Council's indy candidate talks urbanism in underserved communities
Andrew Stober, the independent candidate for an At-Large City Council seat, isn’t used to the self-aggrandizing part of politics yet. But he clearly has his policy chops on lockdown.
Stober is the former chief of staff at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities under Mayor Michael Nutter. He has released in-depth policy papers on ethical government, education and the capital budget. He promises to fight for a $15 minimum wage in Philadelphia. He has some no-brainer proposals like recovering $100 million in earned-income tax credits for the working poor. He has a two-year old son he hopes to send to a Philly public school in a few years, and thus has a stake in fixing the system.
In a sitdown with AL DÍA, we took the conversation in a different direction. Stober shared his concerns about pitting gun violence against traffic safety, diversifying City Council and the small but burgeoning urbanist movement.
Dedication, frustration, ambition, indignation — lots of people run for public office for different reasons. Why are you after a At-Large City Council seat?
What’s really driving me to run is a feeling that this is a place I can best put my skills to work for the citizens of Philadelphia … As we came towards the end of the [Nutter] administration, I thought about what I’d do next. I looked at where I thought I could offer the most, and it really became clear to me that that was City Council, a place that needs a strong progressive voice with experience.
How will you put your skillset to work for the families of Philadelphia?
I spent the last 10 years getting government to work equitably, more effectively and more efficiently. All of us send a lot of tax dollars down to City Hall. It doesn’t matter what our income level is. If you’re a low-income person in Philadelphia, you are still paying property tax in Philadelphia, even if you’re a renter. Your landlord is paying it, and you’re paying your landlord. You’re still paying sales … You’re paying wage tax. You send all that money to City Hall, and you should know that there are people in City Hall who are working to make sure that it’s really well spent.
The implication here being that there is current lack of efficiency in City Hall. With or without naming names, what are the biggest weaknesses you see on council?
Right now, there’s not a single member of City Council who has worked in the executive branch of city government — someone who’s worked for a mayor or governor or president. One of the fundamental responsibilities of City Council is oversight of the budget and city departments. Without anybody on Council whose worked in those departments, I think it’s very difficult to have effective oversight.
I would never suggest that every member of City Council should have that experience. In fact, I think the best City Council is one that reflects the diversity of the city in lots of different ways. You should want to have teachers, community activists, business and nonprofit leaders on City Council.
How would you describe your platform?
The three big issues for me are public education, affordable and efficient tax collection, and lastly — on the sort of “urbanist” issues as they’re called by some people — I really want to bring a focus to traffic safety.
In 2014, there were more Philadelphians who were hit by cars while they were walking than there were Philadelphians who were shot. Traffic safety is the most undiscussed public safety crisis in our city. We need to be working very aggressively towards reducing both violent crime but also towards reducing traffic violence.
A lot of people like to talk about bike lanes. This “open streets” idea got a lot attention after the Pope’s visit. There a lot of sort of cool, fun, sexy things going on. But something that affects our neighborhoods and families in Philadelphia everyday is safety on the street. If you look at where those crashes occur, they disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. You should be able to cross the street in Philadelphia without fearing for your or your child’s life. There were 390 children under the age of 15 who were hit by cars last year. That’s more than one child on average every day is getting struck or injured by a car. That is, as far as I’m concerned, a crisis.
We know what the solutions are. As a transportation professional, I know what they look like. It’s a combination of better engineering, better enforcement and education.
Do you think you’ll be able to connect to people from these underserved neighborhoods on the issue of traffic safety?
One of the things I learned through my work in the public sector: One should never assume what the concerns of the people in any given neighborhood are … When I look at the statistics, I can’t believe that there aren’t people in those neighborhoods who aren’t deeply concerned about this issue, they’re just also concerned about a lot of other things.
I ask that question because there’s a common knee-jerk reaction to “urbanist” issues. How can we address traffic safety when we have a gun violence epidemic in the city? Traffic safety advocates tend to be newcomers to the city, generally from a higher income and education bracket. They don’t tend to live in areas with high amounts of violent crime. Have these issues become politicized as an either-or choice?
There are too many people who phrase this as an either-or question. It’s a question of both.
When you live in a community that is plagued by gun and traffic violence — and it’s often both at the same time — you just want your community to be safe. What I’m saying is we have to look at safety holistically. We have to be building the discussion beyond those that take part in it.
One of the issues I have frankly with a lot of the folks who are in the “urbanist” circles talking about traffic safety is that they talk about it from neighborhoods that are already very safe from a traffic safety perspective, no less a violence perspective. It was very telling in New York. They started a program where you could report traffic safety concerns on an app, and what they wound up seeing was affluent, already pretty safe neighborhoods reporting all the traffic safety concerns. And the concerns were legitimate, but it didn’t reflect the most dangerous communities.
But if you live in a community where you’re struggling to get by, where you’re worried about violent crime, you’re not going to be sitting at the corner on your app counting cars that are running stop signs — even though there are lots of drivers running stop signs in your neighborhood.
This is something that I talk about in my poverty policy paper. We need to be doing two things: one is helping lift people out of poverty, but also, we need to make the lives of the poor easier — not more difficult.
How could this be achieved through traffic safety and other quality-of-life improvements?
It can be done in very simple ways. Investing in making low-income communities nicer and safer — safer from a violence and traffic safety perspective, from a vacant lots perspective, from an anti-graffiti perspective. That’s where we should be putting our money. Just because you live in a less affluent neighborhood doesn’t mean that it’s not nice.
[My former office] brought in this huge grant for $17 million for bike trails … And this is a gripe that I have with the local press. The only project that gets covered extensively is the Schuylkill River boardwalk. Where, in fact, that was the only project we did in Center City.
There’s this idea that urbanism somehow only happens in University City or Graduate Hospital. That’s just silly, and it’s just not right. To some of the people who chatter and blog about it, that’s where it’s happening to them. To the practitioners in the office that I ran, it’s happening all over the city.