This week, Citified is featuring Q&As with leading at-large City Council candidates running for the two slots reserved for minority parties and independents.
Andrew Stober is an unusual City Council candidate in a number of ways, starting with the fact that nobody really knows if he has chance of winning in next week’s election.
There’s never been a candidate like Stober in the city’s recent history. He’s an independent, which argues for writing off his chances as improbable at best. But he’s also well-funded, endorsed by the likes of Mayor Michael Nutter, former Gov. Ed Rendell, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Fraternal Order of Police. Which obviously argues for taking him very seriously indeed.
Stober, 36, also has an atypical resume for Council. He was, until the campaign, a senior manager in the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. His marquee accomplishment there was getting the city’s Indego bike system up and running.
Now he’s looking to prove that Republicans don’t have a stranglehold on the two City Council at-large seats the City Charter reserves for candidates who aren’t a part of the majority party (which has been the Dems, these last 60 years).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Citified: Why do this as an independent? Your views are within the Philadelphia Democrat mainstream. Why not compete in the primary?
Stober: Yeah, a few reasons to run as an independent. The most fundamental one is that City Council doesn’t function as a partisan body. Great City Council members are not great because they’re Republicans or independents or Democrats. They’re great because they care deeply about the community they live in, they work very hard, and they’re willing to look outside the city’s boundaries for solutions and figure out how to possibly adapt those solutions to Philadelphia.
… I looked at running in the Democratic primary and it seemed to me that even if I figured out a way to win, all I’ve done is knocked off another good-government progressive. There’s no actual net gain on City Council, and I don’t see any reason why we have to cede these seats to Republicans. It’s an accident of history that we have a partisan City Council. In the 30 largest cities in the United States, 20 of them have nonpartisan city councils and it’s for the reasons I just described.
Lastly, I think there’s a really important opportunity here to show that there is a very clear path for nonparty machine candidates to follow in the city of Philadelphia. There are a lot of really good folks who are willing and ready to step away from a career in business or education, or journalism, or law, academia, any number of fields to serve. But when they look at doing that, they see a Democratic Party that creates hurdles, a Republican Party that’s in chaos. So they think, “You know what, there’s not a feasible path for me.” I want to show folks that there is a feasible path. It’s not just about me being elected. It’s about starting a evolution in the political culture of the city.
Citified: But there were two first-time candidates who won at-large nominations in the Democratic primary this year (Helen Gym and Allan Domb). Neither came up through the system.
Stober: That’s true. And so if I had run and managed to beat one of them, there’s no net-gain on City Council for someone with progressive values.
Citified: So you’re consciously trying to blaze a path here and you’d hope that other independent-minded folks would follow if you’re successful.
Stober: Exactly, and independent-minded folks of of all political stripes. Because what we need are more independent-minded people on on City Council.
Citified: Do you think we should be talking as a city about changing the charter to create an actually nonpartisan political system?
Stober: … Introducing that kind of charter change is not going to be on the top of my agenda when I get to City Council. We have bigger challenges to face, more important things to take on, than that kind of governance change.
Citified: As your campaign has pointed out, there’s not a long tradition of Council members having actual managerial experience in city government. You have. In your view, what should the relationship be between City Council and the mayor and his or her administration?
Stober: Ideally there should be a strong partnership. Partnership doesn’t mean agreeing about everything. The executive branch of government is there to execute the functions of government, and the legislative branch is there to oversee the policies that are being executed and to make sure that city agencies are functioning the way that they should and that the city’s budget is being spent in a way that reflects the priorities of the citizens.
… What I bring to Council is experience in the executive branch of government; knowing how city agencies work; knowing how project budgets work. And so I think I can provide a level of oversight and a kind of insight into city operations, making sure that we’re holding departments accountable, and that we’re passing legislation that is meaningful and impactful.
One of my frustrations over the years is, members will try to raise important issues that that really do need a good public airing and, you know, they put forward legislation that ultimately conflicts with the charter or conflicts with state law, or conflicts with federal law sometimes. They have a hearing that winds up being about how the legislation that they proposed isn’t really implementable rather than about the really important issue that the city is facing, or that citizens are facing. I think part of that comes from the fact that we don’t have a member City Council who has extensive experience in working in the executive branch.
The way you get things done is not always by time, is not always by proposing legislation. It’s also by conducting oversight and making it clear when you don’t think that the administration is acting on the priorities that need to be focused on. … The joke with the some of the folks I’ve worked with who are excited about me running, I say “Well, be prepared for me to be a pain in your butt once I get there.”
Citified: So what’s an example of an area where you’d do this?
Stober: One is the condition of our firehouses, police stations and playgrounds. We have our police officers and firefighters reporting for duty in buildings that are unfit for them to report in. It is, I believe, less an issue of money than it is an issue of attention. Money’s part of it, but attention is also part of it. Look, Public Property is pulled in a lot of different directions because they have an incredible portfolio of buildings that they have to manage. I believe that the top priority for some period of time needs to be our public safety buildings. There needs to be a plan to upgrade these facilities, and those questions can’t just come at an annual Council budget hearing. Questions have to be asked both behind the scenes and throughout the year to be clear that the work is a priority.
There [is] $17.5 million in the capital budget that has not been spent more than seven years. Most of that money actually lays in the hands of district Council people, and when we have a time when we have buildings that condition that they’re in, I don’t think that you should be allowing money to sit like that year after year. Look, I worked in government. I know how long it can take to get a project moving. But it’s not seven-and-a-half years. Money should be circulated back into the capital fund if it’s not spent in four years.
This is not an issue of me thinking Council members should not be able to direct capital dollars. In fact, I think district Council members are often very well situated to be directing capital funding. One of the things that I’ve proposed is that if they’re willing to engage in participatory budgeting process, which is a program that’s used in 1,300 cities around the world. New York has a very successful one, where the public helps direct community-based capital investments. Those district council members that would use that process, I think should get an additional million dollars of capital funds.
Citified: Let’s talk for a moment about Vision Zero, which is an issue that often gets tangled up in class questions about who it’s intended to benefit and who it’s for. How do you build a broader coalition for Vision Zero than maybe it’s had to date?
Stober: I think it starts by making sure we’re elevating and amplifying the voices of the victims and the people impacted by these tragedies, which are occurring all over the city and disproportionately in some of our most challenged neighborhoods. … This is a problem across all levels of income. We have culturally, across income levels, said, “This is just the way things are and this kind of stuff is just gonna happen.” And it doesn’t have to be that way. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a crisis when 390 children are struck and injured by drivers each year.
Citified: Doesn’t this, and the facilities issue, boil down to money in a lot of ways?
Stober: It’s about where we’re putting our priorities for agencies that are pulled in lots of different directions, and making sure that Council is clearly articulating what they think those priorities should be. The Vision Zero side of things, a piece of it is engineering, and that’s about making sure that Streets Department resources are being directed toward projects that are focused on safety. It also means providing the Streets Department with much more political cover if there’s an intervention that’s going to make the street much safer for our most vulnerable citizens, even if it’s something that the neighborhood has concerns about or doesn’t like when they first hear about it …
So say you or I crosses the street and we get hit by a driver and we break our arm, and you know we’re out of work for a couple weeks. But you know your paychecks keep coming, your health insurance is still there, and it was a traumatic event, but your life your life goes on. But if you’re working as in manual labor or you’re working in a job where they fire you if you don’t show and they don’t care whether you were injured or not … your life is disproportionately affected and then thrown into chaos, which impacts your family in ways that it simply does not for those of us who have higher-paying jobs and more stable incomes. … It’s about having neighborhoods that are not only safe from gun violence, but from traffic violence as well.
Citified: In a nutshell, what’s your view of councilmanic prerogative?
Stober: This first thing I should say is I will always, as a Council member, vote based on the merits of the bill or resolution that comes in front of me. I do think that philosophically, councilmanic prerogative can serve an important function. And, like many things, it can also be abused or used inappropriately. The important function that it serves is that it makes sure that decisions in a specific geographic area have a single political representative who’s accountable for those positions. So it helps to empower, I believe, the voices of neighborhoods and the voices of residents.
Now sometimes that means stalling a project. Sometimes that can mean not advancing something that’s important for the city as a whole, but I think on the more day-in, day-out basis, what prerogative actually does is force people, force different parties to a table to negotiate a consensus. I think that overall, that’s a good thing.
… There are times when there are issues of citywide importance that I would certainly consider bucking councilmanic prerogative and introducing a bill that a district Council person wasn’t willing to introduce.