Q&A: Who Is Ken Trujillo?

The careful, calculating mayoral candidate talks schools and tells his story.

Ken Trujillo at his campaign launch in September. Photo credit: Trujillo campaign's Facebook page.

Ken Trujillo at his campaign launch in September. Photo credit: Trujillo campaign’s Facebook page.

(Update: Trujillo dropped out of the race hours after this Q&A was published, citing family reasons.) 

In the early days of this 2015 mayoral race, there are, at minimum, two clear top-tier candidates: State Senator Anthony Williams, and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Williams is the favorite of the political class, with a strong West Philly base, presumed connections to big money and favorable racial math. Abraham has the highest name recognition in the field and a long history of winning citywide races.

Then there is Ken Trujillo. At first glance, Trujillo can appear like a second-tier candidate. He’s never run for office before. He is unlikely to win much support from the city’s Democratic party apparatus. Very few people know who he is.

And yet, the Trujillo campaign is being taken very seriously indeed by an array of political insiders (most prominently Ed Rendell), business leaders and progressives.

There are a few reasons for that. For one, Trujillo is a fresh face and one of the few candidates who can plausibly claim to be a change agent. He’s also likely to have the resources to compete at a high level throughout the campaign. Trujillo has enough connections in the business community to raise a lot of cash, and enough personal resources to commit significant dollars to his own campaign. Trujillo also has a hell of a resume, both in and out of government. He’s served as city solicitor and as an assistant U.S. Attorney, and has held posts on an array of big-time government and nonprofit boards. He formed his own law firm, and he owns a Spanish-language radio station (El Zol, the old 1340 WHAT). Trujillo’s campaign is also comparatively well-organized and staffed. He’s clearly in it to win.

And yet, Trujillo remains something of a cipher. His policy positions and priorities are not well known even by the political class. Just as critically, the outlines of Trujillo’s character and personality remain fuzzy.

Trujillo sat down with Citified over breakfast recently at Tierra Colombiana, the Hunting Park institution and hub for the city’s Latino community to talk about how he looks at Philadelphia, city schools, tax policy and more. Part one of this Q&A runs today. Part two will be published tomorrow. The questions below have been paraphrased; Trujillo’s remarks have been only lightly edited for clarity and length.

Citified: I’d like to hear you talk a little bit about the city as you understand it. How do you think about the city? How do you think about its people, its struggles, its strengths? I want to get a sense of the way you think about Philadelphia.

Trujillo: I think Philadelphia, at least for me and my family, it’s really been a city of opportunity… Philadelphia has been a city that has given me tremendous opportunities and I think for many people that come to Philadelphia it’s certainly a city of opportunity. I think for too many Philadelphians, and especially long-term Philadelphians, it’s a city that’s … proving to be a difficult place to raise a family and make a living. And so I see enormous, enormous opportunities created by Philadelphians, created by people who have recently moved to Philadelphia, people who have been here for hundreds of years. And I then also, in the same view, see profound obstacles, and many of those obstacle are institutionalized obstacles… You need to have I think an ability to both deal with opportunities and take advantage of opportunities but also deal with the obstacles.

Citified: You have some opponents in this race with very long legislative records or extensive careers in very public positions. They’ve been elected before, you’re a first time candidate. How will you introduce yourselves to voters, because I think it’s fair to say most voters don’t even know who you are yet.

Trujillo: Sure, sure and I think that’s a very fair question. One of the things that I’ve done since the beginning of this process is talk to people all around the city… People tell me over and over that the status quo no longer works, that career politicians are not the way to get things done. And my own personal story– Look I am one of five kids. I grew up poor. My father was a minister. My mother primarily worked at home and was a nurse’s aid. And so I know, firsthand, hunger. I was on food stamps, I was on the school lunch program. So I was a very unlikely candidate to be the first in my family to graduate from college. Yet Philadelphia has given me the ability and my family the ability to really live my dream. And in my view, as I tell people how I grew up and what I’ve done in my life–the combination of my personal story and my experience with the non-profit community, as a prosecutor, as city solicitor, as a small business owner–that combination of experiences is something I hear over and over from people is the kind of experience people want in a mayor. And that combination of experiences I think really gives me an advantage.

I really, really believe the following: Voters are intelligent and this will be a very personal election. Voters in Philadelphia will get to know every candidate very, very well; our weakness and our strengths. And I think once you get to May 19, voters are going to connect with my story; not just my personal story and my experience, but also my history of getting things done. I like to tell people, ‘an election is not a formality’. We have a campaign to run and people are going to get to know us very, very well and in that context I like my chances very much.

Citified: Historically Philadelphians have had an affinity for big personalities in their leaders, even over-the-top personalities. Frank Rizzo. Lynne Abraham as district attorney. John Street was a big personality. Ed Rendell, huge personality.

Trujillo: Yeah.

Citified: I’m wondering, do you feel like your personality will resonate with voters who elected those sorts of leaders in the past?

Trujillo: I think that Philadelphia in 2015, 2016, is in a different place than it was 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. I think you’re seeing Philadelphia continue to look to the future, not look backwards. So in my view Philadelphians are ready for a mayor that’s preparing for the future, not looking back, not wishful for the past. And I think as I talk to people in Philadelphia, one of the things that they want is a mayor who’s actually capable not only of doing the job, but of seeing the potential of Philadelphia, of making sure we get there.

Citified: You mentioned institutionalized limitations earlier. What were you referring to? What are the sort of institutional factors holding the city back?

Trujillo: The first, second and third priority of the next mayor has to be education. We didn’t get to where we are overnight. There are some institutional issues that created the situation that we find ourselves with in terms of public education. And look, I’m a product of public education, and I know I owe every, every, every opportunity I’ve had to that education. And that’s the exact same thing every child in Philadelphia deserves. But there are some structural issues that we have in Philadelphia that create the circumstance where people believe that they need to go out of Philadelphia in order to educate their kids. As you know one-third of our kids and their parents have chosen to opt out of the district run schools. And what we have to do is make sure that our district run schools… they have to be strong…

We have too few resources for our kids and very often our kids are starting off in a disadvantaged situation anyway. So that’s why I think it’s important that we end the state takeover, because I think it’s important the mayor have ownership. I’m not interested in being a day-to-day CEO of the school system, but I have to have ownership of the schools. Our kids face enormous challenges.

Citified: So let’s talk about that. At your campaign announcement, you called for the abolishment of the SRC. What should replace it? What should the governing structure be?

Trujillo: … Going back to the early part of last year, what I started doing was meeting with parents, teachers, union leaders, teachers’ unions, education experts, to look at exactly where we should go with education. What I’m interested in doing is leading the conversation in which we bring together all of those groups: teachers, parents, children, labor union officials, political leaders, non-profit executives and look forward. Right? We have to look for what a public education system in Philadelphia should look like. And what has to happen is the next mayor has to put in place the structural changes that were talked about that create the circumstances where the SRC will vote itself out of existence.

Now, I don’t sit here and say I’ve got the perfect solution because in my view there’s no one governance model is going to mean the difference between success and failure. That’s not what is going to define it. What I think is important though is that we have a common understanding or a common belief and a common direction–we’re not going to get everybody on board–but where most people are headed in the same direction in terms of governing structure.

Citified: But you mentioned mayoral ownership and responsibility for the schools. Does that preclude an elected school board? Are you talking about some sort of mix of an appointed school board?

Trujillo: Look in my view, everything’s on the board. It can be a hybrid, but the reason I talk about mayoral ownership is that the mayor has to have ownership… I want to be measured as a mayor on the success of our schools. I might be a fine mayor for eight years, and (if) our schools are still where they are right now, I’ve been a failed mayor. So that’s what I’m talking about when I say that the mayor has to have ownership of our schools, we have to measure the effectiveness of our mayor on how well our schools do.

Citified: How do you plan to measure that effectiveness? What’s your benchmark?

Trujillo: Well there are a number of benchmarks… We have in Philadelphia… half a million Philadelphians (who) are functionally illiterate, meaning they read at an 8th-grade level or below. We can’t be a great city and have that number of our citizens be functionally illiterate. So: literacy rates, graduation rates. … One of the things we did at Congresso over and over was come up with data points in order to be able to measure our effectiveness and that’s what we need to be able to do.

Citified: Let’s talk about the role of charter schools a little bit. You helped to found a charter, so clearly you see value in the charter model. On the other hand, I think most observers agree that charter expansion has made the district’s financial situation more difficult. So what is the correct balance? What’s the mix that makes sense?

Trujillo: Number one, it’s not a zero sum game… There’s no magic to the number of charters or to the number of district run schools. What has to happen is you have to have effective schools, right? You have to have well-funded, well-led, well-governed schools, be they district run or be they charters. And if a charter is performing it ought to be able to see expansion; if a district run school is performing it ought to have the same opportunities. But I come back in as a person who started one of the highest performing charters and I see the role for charters in Philadelphia. But because most of our kids are going to be educated and are not going to be able to opt out of the district run schools, our district run schools have to… be on the same playing field as charters.

Citified: So how do you level that playing field? There’s still a General Assembly that’s maybe not entirely warm toward Philadelphia’s needs. So what’s the mix between state investment and local investment and if we’re talking about a locally run school board, should that school board have taxing authority?

Trujillo: … This is why I need to be mayor. … I can’t count, you can’t count, we can’t count on the state legislature to do more for Philadelphia. Right? So what has to happen? …What I learned a long time ago is what I concern myself with most are the things that I can control. What Philadelphia has to do is control its own destiny more. What I mean by that is that we have to generate more revenue for our schools here in Philadelphia, but we can’t do it on the backs of working families. We’ve asked too much of our working families in Philadelphia and we can’t be coming up with new ways to tax our working families. So what has to happen? …We have to create structural reform in our tax system to encourage business to come to Philadelphia, to open businesses, create jobs. That creates revenue for our working families but it also does another really important thing; it generates more tax revenue without changing the rates because of the increase in value of commercial real estate… As you know 53 percent of that revenue goes directly to the school district. And that’s the structural change I’m talking about. It took years to get where we are today, but unless we start turning that around, it’s going to be a very difficult path.

Citified: And I’d like to talk about taxes. But one last question on the schools… One of the central debates about city schools these days is over the role of teachers. I’m talking about teacher assessment, teacher tenure. The SRC scrapped the PFT contract. I’m wondering a) What you thought about the SRC’s move and b) Where you stand on issues like teacher tenure and teacher evaluation?

Trujillo: … I think it’s really really important that we not try to find somebody to blame, right? I don’t like the idea of blaming; whether it’s unions, teachers, the administration. I think what’s really important, and this is I think a very different part of my makeup, is I’m interested in finding answers, I’m not interested in saying who’s to blame. So in terms of what happens, we have to support our teachers. They’re doing a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances. So for me, whether it’s what happened with the SRC’s decision on the contract, I think what’s important there is to make sure that teachers believe and are actually part of any kind of decision that materially affects them, so transparency in that process I think is very very important. But most importantly I’m really just not real interested in name calling or trying to find you know find who’s to blame.

Visit Citified tomorrow for the second half of our Q&A with mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo.