5 Takeaways from the North Philly Candidates Meet & Greet

John Fetterman proved to be as charismatic as people say he is, Dwight Evans was mum on charters, and Sharif Street stepped in a briar patch.


State Rep. Brian Sims (right) talks with 49th Ward vice chair Lilian English Hentz at the forum. | Photo by Sandy Smith

“The people of North Philly don’t stop, they don’t get broken down, and they care.”

That was event organizer Malcolm Kenyatta-Green’s main takeaway from Tuesday night’s North Philly Candidate Meet & Greet at the TLO Event Complex on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. The forum managed to draw an impressive list of participants: All of the Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Pat Toomey. All of the Democrats running for the Second Congressional District seat currently held by Chaka Fattah, except Fattah himself. (Fattah said he would send a representative, but no one showed.) Two of the Democrats challenging Attorney General Kathleen Kane in her re-election bid. Representatives of the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. And 10 candidates running in state House and Senate contests.

The candidates’ presentations ranged from bland to bombastic. One member of the audience said of 3rd State Senate District candidate Emmanuel Bussie’s pitch, “We have our Donald Trump now.” Here’s what I took away from Tuesday night’s well-attended forum:

  1. Dwight Evans’ long record of supporting charter schools is a wild card. Several candidates made much of their opposition to charter schools, something one audience member said would cause trouble for charter-school supporter Dwight Evans, as of now the most formidable candidate challenging U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, if it weren’t for Fattah’s legal and fundraising troubles. It will be interesting to see whether Fattah or another candidate in the 2nd Congressional District race seizes on Evans’ record on charters. Evans himself made no mention of charters when he spoke to the audience.
  2. Affordable housing is a major campaign theme this season. The forum featured candidates railing against gentrification, but one also highlighted a problem with the way we go about providing “affordable housing” now. Ruth Birchett, who is running for the 3rd State Senate District seat, related a tale about a person who purchased a “Nehemiah home” in Northern Liberties, which was priced at $40,000 and for which the buyer only paid $20,000 thanks to grants that covered part of the purchase price. The buyer then sold the home a year later for five times its sale price. “Because the property taxes are based not on just the value of your home but the value of the homes around you, this person just gentrified her neighbors!” she said. Sharif Street, another candidate for the 3rd State Senate District, also inadvertently stepped into the affordable-housing briar patch when he touted his role on the Sharswood/Blumberg redevelopment plan, a proposal that has many Sharswood residents up in arms because it threatens to short-circuit private redevelopment already taking place in the neighborhood and deprives many African-American property owners of the opportunity to cash in on their one sizable asset.
  3. Grandparents who are acting as parents know how to press their case with politicians. Between mass incarceration — which “has to stop,” U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty told the crowd to enthusiastic applause — and lack of good jobs, many young African-American men and women are finding it difficult if not impossible to give their children the attention they need. As a result, their parents — who should be playing the role of doting grandparents — are stepping into the breach. “I’ve stood with moms working two and three minimum-wage jobs, trying to raise a kid. They can’t do it,” McGinty said. That is one of the reasons Grands as Parents, a North Central Philadelphia-based support and advocacy organization for grandparents and other relatives raising children, signed on as an event co-organizer. Vice president Jean Hackney spoke with many of the candidates in attendance, including all of the Senate and Congressional candidates, pressing the group’s case for supportive housing and services for grandparents.”One thing I found out about a lot of them is that they say the right words, but a lot of the time, we get pushed to the side, and grandparenting is an important issue,” she said.” The fact that Hackney is getting candidates on the record now about these issues should help her once some of them take office. She had good words for Sharif Street, whose legal expertise has proven valuable to her organization, she says, and for 2nd Congressional District candidate state Rep. Brian Sims, who has visited the group’s offices several times. She also thought Braddock Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman “talked the right talk” on the issues that concerned her most.
  4. John Fetterman is as charismatic as people say he is. I spotted Hackney talking with Fetterman by the catering table — “I put myself there because I knew they would all come by to eat,” Hackney said. Fetterman is the most imposing of the candidates, with a weightlifter’s build, and in his speech he showed the audience that he had tattooed on his right forearm the date when every murder victim in Braddock got killed last year. He also managed to relate to North Philadelphians in a way that might seem impossible for a guy from Braddock: As he pointed out, his borough outside Pittsburgh is one of the poorest communities in the state, and 80 percent of its residents are African-American. Given those parallels, I asked him how he would compare his community to North Philly. “It’s not as nice,” he said, a response that drew some chuckles from audience members when he later relayed the exchange in his speech.
  5. Malcolm Kenyatta-Green’s positive view of North Philly is beginning to soak in. Kenyatta-Green is on a mission to change outsiders’ perceptions of North Philly. This forum, which drew in candidates and audience members from outside the area, went a long way toward doing that. Even those who acknowledged North Philly’s problems at the event shared Kenyatta-Green’s enthusiasm. “There’s a lot of blight here,” Hackney said, before going on to note all the groups that have dedicated decades of time and effort to reversing it. One of them, the Uptown Development Corporation, was another co-organizer of the forum. Both it and Hackney’s group have been around for 20 years; the UDC’s focus has been reviving the historic and iconic Uptown Theater on North Broad Street. “We’re volunteers,” Hackney said. “We don’t get the big money from the state.” They’ve managed to make a big difference in North Philly anyway.