Nelson Diaz: “I’m Not Just Latino. I’m Broader Than That.”

Citified Q&A's with a Philadelphia trailblazer.

Nelson Diaz | Photo from Diaz's Facebook page.

Nelson Diaz | Photo from Diaz’s Facebook page.

[Editor’s Note: Meet Nelson Diaz this Wednesday at 6 p.m. He’s featured next in Philadelphia magazine’s Candidate Conversations series. Citified editor Patrick Kerkstra will interview Diaz live, and the candidate will take questions from the audience. Hosted by Venturef0rth, this event will feature free snacks, drinks, good company and a little civic enlightenment. We really do feel this format is an excellent way to take the measure of the mayoral candidates. Register HERE.]

Mayoral candidate Nelson Diaz has been a trailblazing figure in Philadelphia for decades. He was among the first Latinos to earn a law degree from Temple University. He says he was the first Latino elected judge in Pennsylvania (and perhaps the youngest in the city’s judiciary to boot). He’s also worked in the White House, served as General Counsel of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and as Philadelphia’s City Solicitor.

And yet, despite that pedigree, Diaz has been dismissed in some circles as a second tier candidate. “That is something that people make up … so they can marginalize you. And I think that’s what happened. The folks keep saying, ‘hey, he’s just Latino.’ I’m not just Latino. I think I’m broader than that.”

Diaz is a progressive, and he’s made city schools the centerpiece of his campaign. But he also has longstanding ties to big business and an impressive reform record as a judicial administrator. Read on to learn more about a lesser-known candidate with a first-tier resume.

(Read part two our Q&A with Nelson Diaz here.)

CITIFIED: Why now? You’ve had a long career in this town, you have a distinguished resume. Why not run eight years ago? Why not run 16 years ago?

DIAZ: Timing is everything. And when I was sitting watching the Eagles game, and I saw how poor the schools were, and I didn’t see any candidates who had the viability to try to fix it, and I saw the solution being vouchers, I really felt totally hurt because it’s leaving behind a lot of other kids in the school system — the poor kids.

…I decided that no one else who was getting into the race was going to do what I thought was important for the schools. And so I’ve quit all of my business relationships.

And I feel, now that I’ve gone into it, that I can win the race, based on the candidates that have come into the race. And then the Latino community, the African-American community, the Asian community, and my relationship with the Latino-Jewish Coalition, the Jewish community—all of them that I spoke to felt that if we’re going to do anything to fix our city, that’s what we have to do, we have to fix the schools…

So I’ve been doing this all my life without having elected office, but I couldn’t do the school thing without elected office. Because I think the SRC which says “reform” on it, there’s been no reform in 13 years, I felt that this was the time for me—there was an opportunity to be mayor, now that we have a governor who I believe would also be of assistance, who’s real practical and not totally political. Like me. … And so I think there’s an opportunity that we won’t have ever again for me to try to do what’s right

CITIFIED: Was there not the same need eight years ago?

DIAZ: Eight years ago, you had (Bob) Brady, who was party chairman, you had (Chaka) Fattah, who had some good ideas on education…. (Michael) Nutter had that wonderful experience with his daughter, and then you had (Tom) Knox who was spending like $12 million dollars to run for office, so the opportunity for me wasn’t going to be there, because there were already areas in which it would have been very difficult for me to attract (votes).

I can, since I’ve worked in every community, I can really attract I think the entire city, and that’s what most of the folks in this city don’t understand, is that, I can walk anywhere. Business community, I was heavily involved with them when I reformed the court system. When GPTMC was started I was one of the first board members… I was one of the executive committee members of the economic development coalition of the city.

And then at HUD, I did it very quietly, no one believed that I could reform public housing… but public housing totally changed in terms of having mixed-uses, having private investment in it, and having developers involved in it, and not making public housing look like a bunch-of-bricks public housing. So, it was a wonderful time for me to do that. And I think it’s a wonderful time for me to leave a legacy behind for this city that’s been so good to me, that I have been able to bring back education to our children.

CITIFIED: Let’s talk about the schools in a second. There are people who say you got into this race to spite Ken Trujillo, who obviously dropped out of the campaign a while ago. What do you say to that?

DIAZ: I didn’t understand anything relating to Ken Trujillo. Ken and I have been friends. Different sides. I helped him start the (Hispanic) Chamber of Commerce… I was the one who founded the Congreso, with Angel Ortiz and some others. I founded HACE— many of the organizations in the city. So Ken was never an option, or, an issue, because I had started looking at this, I guess probably way before he declared.

So I don’t think Ken— and I essentially wouldn’t have had a problem with having Ken in the race, and I was very sorry that he had a family issue. I tried to call him to express my deepest regrets at him getting out. But we were friends. You know, we live in the same neighborhood. We’re both up in Chestnut Hill. I see him on the train once in a while. So I was not in any way— it was not related to Ken, because I feel my base is broader than his.

If you look at all the people who are running for office, none of them have the base that I’ve had in terms of community. Ken’s relationship has— had none, none of the relationships in the African-American community. I’ve had a relationship with the African-American community. (Jim) Kenney, same thing. Kenney who has been in office for twenty-three years, has his base in South Philadelphia. He doesn’t have the strong relationships in the African-American community. It’s Johnny Doc and him, basically, in terms of this. If you look at (Anthony) Williams, Williams has been pretty much of a West Philadelphian… so even in his own African-American community, he doesn’t have relationships in all the communities I’ve been in. I’ve been in West Philadelphia, I’ve been in the Northwest, I’ve been in North Philadelphia. And then if you look at (Lynne) Abraham, Abraham’s relationship has been mostly in the prosecutorial side, so her relationship also isn’t necessarily in the Latino community, African-American community. And I even have relationships in the Asian community, because I was heavily involved in trying to stop the stadiums.

So, I always wanted to have as many candidates as possible, because it wouldn’t have hurt me in terms of those relationships. So that is something that people make up, in the process of them running, so they can marginalize you. And I think that’s what happened. The folks keep saying, “hey, he’s just Latino.” I’m not just Latino. I think I’m broader than that. How many people get on (the boards of) Fortune 500 companies? I mean, I was on (the board of) a Fortune 500 company for over 11 years. That’s not Latino. That’s business, and business development, and very successful business, and I helped bring diversity into the boardroom. But that was a very successful, Chicago operation.

I was on Legg Mason’s board. I was on PNC’s advisory board. So on a business level, I’ve done business, I’ve done economic development. On a judicial area, I’ve reformed the court system. I had to take a big hit on that. That’s not Latino… And then if I take you into my national relationships, I was on the executive committee of the DNC for a while. When I was city solicitor. I had a portfolio where I was very helpful to Doc, Kevin Dougherty, in the development of the family court activity… we started to professionalize the court system…

CITIFIED: Let’s talk about the schools for a second. What ideas or plans do you have for the schools that differentiates you from the competitors in the field?

DIAZ: One, I don’t believe in vouchers. That differentiates me completely. Secondly, I believe that we have to find full funding. Thirdly… I don’t oppose charters. I’ve represented charters. I represented two of the best charter schools…

CITIFIED: Ok, but mindful of the time we have, in terms of the charters: you don’t oppose them in concept…

DIAZ: I think you have to get rid of the bad ones… But you’ve got to understand what the real purpose of the charters was at the beginning. The real purpose of the charters was to take what works and then implement it in the school system. What we’ve done, what the SRC’s done is, the solution is charters. Well, why don’t you take what works within the charters — and I know what works within the charters, we all know what works — and implement it throughout the school system so the school system can get better?

They’re not doing that. Hey, one charter’s good, one charter’s bad, they evaluate them, but they don’t take what’s good into the system. And that’s a problem. And that’s what I can do because I understand what works. Not only do I understand what works, I come from a similar background.

It wasn’t till I was 15 years old that the lightbulb went on, and I was fortunate that education was there for me and I was able to catch up. And a lot of it is, you know, I had language difficulties, I didn’t get into school till I was 6 or 7 years old, I didn’t learn English till probably I was third or fourth grade. I tried to behave, but it was really difficult in Harlem, in terms of peer pressure, to be a good citizen in the streets. And I had great role models, and those great role models took me and kept me off the streets by playing baseball, by giving me some ethics, some honesty, some religion. I think all of that really encompassed why I want to serve and why I continued to serve my whole life.

The first day I got to Philadelphia, you saw there was a lack of lawyers in Philadelphia that were diverse. Very few women lawyers, very few Latino lawyers — few means none, right? Very few African-Americans. Only 78 African-Americans had passed the bar when I got hear in ’69 and by the time I passed in ’72.


DIAZ: 78 people. And if you read the literature there, you see how they kept a lot of the people out of the school system. And so what I say is, an education is something that no one can take away from you. If you want to get into the middle class, there are two ways. One is, get a job, have some job security, and develop your job opportunities. And two, get an education. An education can be a vocational education, it can be a professional education, it can be a college education.

CITIFIED: Right, but see one of the issues of course is that the mayor doesn’t directly control education in this city, at least not yet.

DIAZ: We will. I have spoken to the governor, and the governor’s agreed with me to get rid of the SRC. We’ll get rid of the SRC, and the process, you know how to do it. We’ll bring in parents that are responsible, appointed by the mayor. And we figure out between the governor, the president of the city council, the president of the union — if we get that done quickly in terms of the school board, the school board individuals — we get into a room, and work on what works.

Now, fellas, we’re here, this is what we all know is the process of educating children who have potential, and the potential has not been given to them. This is what we need to do now. Let’s work this out and figure out how we’re going to do this. We’re not going to leave this room until we figure it out. And if it’s dollars, Mr. Governor, you’ve got to help us with the dollars. If it’s pedagogical information, let’s work on that. If it’s essentially nursing that we need, if it’s food that we need in the morning, if it’s an iPhone so that they can communicate, if it’s whatever absolutely works, here in Camden, here in Chester, there in Harlem. Those are the kids. This works, we all know it. Let’s do it. And let’s stop playing games, political games about who’s in charge and who’s not in charge, because I’m not interested in taking anything out of this thing. I don’t want any patronage. I want you to teach the kids of the city.

CITIFIED: On the funding side though, there are political realities at the state level that make the prospect of vastly increased state funding challenging. And then locally, we’ve got a pretty high tax burden as is in this city. How do you pay for this stuff? You mentioned yesterday at the forum that we’re around $11,000 a student in Philadelphia, and in Lower Merion they’re at $22,000.

DIAZ: $23,000.

CITIFIED: Right. But Lower Merion’s got a tax base that Philadelphia can only dream of. So how do we invest in our kids given the political realities at the state level and the financial realities of Philadelphia?

DIAZ: One thing that I mentioned yesterday is that if we fix the school systems, the millennials will stay here. So we’ll keep some of the tax base instead of them flowing back to the Lower Merions, some of the suburban communities. That’s a real issue that’s happened so much here.

Secondly, if you look at how we tax, we have this incentive for a lot of businesses not to come here. One of which is the wage tax and some of the business taxes. We’ve got to begin working on those disincentives, because we’re almost on the bottom of bringing small businesses here, and that’s a tax base that we’re also losing, not only in Center City but throughout the neighborhoods…

CITIFIED: We’ve had tax reform commissions for decades. There’s been no shortage of discussion around Philadelphia’s tax structure and the problems with it. What would you do to actually change it?

DIAZ: You know what the problem has been? The same problem you had with PGW. That the mayor thinks he owns the city. The mayor doesn’t own the city. There’s a mayor and City Council. And we have to include all the parties, and put freakin’ egos behind, and decide “these are the numbers, this is what happens, this is what occurs, this is how we can fix this for all the citizens.”

You don’t want to be targeting just to your councilmanic district, as they sort of very parochially think about. This is something that will benefit not only your councilmanic district but also all of the city, which will help us with regard to the tax base. If we do that right, and I believe that my relationship with the business community will help me do that right because I will get some of the professionals there, some of the pros within the city to do it…