Danilo Burgos: A new leader in North Philadelphia
Danilo Burgos, a Dominican-American who has lived in North Philadelphia most of his life, aims to build trust and improve the quality of life in his community.
We hear a lot of negative things about North Philadelphia.
We hear about poverty. We hear about crime. We hear about the opioid epidemic.
These things are often documented and publicized. It follows that these things are what the area has become known for.
It follows that, because of these things, North Philadelphia is largely avoided by those who live outside of the area.
But behind the reports, the troubling headlines and the tragedies, there is community. There are people who intimately understand the reality, the humanity, the challenges that accompany life in the northern parts of the city.
There are people who want to address these challenges, who want to change the widespread narrative about the place they call home.
There are people like Danilo Burgos.
Burgos, a first-generation Dominican-American, has lived in the Hunting Park neighborhood of the city since he was 10 years old. He said he moved from Washington Heights in Manhattan to Philadelphia in 1992, where his family started a bodega business.
Since his formative years at Olney High School, Burgos has been involved in community organizing and politics, a devotion that reached a culmination on May 15 when he was elected to Pennsylvania's state legislature to represent the 197th District, which, in addition to Hunting Park, includes neighborhoods in Fairhill, Kensington, Glenwood and Feltonville.
A former aide to Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Councilman Allan Domb, Burgos defeated two other Democratic candidates in the primary election: incumbent Rep. Emilio Vazquez and Fred Ramirez, President of Pan-American Mental Health Clinic. As there are no Republican candidates vying for the district, Burgos will not face any opponents in the November general election and is expected to assume office when Vazquez’s term expires in January.
After unsuccessfully running for the same office in 2014, Burgos earned 37 percent of the vote in the 2018 race compared to Ramirez’s 34 percent and Vazquez’s 28 percent.
About a week prior to election day, Burgos participated with his opponents in a forum co-organized by AL DÍA and Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization with a mission to keep voters engaged and informed in Philadelphia’s political process.
When moderator David Thornburgh, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy, asked Burgos what he wanted people to know about the district he was aiming to represent, Burgos responded:
“There’s a lot of self-pride in our community,” he said. “There’s a lot of hope in our community. There’s a lot of positive that needs to be highlighted, needs to be shared with the rest of the state.”
And in sharing this positivity with his future colleagues in the House of Representatives, Burgos hopes to help eclipse the stereotypes associated with North Philadelphia and attach “a human face to the problems that affect us” for those unfamiliar with his community.
The position that Burgos will soon fill has become a point of controversy in recent years.
“Unfortunately, in this particular district, two of the last three state representatives have been indicted,” Burgos said during an interview with AL DÍA after winning the election.
Former Rep. Leslie Acosta, who immediately preceded Vazquez, resigned from the office due to her involvement in a money laundering scandal. J.P. Miranda, the representative that Acosta had ousted, pleaded guilty to a corruption charge in 2015.
In addition to these incidents, the March 2017 special election to fill Acosta’s seat also produced controversy — Vazquez faced allegations of electioneering after winning the office via a write-in campaign, and Ramirez, who was also a candidate in that race, was removed from the ballot prior to the election over accusations that he didn’t live in the district.
Burgos hopes to build trust between his office and his future constituents, and he believes the lack of engagement from voters in his district “doesn’t reflect how much people care about their community.”
In his interview with AL DÍA, Burgos spoke about his plans for his new position. Soft-spoken, articulate, and to-the-point, Burgos discussed promoting economic empowerment throughout the district, as well as fostering a better relationship and mutual understanding between the 197th and other districts throughout Pennsylvania.
“I commit to spending 50 percent of the time in the district and 50 percent of the time out of the district because I see myself as an ambassador for the 197th,” Burgos said. “I look to learn of other districts and at the same time educate other members of the House of Representatives about my district, about North Philadelphia.”
“It’s crucial to helping them understand that it’s not just an area where crime happens,” he continued. “It’s not just an area where negative things happen, but it’s an area where there’s a lot of potential, and there’s a lot of good people that just need a chance.”
Challenges facing his district that Burgos aims to address in the state legislature include quality of life issues and the notion among constituents that “politics does not care about our community, that politics is not important to our community.”
One aspect of his district - and Philadelphia as a whole - that Burgos will strive to improve is public education.
“If we are able to provide education for our children, we’ll have a better community,” he said, adding that he intends to work toward this goal by “identifying what works in other parts of the state or other parts of the country” and “keeping an open mind on what works and build on it.”
At the forum in May, Burgos spoke of the intersection of education and opportunity: “We need to change our curriculum so that they reflect the jobs that will be available to our children in the future,” he said, noting that he has daughters of his own in elementary school.
Burgos told AL DÍA that “short dumping” has been a consistent problem throughout his district, a term which refers to the illegal disposal of trash or other debris in vacant lots and city streets. He wants to develop a solution because he’s found that short dumping is “one of the main concerns from not just business owners, but from constituents in various neighborhoods.”
Burgos is well aware that crime is a problem in his district. Unsolved murders in his community, including the death of his uncle in 1994, led him to organize the Dominican Grocers’ Association with members of his family, a group that became engaged in city government and local elections.
“The police had very little interaction with the family members of those deceased,” Burgos recalled. “So we just started asking questions (and) started organizing with other business owners.”
As state representative, Burgos intends to “work very closely with the police department,” adding that he believes the police captains in his district are “doing a decent job at community outreaching, and helping community members feel comfortable in addressing their quality of life issues in their particular neighborhoods.”
“We need to make sure that our police departments have the proper resources and our communities feel comfortable speaking to the police so that we can address some of the crimes that are happening in our community,” he said. “This notion that no one sees or hears anything when a crime happens… We need to break that barrier down.”
The opioid epidemic is a problem that has manifested in various neighborhoods in North Philadelphia and now city officials are moving forward with the controversial idea of allowing private initiatives to implement comprehensive user engagement sites (CUES), or “safe injection sites,” to address the crisis. These potential locations will be places where people can bring their drugs to have them injected by medical personnel, thereby preventing overdoses.
As sections of North Philadelphia are considered areas where these sites would likely be placed, Burgos said it’s vital to listen to the people who live there and provide an open forum where they can voice their concerns.
“We need to listen to our neighborhoods,” Burgos said. “People that actually live in the community, not people that are going to come in from outside of the community and give their opinion of what is good for that particular community.”
Burgos urges those living in the district to become engaged in the politics affecting them.
“Get involved in what you care about —as a community, as a human being,” Burgos said. “Don’t let others dictate your future.”
When asked if he has any ambitions beyond representing the 197th, he replied: “I’m just focusing on being the best state representative this district has ever seen.”