Terry Gillen has spent much of her adult life in public service to the city of Philadelphia — serving Mayors Rendell and Nutter in positions (including as director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority) meant to help rebuild the city from its early 1990s bottoming-out. A chief highlight during that time: Serving on the team that revived the Navy Yard as a center of private enterprise after it was closed as a military base during Rendell’s administration.
Now she’s running for mayor, and holding a June 30th fund-raiser to collect cash for the effort.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for this to be a fabulous wonderful city and that’s what I want to help turn into reality,” Gillen said this week.
She talked to Philly Mag about the issues facing Philadelphia, whether her status as the only female candidate matters, and the lessons she’s learned from working for two Philly mayors.
What do you think that you bring to the mayoral race that’s otherwise missing?
I’m running for mayor because I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing my whole life. After I graduated from law school, I didn’t care about making a lot of money — I went to work for Mayor Rendell, to try to make a difference in the lives of people in Philadelphia, and I’ve spent my whole life doing that.
Under Mayor Rendell I was on the team that planned the Navy Yard and helped turn it into a place that’s producing good jobs. And after working on Mayor Nutter’s campaign I ran the Redevelopment Authority, where we rehabbed hundreds of houses and created construction jobs in neighborhoods across the city. So I run for mayor to continue doing what I’ve been doing, and make Philadelphia a city of opportunity and the kind of city that works well for everyone.
You have a history in the city of trying to create jobs. It still seems like Philadelphia always seems to be behind the eight ball in terms of job creation, that we don’t quite measure up to other big cities in terms of how fast we’re growing jobs. Do we have the right people for the jobs that are out there? Or is that a different kind of problem that we need to fix? And if so, how do we fix it after all these years?
This is the area where I have a lot of experience. Back in the ’90s virtually no one thought that we’d be able to create jobs at the Navy Yard. It had just closed, the city was losing population and yet, by putting a good strategy together and some smart investments we were able to turn it around. Now it has more than 11,000 jobs. So it’s an example of how the city can create jobs everywhere. I would say that the opportunities are there — especially because the city is now growing unlike the ’90s when the city was shrinking — we’re now picking up population and people want to live here.
So I think the way we create jobs is three things. One is the city has to get out of the way of small businesses — and if you’re a small business government should make it easier for you to open here instead of pushing you to the suburbs. The second thing I would say we have to continue … cutting the wage tax and also business taxes so that we’re in line at least with the suburbs. And the third thing is going after certain types of businesses that we would like to be in Philadelphia. There’s certain business clusters that I think we can go after in a targeted way and we should do that.
One of your notable achievements is helping put the Navy Yard back to work after being closed by the military. That’s also something that happened 20 years ago and has been happening over the course of that 20 years. Now how do you introduce a new generation of voters to that story and make it feel meaningful to them?
Well the Navy Yard is a great story because it’s completely evolving and I think one of the reasons it’s successful is that it is relevant businesses today. It’s got obviously iconic companies like Urban Outfitters but all kinds of pharmaceutical and modern kind of companies. So I think the Navy Yard story is an example of where good planning and bold leadership create jobs and that’s a relevant story, as relevant as it was 20 years ago.
Another topic you’ve expressed interest in is schools. What do you think needs to be done there? What could you as mayor do about that?
I care deeply about schools, my parents grew up in Philadelphia but they moved to Upper Darby in the 1950s, when a lot of people moved to the suburbs to get a better life for their kids. And I graduated from public schools, from Upper Darby High School. My brother and I were the first people in my family to go to college. So I understand the importance of a good public school education and how it can completely turn a generation around. I think the solution to the schools is going to be complicated, a lot of people have kicked the can down the road. There have been a lot of lost opportunities over the last 10 years. So I think that what has to happen is the city’s leaders have to come together to solve this problem instead of pursuing separate agendas and we’ve got to do a better job of going to Harrisburg and forming coalitions.
So one of the things I’ll do as mayor is go back to places like Upper Darby where the school system is now struggling and form coalitions with people throughout the state so that we can get a better funding formula for our schools in Philadelphia. I think for too long Philadelphia has tried to go in alone in Harrisburg and that’s not a winning strategy, so that’s something that I would focus on.
Should the schools be returned to local control, or are you okay with the status quo as far as the SRC and state control?
I’m less concerned about the control and I’m more concerned about getting a fair funding formula. So I would be willing to look at different models but my main concern is that Harrisburg has to step up and provide fair funding to all schools in Pennsylvania and to Philadelphia.
Switching topics: You are a female candidate in a time when people have lamented the shortage of female candidates and office-holders on the statewide level. Does your gender matter and should it?
I honestly don’t know if my gender matters. So I would just say that I’m, you know, I’ m running for mayor because I want to make Philadelphia a city that works well for everyone, men and women, and that’s really why I’m running.
You worked for both Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter: They’re men with very different public personas and different approaches to their jobs. What have you learned from each about what kind of mayor you’d like to be?
I think mayors can do maybe three or four really big things. I think each of them were successful doing different things. I think, what I’ve learned is that hiring the right people and creating a strategic vision is key to being a successful leader and a successful mayor.
I worked for Mayor Rendell a little longer than I worked for Mayor Nutter because I also worked for Mayor Rendell when he was governor. And I think one of his signature achievements was focusing on the city’s economy and turning the economic fundamentals around. And so I think that’s something that I’m going to focus on a lot as mayor so that’s probably a similarity that I have with Mayor Rendell. Mayor Nutter was successful in cleaning up City Hall and bringing ethics back to the city and that’s also something that I will focus on as mayor. So I’ve learned from both of them.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.