(Photo by Christopher Wink)
Local politics get their flavor from regional ingredients that make for a different kind of stew. In Philadelphia — long a poor city on the decline now seeing its fortunes turn upward — new, previously unfamiliar flavors have been added to the electoral pot. Pols talk tech now.
That means 350 people pouring into the Free Library Monday night for a tech-focused mayoral forum (despite dozens of other mayoral discussions this year). But it also means a lunchtime conversation on the new economy among some of the at-large City Council candidates.
Open data, startup retention and software education have entered the Philadelphia political fray just as tourism, urban planning and transit once did. It’s fast becoming that you can’t run for office in Philadelphia today by just talking only about potholes and blight and city services.
“We also need to know when to get out of the way,” said Allan Domb, of how he might work with a tech and entrepreneurship community. He’s the property developer with the eponymous luxury condo real estate company who is among a slate of candidates contending for an at-large spot on the Philadelphia City Council.
For Philly Tech Week 2015 presented by Comcast, we at Technical.ly invited a handful of those candidates to a forum on tech policy issues, hosted by Benjamin’s Desk and in partnership with Philly Startup Leaders. With so many mayoral forums, it seemed there ought to also be another conversation dedicated to council candidates.
Domb talks like what you might expect of a Center City “condo king” — he’s bullish on Philadelphia’s real estate density and talks confidently of the ability for business growth to improve conditions for all of Philadelphia, which is still the poorest big city in America. In another place or time, he might be called a Republican, like current Councilman David Oh, the lone GOP member and only Council incumbent who attended the forum.
If there was no surprise that Domb and Oh gushed on about municipal tax reform and city revenue collection, you might reserve some for how the other three candidates addressed questions of economic development, posed to them by moderator and Technical.ly Philly lead reporter Juliana Reyes. (Another Council candidate Paul Steinke, the former director of the Reading Terminal Market was a last-minute cancellation, understandably: He was announcing an endorsement from Ed Rendell.)
Helen Gym, the clear-voiced education crusader, Tom Wyatt, the earnest lawyer and Teach For America alum, and Isaiah Thomas, the youthful northwest Philly community organizer, all talk like tried-and-true progressives. But given the particular mix of running for office in Philadelphia in 2015, they, too, seemed primed to talk about economic development in one form or another.
Wyatt and Thomas both referenced the old tax reform adage: “When you tax things that move, they move.”
Gym was more nuanced, to be sure, distancing herself from Domb and Oh by seeming to intone the fallacy of “trickle down tech-onomics,” by which a successful portion of Philadelphia would benefit other Philadelphians still struggling. But she also called on business growth as a means by which underserved communities might thrive.
“There is power” in entrepreneurship, she said. “But you can’t just have an internet connection for a startup company.” It also takes access to capital and digital literacy and mentorship.
On other more technical elements of tech policy, there’s likely room for more familiarity for the candidates.
None seemed overly versed in infrastructure build-out for broadband or fiber, and though all addressed a question on the forthcoming Comcast franchise negotiation, their answers amounted to the obvious: the city ought to make sure Comcast contribute something in exchange for the privilege, but they all want the cable giant to continue to thrive and remain in Center City. Unlike the mayoral forum, open data played a smaller role, as the conversation focused more on small business growth, with an eye to the new kinds of tech and web companies Philadelphia is growing.
Here is this reporter’s take on the candidates in the room, going left to right from their chosen placement on the panel:
If the goal is to better serve the residents of Philadelphia, Domb says there are three ways to do it — raise prices (taxes), attract more customers (residents) or become more efficient. Domb says he’d focus on the latter two, with the help of a Department of Efficiency to shrink the city’s well-known delinquent tax rolls and a tax reform-minded approach to attracting and retaining former or soon-to-be retiring residents.
Domb said he knows too many former Philadelphia residents who retire to Florida in part for the tax savings, to which Gym later responded, “I don’t know anyone who lives in Florida but I do know people who live in Philadelphia who need help.”
Favorite mobile app: (Moderator Reyes asked all the candidates this.) Trulia “because I’m a real estate guy.”
Oh can no doubt seem aloof at times, but make no mistake, since former Councilman Bill Green left, it is David Oh who has consistently remained the champion of tech policy — in lieu of the practically defunct Council tech committee — and business-focused legislation. Of the 75-year-old city wage tax, Oh has offered the only clear strategy for reducing it.
While other candidates on stage discussed what they might do, Oh shared what he had done. Next, he’s working on establishing an international trade and investment fund with the help of state legislators, he said.
“Our city is competing on a global basis.” he said. “We need to act like it.”
Favorite mobile app: “The one that helps you report potholes.” That’s the city’s 311 app, suggested moderator Reyes.
Gym has to have been the most interesting of the candidates there, because you might rightly ask if Gym is a rising legislative star or a single-issue candidate. As a former educator and far-and-away the city’s best known schools advocate, there’s no question where her priorities are.
Indeed, education (and perhaps more specifically, city public schools) is likely the single most important issue to anyone interested in Philadelphia’s future. But there are less intractable challenges the city faces also. It was compelling to watch her navigate those, particularly her balancing the familiar litmus test of whether tax reduction can benefit all citizens. (The academic answer is that it can, but only up to a point.)
“Taxation is a conversation about power,” said Gym. She said she supports an idea to get state approval to tax commercial and residential real estate differently, but she has a different view of what is a realistic goal for tax balance.
“We won’t make our tax policy competitive with Havertown. It’s OK to be different than those outer-ring suburbs because [Philadelphia is] different,” she said of wealthier suburbs that serve as magnets for well-to-do former city residents. “It is ridiculous to tax people less when we can’t get toilet paper in our schools.”
“People want to live in this city more now than ever before,” she said. If we can offer safe and livable and walkable streets, then they should want to contribute, she said.
Favorite mobile app: Google Maps, so she can navigate to her many varied campaign event locations.
Wyatt wants to be the dad candidate.
He says this a lot, and he appears to handle himself like a proud Boy Scout — he gave this reporter a thoughtful call expressing gratitude for being included in the event, something I haven’t experienced before. So though he knew education and safety would be campaign staples for him, he hadn’t expected he’d take tax policy as seriously as he has.
“But we have a diseased tax structure,” he said. “When you tax things that move, they move.”
Wyatt also hinted at his interests in data-informed government and some elements of open data.
Favorite mobile app: He has a journal in which he is keeping track of all the people who invite him to play Candy Crush. This is a thing he said.
Thomas fashions himself the voice of underserved young black men but is attuned to a wider spectrum of resurgence happening in Philadelphia also.
“We have certain corridors thriving. The narrative is different elsewhere. Other people are scared,” he said. The city tax structure, he said, may indeed need shifting — enter the plea to tax what can’t move, like real estate, rather than businesses — but he would strive to make sure there are connections between communities of success and those lagging behind. One way is to make sure neighborhoods change for the better for all.
Of the Fishtown story, he said: “You used to move through Frankford and Girard, and now you go to Frankford and Girard.” People from these neighborhoods needs to be part of them changing. Technology companies are leading the charge, he said.
Favorite mobile app: Instagram — he has 2,700 followers.