson, but Phillips is considered a shoo-in to win the seat.
So who is Phillips, and why was he the runaway choice?
An early involvement in civic life
Phillips, 33, has lived in Mt. Airy since he was 8 years old. His family moved from a different part of North Philly in search of security from crime and higher-rated schools, he said — towards the diverse, “middle neighborhoods” various Northwest Philly elected officials talk about protecting and cultivating.
“When I moved to Mount Airy, what it meant to me was an opportunity to have a lawn, to have great schools, and to ultimately have opportunity,” Phillips told Billy Penn. “That pretty much shed light on the American dream.”
Phillips emphasized his family’s “hard work, grit, and sacrifice” as traits he tries to emulate, which he saw in both his grandmother’s experience as a sharecropper in South Carolina and his mother’s dedication to funding his education.
A longtime case worker and manager with the Department of Human Services, his mother also worked night shifts at Walmart to pay for Phillips and his sisters’ education; Phillips attended La Salle High School, a Catholic college prep school in Montco.
She also instructed him on how to be a neighbor. After his mother made the introductions, you would regularly find him on porches in front of a checkerboard, he recalled, facing down, entertaining, and learning from his older neighbors.
Youth Action, the leadership development nonprofit Phillips has been executive director of since 2010, was the end product of a Tavis Smiley-supported national summit on Black youth leadership development held in 2003.
Phillips attended the summit at 14, then co-founded the organization to bring its teachings back home and foster civic engagement, per the Youth Action website.
Across these various activities, Philips experienced what he now deems an act of investment: “They taught me early on what can transpire when you have a community, as well as your parents, really invest in you and make sure that you are positioning yourself for excellence.”
Phillips enrolled in the African American Studies programs at Bates College in Maine, then studied for a short period at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He went on to complete masters studies in Black Religion at Yale, and is now on the verge of earning a doctorate in philosophy with a concentration on African American Studies at UMass Amherst.
Four years ago, he got a call from neighbors talking about an open committeeperson role in the 50th Ward. A few days later, a call came from the ward leader.
“I got a call from then-Councilmember Parker, who said, ‘Anthony, if you’re interested in being a committee person we’d love to have you. You’re going to be great for our community,’” he said. “She knew me growing up in the community because I had always been the person that would organize youth programs in our area.”
If Phillips wins in November, he will stand for reelection in 2023 — and may face a primary challenge. Janay Hawthorne, who ran for the 200th District Pa. House seat last spring but was disqualified before the vote took place, confirmed to Billy Penn she’s mulling a run.
Focusing on policies that help ‘the children’
At a campaign launch event in early October, Phillips invoked a saying of Kenya’s Maasai tribe — their greeting of “How are the children?”
“It is the belief that if you put the children at the forefront of your community, you will be able to focus enough on policies and decisions that will be for the greater good of the community,” he told the small gathering at Tarken Playground in Oxford Circle, which was attended by At-Large Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Pa. Rep. Jordan Harris, the House Democratic whip..
One issue that concerns young people in Philly is the curfew for minors becoming permanent. Some studies have shown teen curfews to be ineffective in curbing violence, but in Phillips’ view, the policy is directed just as much toward parents as it is toward kids..
“What the city is trying to do is help parents understand the importance of [youth] being at home at a specific time so that children are safe,” he said, affirming he would vote to uphold the permanent curfew if he were in office.
Phillips also hopes to craft what he describes as “initiatives to increase parent and community involvement” in schools. If elected, he aims to coordinate with deeply integrated community members like block captains so they can share information about workshops, training, and other events, encouraging families to attend and learn together.
Jelani Hasan, now a 24-year-old assistant facilities manager with real estate company CBRE, has seen the nominee’s investment in young people first hand.
He’s known Phillips since he was 12, when he joined Youth Action. He credits Phillips with helping him develop practical skills to find and hold down a job, such as “professionalism, time management, project planning, and coordination,” Hasan said.
Phillips made it clear he believes Parker left him with a strong foundation. There are some issues from her tenure that will ultimately be decided by the winner of the District 9 seat, like a proposed district zoning overlay that Mayor Kenney recently vetoed, which would be an early test of Phillips’ views on development in the district.
Phillips said he also wants to work toward more intergenerational unity.
He currently serves as bus driver for seniors who attend Salem Baptist Church, where he worships. It’s a role he’ll continue to take up on the weekends if elected, he said, to keep learning from elders who have become “mentors.”
To Salem Baptist seniors getting excited about his run for office, Phillips said he has a simple request: “Don’t call me ‘Council-anything.’ Just always call me your bus driver.”