I just got home from voting in the Philadelphia Democratic primary. I cast votes in a handful of races, but the two I’m most excited about – and will have me most anxious while checking results tonight – were my votes for Jim Kenney for mayor and Helen Gym for City Council at Large.
Now, you could be saying, “Dave, aren’t you a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers? And didn’t the PFT endorse those two candidates? Isn’t telling us that you voted for them an entry in the Blatantly Obvious?”
Well, thanks for asking. The answer to the first two questions is definitely yes, and the third is a definite maybe. But what’s important is why I voted for these two candidates so enthusiastically, and in fact donated to both of them. In both cases, the candidates’ personalities and history sealed the deal even before the PFT made its endorsements.
A lot of the biographical coverage of Jim Kenney has mentioned his Jesuit education. I had 16 years of Catholic education – 19 if you count preschool – culminating in four years at Fordham University. As an adult, I have been conflicted about that part of my education. I had great teachers, and many of them impressed upon me the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice. But my Catholic education also didn’t expose me to many other viewpoints, and I think it gave me some baggage in terms of backwards views on gender equality and LGBT equality that I had to overcome. The Jesuits were my idea of a tolerant, questioning Catholicism that served the community, and even they weren’t perfect. Kenney has taken the Jesuits’ example and run with it in order to make a lot of progressive change in Philadelphia, from LGBT equality to marijuana decriminalization to a more humane policy on immigration and law enforcement. I admire that greatly.
I also admire his instincts. I think he could do a lot to capitalize on Philadelphia’s potential right now. He has put together a terrific campaign and built a bandwagon with plenty of room. And how can I not love a candidate who would send this message to George Takei after the controversy regarding Indiana’s “religious freedom” law?
— Jim Kenney (@JimFKenney) March 25, 2015
If you have followed the education battles in Philadelphia over the last few years, you know Helen Gym. As an activist she has worked hard to bring people together and call attention to the poor decisions made by Pennsylvania state government and the School Reform Commission, among other groups. I actually first noticed Helen during the fight over casino licenses in Philadelphia, when she worked just as hard to bring people together and preserve Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods from casino development. So I already knew the passion that she brings to a cause, and I’ve been glad to see her deploy it on an issue that means so much to me personally and professionally.
But look at that phrase: bringing people together. That’s an important part of how Helen sees the world, and it’s something that I think people miss. When she entered the race, I made a joke on Twitter about her relationship with then-SRC chair Bill Green.
— Dave Thomer (@DaveThomer) February 16, 2015
Green replied to me:
— Bill Green (@Green4Philly) February 16, 2015
And a small Twitter argument ensued. But here’s the thing. Look at that Philadelphia magazine exchange that Green tried to point to as evidence that Gym had “no solutions.” Helen kept saying that she wanted to see parents and communities more involved in making the decisions and shaping the vision of the schools. Green kept asking her for her specific proposal to replace Superintendent Hite’s Action Plan proposal. My reading of that conversation is that the solution that Helen advocates is getting the community involved to make decisions – a more deliberative view of democracy than I think Green has.
Now, if that more deliberative model is just a different way to argue about which essential services to cut because the schools don’t have enough resources, then it’s not necessarily going to be much of an improvement. But if the school district had all its funding dreams come true tomorrow, there would still be a substantial disagreement about how to spend those funds. And I think Helen’s model is the better approach, and one that can be brought to many issues beyond education. I hope that she has the chance to try in Council next year.