Ya Fav Trashman Opens Up About the Spectacular Collapse of His Campaign
Terrell Haigler's experience shows how the system is stacked against working-class Philadelphians who want to run for office.
This past September, it seemed like former sanitation worker Terrill Haigler, best known as Ya Fav Trashman, had everything, everywhere, all at once. The 33-year-old Germantown resident had more than 30,000 Instagram followers praising his outspoken advocacy regarding the city’s pandemic-era trash concerns. Such attention motivated him to run for City Council at large as a way to expand his reach and impact.
Now, a recent Inquirer report has exposed Haigler’s failure to pay his two campaign staffers, noting that he raised $26,700 between September 2022 and February 2023 — with the majority of that sum, $17,209, going directly to his personal bank account. Haigler, a first-time candidate, says he used those funds essentially to support himself, given that he treated campaigning as a full-time job. It now appears he may have broken Pennsylvania campaign finance laws and owes money to his former staffers.
Since the controversy, Haigler has suspended his campaign and says he now feels “canceled” by the public and “targeted” by those he once trusted, citing the backlash that followed the collapse of his once-buzzy bid for office. I reached out to him to find out what he’s learned from the controversy and why he’s now working to ensure similar hardships don’t befall future working-class progressives seeking Philly elected office.
For starters, Haigler isn’t denying that he screwed up — but he says his problems aren’t as black-and-white as some people have tried to frame them. “I didn’t know that you had to be personally rich or have serious job connections in order to run,” he tells me. “I assumed early on that everyone was paying themselves out with the money they were raising in order to stay afloat. I was told by campaign advisers early on that I would need to give my full, undivided attention to the campaign. I assumed that doing such made me not only a candidate, but also an employee working for my campaign. No one from my team could tell me if I was wrong or right for doing this. I accept full responsibility for making this mistake.”
While it is a candidate’s responsibility to know the rules (key when running for an office where the job is to represent constituents and make laws in a complicated city), local working-class candidates like Haigler face significant hurdles.
To start with, there’s a different set of rules for candidates running for city and state seats rather than for national office. For example, if you choose to run for U.S. Congress, there’s some wiggle room when it comes to paying yourself as an employee (but only after the filing deadline, and as long as you properly disclose it all). Not so when you’re running for office in Philly or Harrisburg. That’s because Pennsylvania campaign finance laws are much stricter than the rules of the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), and state lawmakers have cracked down on possible violations in recent years.
And while tough campaign finance laws exist for a reason — namely, the city’s and state’s long history of corruption — candidates like Haigler can face unintended consequences.
“The Inquirer’s story about me made it look like I was out here spending this campaign money recklessly,” Haigler says. “I wasn’t out here using any of the money on trips, vacations or petty stuff — I was trying to survive. I share custody of my three children with my ex-wife. I used that money to provide for them and to keep up with my gas bills, get around town and eat.”
Haigler says that in the wake of the Inquirer report, he’s been “canceled” by many supporters and community members who once held him in high regard. “I was either booted or asked to resign from four nonprofit boards that I sat on,” he says of his current situation. “I lost an upcoming influencer contract that was going to be paying me $2,500 a month, which I was planning on using to help pay my campaign staffer debt. A $100,000 grant I was about to receive was rescinded after the Inquirer story came out. Several known public figures in Philly told me that they had to distance themselves from me, given the controversy. My reputation and livelihood have been in shambles since all this has happened. I’m currently back to hauling trash for a private company to make money to pay these staffers and get back to my service.”
Politics aside, this is an unfortunate situation that didn’t have to happen. Can a society in which working-class candidates can’t afford to run for local office truly have representative government? Not every candidate should have to be backed by a political party or powerful coalition in order to have a shot. Not every candidate should have to lean on entrenched professional networks to provide a job on the side. The system as constructed makes it particularly difficult for a well-meaning candidate like Haigler to run — and that should concern all of us.
What we need now is a stronger push for campaign finance law reform in Pennsylvania, to expand how candidates can fiscally support themselves. As the law currently stands, we’ll continue to see wealthy, well-connected candidates and/or party-backed incumbents win elections. Candidates like Haigler may see their campaigns collapse or risk getting in trouble, since these laws make it difficult for them to run. And while elected officials should fight for policy change in Harrisburg, we also need better training to mentor/educate everyday people who want to run for office. While niche organizations including New Leaders Council and Run For Something offer such trainings, a wider net of opportunities and resources beyond hyper-progressive spaces would help.
Haigler wants to be a part of this change.
“I also plan to create something that will help the campaigns of working-class minority progressives not go through the same pitfalls I faced,” Haigler says, but emphasizes his plan to “not give up.” “So many of us want to run for office,” he says, “but don’t have the kind of access and information to succeed. I want to work to change that.”