Q&A: Almost-Congressman Brendan Boyle

Philly Mag sits down with the young new member of Philly’s beleagured D.C. delegation

Photo via Facebook

Photo via Facebook

It’s been a pretty crummy year for Philadelphia’s delegation in Washington D.C., and, consequentially, for the city’s clout in the Capitol.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is besieged by federal investigators. Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz quit her job to run for governor, only to be shellacked by that guy with the beard and the Jeep. Bob Brady chugs along, and he proved again he still has sway, but Brady’s raison d’être has always been running the Democratic City Committee, not mastering Washington.

Yesterday, though, that stale mix changed in a big way. Fresh-faced 38-year-old Brendan Boyle was easily elected to Congress, and he feels like a badly needed gust of fresh air.

Boyle, you’ll recall, was the winner of the bruising primary battle to replace Schwartz. It was the most expensive House primary fight in the nation, and there was little reason to think Boyle would win. He was, after all, just a two-term State Representative in a field that included a popular veteran state senator (Daylin Leach), a former Congresswoman with close ties to the Clintons (Marjorie Margolies), and a deep-pocketed doctor (Valerie Arkoosh). Boyle crushed them all. 

Together with his brother Kevin, also a State Representative, Boyle has built an impressive base in Northeast Philadelphia, largely working outside the party apparatus.

Boyle is a fascinating figure. Born to a working class Olney family (Dad, an Irish immigrant, worked as a SEPTA custodian, mom as a school crossing guard), Boyle was educated at Notre Dame and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s got the values of vanishing white working class Philly, but the schooling and experience of an elite. You can see why John Dougherty and a lot of other labor leaders grabbed on to Boyle as he ascended.

Philly Mag spent a few minutes with Boyle near the eve of Tuesday’s election. He came across as a Congressman-to-be who will be less interested in empire building at home than in dealing with the fallout of U.S. empire building abroad.

Philly Mag: I think it’s fair to say that our congressional delegation is sort of locally focused, and I’m wondering do you intend to be more city-focused or nationally focused, or some combination of the two?

Boyle: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You can still have an interest in urban redevelopment and your constituents here in Philadelphia while at the same time having a profile on national issues of great importance. I mean just look at the world in 2014 — we had Vladimir Putin for the first time since WWII question with force the integrity of boundaries of the map of Europe, we have ISIS videos of beheading Westerners including Americans, you have the continuing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and about 6 other problems- Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine still is unstable — and those are just the foreign policy issues. On the macro economic issues, I spent a lot of time on the campaign talking about the way the percentage of Americans who are middle class is continuing to decline and just how dangerous that is to the country. Admittedly it’s much more the national issues that drew me into this and attracted my interest but that doesn’t mean you ever ignore or forget where you’re from and pay attention to the issues right here at home.

Philly Mag: I got the sense watching your primary contest that you were carrying a lot of expectations on your shoulders. You’re something of a young face of a white working-class Philadelphia that is smaller than it used to be.

Boyle: I would say I’m proud of where I come from and absolutely I feel that I am representing a row home Philadelphia background, I wouldn’t just narrow it to white. For example the ward where I had the most support in this race was the 61st ward, an overwhelmingly African-American ward. I knocked on every single row in the district, I stood on my feet for 13 hours outside of Finletter public school shaking hands with voters asking them to give me a shot and vote for me. I am very proud of that, I guess there’s a reason why despite going away to college and moving away, I came back home and wanted to build my career here and raise my family here. I am emotionally connected to Philadelphia and my background, and trying to make life easier for people who grew up the way I did. It is something I feel very passionate about.

I think that what’s really interesting is we’re at a stage now where the experience of a row-home Philadelphian in Olney, and a row home Philadelphian in South Philly, and a row-home Philadelphian in Kensington is far more similar than dissimilar. So I’m fortunate enough to have the education and opportunities I’ve had, but also to come from that row home background. It gives me a unique perspective.

Philly Mag: I’d like to hear you talk about Philadelphia’s status and reputation in Harrisburg.

Boyle: We’re incredibly popular. [Laughs].

Philly Mag: What realistically can be done in your experience to improve matters?

Boyle: It’s a real challenge. If you look at the way Illinois state is towards Chicago, if you look at other states where there’s one big dominant city, there’s very much a mentality of gang up on the big kid on the block and Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania context is the big kid on the block. That said I think it is overcomeable. The importance of relationships cannot be exaggerated. The ability to get legislators from other parts of the state who have negative and often false perceptions of Philadelphia to think about those impressions, or to think about the specific legislation and not their perceptions, that’s incredibly important.

Philly Mag: Can you talk about which committees you’d like to serve on?

Boyle: Number one would probably be foreign affairs. This is an incredibly important time in the history of our country. The opportunity to be on that committee and be a leader on those issues is something that really appeals to me. And then the second area is transportation and infrastructure. It seriously bothers me the way our country is falling behind countries in Europe in Asia when it comes to making investments in infrastructure; our roads, our bridges and especially mass transit. I believe that the Philadelphia area probably benefits from mass transit and Amtrak investing more than any other area of our country.

Philly Mag: Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Boyle: We sit smack dab in the middle of the Northeast corridor. If we could shorten the times between New York and Philadelphia, and Philadelphia and Washington… it would be amazing. If you talk about one thing that could really positively change the trajectory of our city over the next 20 years, that could be it. It’s an incredible growth opportunity for our city. It would lead to jobs, dramatic investment, so I think as a member of Congress from Philadelphia there’s even more of a need to have someone on that committee and fighting to properly fund transit.

Philly Mag: You’ve taken a lot of heat over your ties to John Dougherty and the building trades. How do you respond to those attacks? How do you feel about getting so much support from Local 98? 

Boyle: I’m very proud of the fact that I was supported by every single building trade union, including and especially IBEW. It’s interesting. We have a very strong labor movement here in Philly and we tend to have a middle class wage base that is higher than average. Contrast that to Washington DC, where the labor movement is comparatively weaker at the national level and oh, how about that, as a coincidence, middle class wages are actually lower today nationally than they were 15 years ago. I would like to see the labor movement nationally as strong as it is here in Philadelphia. So I don’t run away from it at all, I think there needs to be more interest in politics that represent average workers, and I don’t shy away from that.

Philly Mag: You’ve ascended pretty quickly. Now you’re going into Congress where it takes 30 years to chair a committee. How are you feeling about that?

Boyle: I think whether it’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Rahm Emanuel, there are plenty of examples of people who’ve made a difference even being in the House for a short period of time. I saw that in Harrisburg, by the way. I think that if you work hard, you’re well-meaning, you’re able to get along with people, you are able to get things done and make a difference even if you haven’t been there as many years as some others. I feel that my experience in Harrisburg has actually validated that belief.

Philly Mag: You see a lot of good people, a lot of qualified, diligent public servants tiring of the rancor and getting out of the business because of the poisonous atmosphere of DC. How do you plan to deal with that?

Boyle: Look, I just went through the most expensive congressional primary in the country that at times was bruising. So it’s not for the faint of heart, you have to really want it and really believe in it.

Philly Mag: How about across-the-aisle compromise? How feasible is that now?

Boyle: I’ve been able to do it as a state rep. It will be interesting for me to see the differences and similarities between the federal level and the state level. … It seems as if every generation thinks it’s the worst that it’s ever been in the history of the world and my view tends to be more peaks and valleys. We’re in an era of incredible hyper-partisanship and rancor and acrimony, but there have been also been other periods of this acrimony and they’ve been followed by eras of cooperation and getting things done. Look at just even in my lifetime. The early 1990s was total gridlock between George Bush Sr. and a Democratic Congress. That gave way to the Clinton presidency where he was able to get a lot done with the Republican congress and Newt Gingrich. …

So I think if you take the longer view, this is cyclical and I’m hoping we’re about to enter back into an era of working together and doing what’s in the best interest of the country. Because whether it’s sequester, which everyone agrees is just plain dumb but it’s still happening, whether it’s the tremendous underinvestment in our infrastructure, whether it’s running up against the debt limit — where we’ve almost for the first time in American history bankrupted the full faith and credit of the US — these are very serious destructive things that we’re doing to ourselves. We do need more people in our government who will just say, “timeout, this is insane. Let’s put us on the right path and not do these incredibly destructive things.”

Philly Mag: You won the most expensive congressional primary in the nation this year, and you did it as a huge underdog. How?

Boyle: We started off between my state rep district and my brother’s district, we started off with a base where fortunately we were very popular because of the work we had done. So we really looked at it as, OK we start off at about 18% of the district where we’re known, now let’s go out to the other 82% and make the introduction, talk about issues, try to meet as many voters as possible. I started last spring reaching out every single day, holding events. We ended up holding more than 225 throughout the campaign and sometimes it’s as few as 20-25 people showing up. … Slowly but surely, it was kind of the tortoise and the hare, we just kept creeping up, creeping up, creeping up, as a result of doing that work.

I truly believe in the power of grassroots politics. Some people are dismissive of it. They have it wrong. Media matters and money matters, no doubt. However the grassroots politics also matters. Barack Obama would not have won the Iowa caucuses without his ground game. I wouldn’t have become the first Democrat to ever represent my state legislative district without the ground game. My brother would not have defeated the former speaker of the house if not for knocking on every single door of his district. The money matters, the media matters, but so does the grassroots.

Philly Mag: So let’s sharpen that a little bit. A small group of concerned people can kind of come out of nowhere and get elected in Philadelphia? You don’t need the party support, you don’t need a ton of money to start with at least?

Boyle: My first state rep campaign was me, my brother and my best friend on a day that it snowed walking on Red Lion Road trying to get petition signatures in order to get on the ballot. And we ended up getting over 1,000 petition signatures with very little institutional support and a number of ward leaders that were actually for the Republican and not for us. So I think the positive lesson is if you’re willing to work at it, yes, just a few people showing up and working at it can make a real difference. More so than people believe.

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