Philly politics: Why Nelson Díaz matters
Come Tuesday, residents of Philadelphia will have a Democratic candidate for the November mayoral elections.
The polls and pundits have already crowned a winner — as polls and pundits are wont to do — and the foregone conclusion raises questions about who is accorded credibility and authority in our majority minority city. (The combined African American, Latino and Asian populations constitute a full 64.4 percent of the total population of Philadelphia, by 2010 census figures.)
The contenders have been three African American men of three distinct generations and political temperaments; a white woman and man, also of different generations and temperaments; and one Latino candidate.
Because he is the sole representative of a growing community chafing at the dearth of its political representation, Nelson Díaz has had to bear the weight of a lot of hopes, expectations and misperceptions on his shoulders.
He has done so, in the majority of instances, with aplomb and forbearance. In fact, it has fallen mostly to commentators like me to point out the ways in which, from the first, opinion-makers and shapers in the city have worked to dismiss Díaz as viable candidate and dismiss Latino voters as a real factor in the elections.
It has been infuriating.
Díaz is the most progressive candidate — with a career that gives evidence that his well-defined social, educational and economic justice platforms (and their intersection with environmental policies) have been the matter of a lifetime — but Jim Kenney has been the one the media has anointed as progressive standard-bearer.
Lynne Abraham’s legal acumen during her years as District Attorney has been thoroughly discussed (for good and for bad) during the campaign, but Díaz’s stints as city solicitor, as judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and as general counsel for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development have not. Neither has Díaz’s business cred, despite having been part of the board of directors of Exelon and PECO.
Nope, discussion about Díaz’s candidacy has centered mostly on the impossibility of his being elected because Latinos (presumably the only ones who would vote for a Latino candidate) are neither registered, nor turn out to vote in sufficient numbers. If Díaz’s campaign for mayor has done nothing else it has made clear to us that there are a lot of people invested in keeping the burgeoning Latino population from feeling its political agency.
That the Latino population might not yet really believe that an election could hinge or turn on our vote, however, is on us as a community. Leaders like Ángel Ortiz and Israel Colón have urged voter participation, as has AL DÍA, in editorial after editorial. It is the most and best we, as a news media organization, can do.
You see, AL DÍA News Media doesn’t endorse candidates. Though a social media troll has characterized a previous column of mine about Lynne Abraham, María Quiñones-Sánchez and Helen Gym as an endorsement, it was really a personal column about the grit and tenacity those three women all share — qualities I very much admire. The truth is, every mayoral candidate this season has some quality or another that I personally find admirable. I think Doug Oliver is a powerhouse combination of charismatic, smart, humble and genuine. I think Anthony Williams really gets diversity. I think Milton Street speaks from his heart. I think Jim Kenney is tireless and a remarkably hard worker. And I think Nelson Díaz is the real deal.
By which I mean, I think he’s not only a historic choice for mayor, but an upstanding one.
Which isn’t to say I agree or even like everything he has done during this campaign season. Some of his choices (his early alignment with Manny Morales, his no-show at the community-led immigration forum) sit very badly with me. But ...
He came up from poverty and has never forgotten the toll poverty exacts from those who are caught by societal structures that don’t care about how decent they are or how hard they are struggling for advancement (societal structures that have become, it has to be said, increasingly punitive about the “sin” of not having money). In a city like Philadelphia, where one out of four people live in poverty, this matters.
He made it to the top of his profession — zipping through several firsts on the way — and became a lawyer and a judge who not only served in the Court of Common pleas, but also as a member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System. In state like ours, where only 7 percent of judges are judges of color, and young men of color face a criminal justice system with deeply entrenched sentencing disparities, this matters.
Along the way Díaz established Temple Law’s first student organization for African-American and Latino students and endowed its first chair for Latino Civil Rights; he resolved a backlog of civil rights litigation for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; built coalition between Latino and African American merchant associations in Philly; worked with police corruption and discipline task forces; headed former Mayor John Street’s legal department, and spent time in Peru and Japan to examine their legal and judicial systems. In an increasingly global, majority minority city like ours, all of this matters.
Díaz has complied with or exceeded, every measure by which a mayoral candidate is judged, and he’s done so while much of the media laughingly portrayed him as a loud and outlandish aspirant for something beyond his reach.
Despite being 13.3 percent of Philadelphia’s population, we have only one Latina representative on city council. We have legislative districts gerrymandered to make sure we don’t aspire to more than what we already have. We have people telling us over and over that we won’t vote. People telling us even if we do vote, there aren’t enough of us to really matter. We have breadcrumbs of political power accorded by noblesse oblige, and characterizations that say support of Latinos by Latinos is identity politics.
And we have a candidate for mayor.
We have a candidate for mayor who, for the most part, has managed to stay above the fray to keep his hands on the plow and his eyes on the prize. Stubbornly, tenaciously, even generously, Díaz has hung on for (and because of) a Latino community that needs principled leaders and wants a greater voice and part in crafting Philadelphia’s future. This matters. This matters enormously.
So, don’t call this an endorsement column, because — remember? — AL DÍA doesn’t endorse. But you can call this column a personal and utterly unabashed Díaz tribute.
And because I can’t hear the word tribute without thinking about the Hunger Games (with its cruelly entertaining competition to see who will still be standing at the end) I’ll admit that there are two candidates I’d be happy to see come out of this victorious, several I wouldn’t grouse about, one who would unsettle me and one who would make me gnash my teeth. Since it’s not Tuesday yet and there's still time to express a wish for the actual contest ... hey, Nelson, may the odds be ever in your favor.