The Challengers: Terry Tracy Wants Repurposed Food Trucks To Bring City Hall Services To You
This week, Citified is featuring Q&As with leading at-large City Council candidates running for the two slots reserved for minority parties and independents.
Terry Tracy might be the future of Philadelphia’s Republican Party.
OK, that’s probably overstating things. After all, Tracy hasn’t won a single election yet. But as a 33-year-old former business leader who has spoken eloquently about the city’s problems and attracted a diverse group of supporters during his campaign for City Council at-large, some see him as a reason to be hopeful about Philadelphia’s weakened Republican Party.
Between 2011 and 2015, Tracy worked as an executive at Ralph Lauren. In 2013, he mounted a campaign against City Controller Alan Butkovitz, but lost. That was to be expected, though: Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia 7 to 1. In this year’s City Council at-large race, Tracy only needs to finish among the top two vote-getters in a field of four other Republicans and four Independents.
During a Q&A with Citified, Tracy talked about his vision for the city’s GOP, the Levy-Sweeney tax plan, and a program he wants to steal from Boston called “City Hall To Go.” Our questions have been paraphrased and Tracy’s responses have been edited lightly for clarity.
Citified: Easy question to start with: You said you want to talk about the Levy-Sweeney plan, which is a proposal to shift more of the city’s tax burden onto commercial property taxes, and away from wage and business taxes. Why?
Tracy: Because I think it gets at the root cause of addressing our tax codes and helps us to solve so many problems at one time. At the end of the day, the city has a revenue problem … relative to other cities our size. We have a small tax base, both in terms of taxpaying resident citizens and also obviously commercial taxpayers as well.
We have to ask ourselves, “Why?” It’s not that our economy regionally suffers per se, right? We live in a very wealthy, regionally diverse economy. But there’s sort of an issue with respect to the hole in the donut, and we see this in any statistic we look at, right? So poverty rates, income inequality in the region. The “Expanding Opportunity” report that the Economy League published over the summer talked about the fact that the income inequality in the region was higher than Turkey, Mexico, Russia. It was pretty scary numbers, right? So we have to do something fundamentally different to attract business and generate revenue in the city. There’s not any new tax that anyone can think of that’s going to be a windfall to address our problems.
And the reality is that we have a municipal tax code that’s built for a mid-20th century economy. I think that the Levy-Sweeny plan, as it was currently proposed, is the best plausible option on the table at the moment. Is it ideal? No. I mean, certainly like any other plan, there are pluses and minuses. But I think there is a general consensus that this could work within the business community. It allows us in the near term to address the most destructive tax in the code, not just in the city but in the entire region, which is the wage tax.
I think if we can do this, we do many different things. We can attract new business. I think we inspire entrepreneurs to stay. I think we help to retain new residents, both new Americans and millennials. I think we reduce the tax burden on those that are making too little money, or are otherwise poor. I think we ultimately address the revenue problem the city has in a pretty fundamental way.
Citified: There are a number of Democrats and Republicans who support this in the city. Jim Kenney supports it. Almost every mayoral candidate, if not all of them, during the primary supported it. Why should people elect you because you support it? What makes your support of it different or important?
Tracy: As you know, this is going to require a [state] Constitutional amendment. There are other proposals on the table to enact this without a Constitutional amendment that I think are also plausible, but the piece currently in the works is legislation moving through the statehouse [that requires an amendment].
And I think this goes back to where these minority-party seats could really add value in the process. So, as we know there are significant legislative Republican majorities in Harrisburg. I think there are Republicans in Harrisburg who are skeptical of this plan. So while there is some consensus in Philadelphia, there’s not as much consensus in Harrisburg. So … the city is going to have to do some pretty serious lobbying in Harrisburg, I think, to ultimately get the support required. [State Rep.] John Taylor has obviously started to sponsor the legislation and is making the case out there. But, in particular, since there seems to be some reticence on part of the City Council President, I think that it would behoove us to have advocates from City Council in general going to Harrisburg to make the case.
And, more to the point, if we’re going to have Republicans on Council, there’s sort of the philosophical belief on why we have minority-party representation. We know that by the quote emblazed on the southwest corner of Dilworth Plaza about one-party rule, right? But more specifically, more from a process standpoint, part of my frustration frankly with the current incumbents is Republican Council members at-large are uniquely positioned to get their butts on that train and go out to Harrisburg and lobby on behalf of the real priorities and advocate on behalf of the city in partnership with other Philadelphians in the majority and really help convince the leadership, none of which comes from the city. And I don’t think any of us other than John and a few other committee chairs come from the southeast. So we have to have advocates explaining why this will be a net benefit for a third of the state’s GPD.
Citified: So you’re saying that Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai will be more likely to listen to a Republican on these kinds of matters than a Democrat?
Terry: I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but I do think that … we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge the pretty significant political divide or perspectives on political realities between not just Philadelphia and Harrisburg, but Philadelphia residents, citizens and taxpayers, and residents, citizens, what have you, in the county, right? …
Citified: That’s a really pressing topic that you bring up, which is the poltical divide between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the rest of the state. What is one thing that you think rural Pennsylvania needs to understand about Philly, and Philly needs to understand about rural Pennsylvania?
Tracy: I actually think I can answer the [question] the same, but just coming at it from totally different angles. … I make this case to my Republican friends statewide: When you live in a big city, just by virtue of the environment, we live on top of each other, relatively speaking. And so every engagement or transaction that we have with other human beings, government often plays a role in facilitating that process. So that’s everything from quality infrastructure to facilitating commerce to public safety. I know it’s uber obvious, but it’s really critical. We require more government interference in our lives just by virtue of the proximity in which we live to each other, to ensure that everything around us is safe and our quality of life is strong. And so urban Republicans should move away from the battle of “all government is bad” versus “all government is good,” and really focus on the service delivery component and really be looking at a solutions oriented, evidence-based approach to governance that ultimately I think would win over a lot of folks.
Now, conversely, if you’re living in rural PA and you’re like, “Well, why are those taxes so high? Why do you need all of that? Why do you have all of that? Why do I have to pay for subways or trains and all this sort of thing?” Because you’re in a car, you’re on a horse, you’re on a farm. You don’t require it, right? So they’ll look at it and say, “Well, why on earth would you put X percent of your budget toward that?” Because there’s nothing about their lives that requires that level of engagement with government or government-related entities.
Citified: Many Republicans in the city, including yourself, either directly or indirectly portray themselves as different kinds of Republicans than you might see in Congress. But they, and you, ultimately chose the GOP as their party. Why do you consider yourself a Republican?
Tracy: Individual liberty and personal responsibility, those tenants of the party are something that I just always identified with. But then the question comes, “Well, how do you apply them to the realities around you?” … You in a recent column even said, well, city Republicans tend to be different … and the reality is because not a lot of Republicans are elected from big cities. So you’re not hearing the conversation we had about the role of government [being] different in urban America than it is in rural America. So because of the unfortunate political reality of what’s happening internally within the party and more broadly in the country, you don’t hear that perspective coming from a national level because you don’t have folks elected. It’s sort of a self -fulfilling prophecy, you know what I mean? But I think that the reality is that having a healthy skepticism in government’s ability to solve all of our problems. And that’s based on a track record.
Citified: If you had your druthers, what would the city’s GOP be like in 15 years, 20 years?
Tracy: You mean besides winning elections? How about winning some elections? …What I would like to see the Republican Party being, or urban Republicanism more broadly being in the future, after tipping to your hat to the fact that government plays a disproportionate role in people’s lives in big cities, is how do we innovate to make government more relevant and effective to people’s lives? Because I think people, when you see the way this city is being sort of reimagined all over the place in so many different ways, and people are innovating and improvising in order to maximize the potential of their particular circumstance, those innovators, their No. 1 frustration in the city is, “Ugh, I gotta go to MSB.” Right? “I’m gonna blow my brains out, I gotta go to MSB.” And, “I feel like I just stepped into a different world.”
So we need to create more synergy. This is not saying [government and business] are the same. Absolutely not. That’s a really significant caveat. But just as you innovate in business or people innovate in the arts or people innovate in philanthropic endeavors or what have you, you must innovate in government. So that means innovation in both sort of like technical process-related stuff like, how do we budget? And you see some cities doing that. I know we’re moving toward performance-based budgeting. But performance-based budgeting was a conversation people were having in the ’80s and ’90s. Now we’re talking about target-based budgeting, which is sort of like the next generation, the 2.0. So there’s that piece, but there’s also the service delivery piece.
So Boston does a really cool thing called “City Hall To Go,” where they’ve sort of disaggregated basic government services out of really expensive, outmoded arrangements, and put them on food trucks. Like so the civil servant is in a tee, with an iPad, in a repurposed food truck, and it goes into the neighborhood, and you want a “Do Not Put Garbage On My Step” sticker, you want to register to vote, senior citizens can be provided services. They’re multilingual, so you go into commercial corridors where you have a lot of new immigrant businesses, which by the way, are making a tremendous impact on our economic growth right now, the small business sector. Bring the services to them, right? … All of the most basic of services, tell me it can’t be on an iPad or a tablet, and why we can’t get out of clunky, oppressive, intimidating buildings, and onto a funky repurposed food truck with some music. And imagine civil servants coming to you.