The Citified Q&A: Nelson Diaz Frames Himself as a Progressive Reformer
[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.]
In Part Two of his Citified Q&A, mayoral candidate Nelson Diaz makes a bold prediction about Latino turnout in the Democratic primary and styles himself as a progressive reformer. He also proclaims he’ll have enough money to compete, and to get on television. For Part One of this interview, click here.
CITIFIED: Let’s talk about your resume, and how that translates into executive leadership. Lots of government experience, private sector too. But is it executive experience? I mean, do you know how to run big organizations?
DIAZ: Well, my first job here was running the Spanish Merchants Association… Then I went to Washington as a White House Fellow, worked for Vice President Mondale, was in charge — there were only five people who worked with the Vice President in those days — I was in charge of all issues around the country. I was an issue person. Veterans, Latinos, charities, you know, American Indians, and so forth. So I was in charge of all those issues.
I came back here, and when I became again a lawyer, I had the opportunity to become a judge. And as a judge, I was an administrative judge; I had 90 judges under my rule. I had an extremely large budget, and I took that budget and reduced it by $100 million over that 10-year period, reduced the staffing, and made the operation of course run better… I put all volunteer lawyers, some of the top lawyers in the city, made them what they call pro tem judges. They ran their courts as if they were judges. We reduced that backlog to almost two years. Why? Because if you know what works, you can make it happen…
Then I go to Washington and become the general counsel at HUD. I have 500 lawyers. I have offices all over the country: Seattle, Los Angeles, Texas, Denver, New York City. I’m the first general counsel to enforce the Fair Housing Act, even though it had been passed a while ago…
CITIFIED: So you think you’ve got strong executive experience?
DIAZ: I had 500 lawyers… it was the most litigious period in the history of HUD and the most productive period in the history of HUD in providing and changing housing opportunities for people in the country. Not only for poor people, because we did market-rate housing and non-market-rate housing… Do you want me to give some more executive—
CITIFIED: No no, I hear you.
DIAZ: … I’m a doer. I go in and get things done. I helped start the Legal Aid program at Temple University. So, I’m a doer. I can get things done. I started HACE, did it voluntarily until we could get enough money for it to run. We bought a little shopping center, had the bank give us the financing, went through PIDC, and today they own everything.
And so I really believe that I have the experience to do it. I don’t think any of the candidates have had the corporate experience. You know, I’ve been on (the board of) a Fortune 500 company, which we have properties all over the country, whether it’s California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington DC. We have properties all over the country. I visited every single plant.
CITIFIED: So can you bring that sort of management style to a place like City Hall, where there’s union work rules that have been written up over a long period of time, there’s a contract, there’s a certain inertia, I think it’s fair to say, to any government operation. How would you change that dynamic? Or do you think that dynamic needs to be changed?
DIAZ: I think it has to be changed, and I really believe that we have to be inclusive in making those changes. People have to buy in to a process. Management has to buy in to a process, and if it doesn’t work with those individuals then you’ve got to get who will work in that process. Nobody ever thought that anybody could reform the court system, because nobody had been fired since 1776. If you’re not working, you’ve got to be fired. So no one has the opportunity to have done that, and I did it, and I think I can do it for the school system, and I think I can do it for — I shouldn’t think, I really know I can do it for the city.
CITIFIED: Apart from schools, what sort of single issue or innovative idea do you have that differentiates you from the other candidates? Something that you would do differently than them, something where you’d be bold about that they’re timid about?
DIAZ: I would talk to the governor about developing one real scholarship system for any child that has a B or better average in the school system, and have a scholarship for them, which would essentially push and orient kids up. I think giving people some goals helps. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is I would be able to attract the brightest and the best. I’ve done that in every situation that I’ve been in… And I would try to work with the labor unions. I’m not anti-labor. And the problem with all of these mayors has been, they’re pro or anti. We have to be pro-business and pro-labor. We have to see how each one of them can help each other work. I think that labor-management relationships need to be improved in the city, and having a workforce that feels that they have an opportunity to have some peace in their labor activities, I think helps…
CITIFIED: Right. Let me ask you a couple quick horserace questions if I can. I want to get at how you can win this thing. Let’s start off: how’s fundraising going? You obviously sunk a significant chunk of your own change into the race. Do you plan to continue doing that, and otherwise how’s the fundraising picture?
DIAZ: It’s going very well. I’m getting the funds that I need. I should have started earlier, but now that I’ve started on the 15th of January, it’s going well. I’ve got incredible support financially, and I know that I will be competitive.
CITIFIED: Are you going to go on TV?
DIAZ: Yes I will. Yes I will
CITIFIED: So what’s your winning coalition look like? It’s a big complicated field right now. Who do you assemble, be they groups, neighborhoods, whatever, to get across that plurality line?
DIAZ: I think the bulk of the educators, whether the union endorses me or not, will be with me because I believe that most of the educators have problems with what’s going on, with the lack of respect they’ve gotten…
I think I have an opportunity in every community, including Williams’ area, to bring in votes. I think I have good relationships in Chinatown, so the Asian community is a community that I don’t think anybody else has but me. Not that I know of. And then, I have communities throughout the city, whether it’s Chestnut Hill where I live, Northwest, South Philadelphia. So I’m pretty broad in terms of the relationships that I have, and so I really believe that that’s going to be the winning formula…
CITIFIED: Voter turnout is a problem throughout Philadelphia, but turnout in the Puerto Rican community and Latino community is particularly low—which is odd because voter turnout on the island is so incredible. So I’m wondering, does that speak to certain disaffection in the Puerto Rican community about city politics, and what are you doing to change that. And the second part of that is, how important is record-level Puerto Rican turnout for your bid?
DIAZ: They haven’t had very many candidates to vote for. That’s the beginning. Secondly, there’s a cultural issue with regard to they only vote once every four years (in Puerto Rico). But having somebody that they know, that they can vote for, I guarantee you that it will be double what it was before. Guarantee.
DIAZ: Guarantee it. They love me. They’ve been good to me.