Meet Philadelphia City Council's newest faces bringing change to the city
2019 rang in with major change in Washington. 2020 did so locally here in Philadelphia. Meet the new faces of City Council.
All across the United States of America, 2019 was the year of small victories for a growing majority. That majority is not “silent.” They are a new generation of political leaders that challenge both the administration in Washington and the long-expired traditions of their own party.
At the beginning of 2019, those challengers stood on the steps of the House of Representatives and were sworn in as members of the 116th Congress.
The new class featured a record 103 women elected or re-elected.
It included the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in then 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first Muslim women in Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and the first Native American women in Minnesota’s Deb Haaland and Kansas’ Sharice Davids.
The triumphs of these challengers a little more than a year ago was a signal that a wave had swept the country. It was Democratic, young, and made up of predominantly women and minorities.
But 2018 was just the beginning.
In 2019, that wave reached beyond the House of Representatives and into state and local governments. Across the country, governorships, state legislatures, city councils, borough councils and mayoralties got younger, more progressive and more diverse.
Philadelphia has long been a Democratic bastion, but even that establishment faced stiff competition from a growing progressive wing, and those that did run under the banner of the party were young compared to the city’s leadership.
While in past years, the wave hit Philadelphia’s District Attorney and City Controller offices, this year, Philadelphia City Council saw some of the most change of any city entity.
Whether it be because of their retirement or defeat in a primary, City Council saw four members leave at the end of 2019. Out the door went longtime Democratic stalwarts Jannie Blackwell, Bill Greenlee, and Blondell Reynolds Brown, and one-term Republican Al Taubenberger.
In their place is a crop of new leaders not only 30 to 40 years younger than their predecessors, but also full of fresh ideas to tackle Philly’s ills and push it forward as a new decade begins.
City Council President Darrell Clarke has said in multiple interviews that the past iteration of City Council was his most progressive. But given the campaigns its new members ran on, and if they can find a way to work together, he’ll likely say the same thing in another four years.
The biggest and boldest of those campaigns was run by North Philly education advocate, Kendra Brooks.
Running as a candidate for the Working Families Party, Brooks’ movement amassed the most funding of any third party campaign in Philadelphia history as she got endorsements along the way from big players on the local and national stage.
Her goal, alongside running mate Nicolas O’Rourke, was to push out the Republican Party from both of City Council’s at-large seats reserved for minority parties and champion a true progressive agenda.
In the end, they weren’t far from their goal, with O’Rourke falling short of edging out moderate Republican David Oh by 7,000 votes. But it was Brooks who took home the most votes of any minority party candidate and unseated Taubenberger to make history.
A longtime Nicetown resident, Brooks’ rise in activism came when she rallied parents in her neighborhood to vote against making Edward T. Steel Elementary School a charter school.
The vote her movement conjured was record-breaking and sent waves across the city at the time. She then brought it to another elementary school in Fairhill and saw the same success.
Thinking back on the battle for Steel Elementary and others, Brooks sees it as her ‘Matrix’ moment.
“It was like you took the pill and you can’t turn back,” she said. “I started realizing and seeing other issues that were all around me.”
In other words, Nicetown’s battles weren’t isolated.
“Each one of these issues isn’t just a neighborhood issue. It’s happening across the city,” said Brooks.
Now, as a newly elected at-large city councilmember representing the whole city, she wants to be the connector of communities fighting the same battles and score more victories.
She’ll need it, considering the top issues she mentioned to AL DÍA were gun violence and improving the facilities of Philadelphia schools.
Brooks’ focus on youth is also shared by the two other newest at-large representatives in City Council..
At 34, Katherine Gilmore Richardson is the youngest woman ever elected to an at-large City Council seat.
Gilmore Richardson, raised by a religious family in Philly’s Wynnefield section, attended some of the city’s most prestigious schools in Masterman Middle School and Philadelphia High School for Girls.
These institutions showed a young Gilmore Richardson the impact of quality education in shaping and envisioning one’s life. .
On the flipside, what she saw right out of college while teaching at Overbrook High School, was how a myriad of issues outside the classroom can often stand between a student and a good education.
“It was a life-changing experience,” said Gilmore Richardson.
She admitted to seeing things in her classroom at Overbrook that she’d never seen before — like the story of a student who had trouble staying awake in class because he protected his mother when she went out to buy drugs at night.
Gilmore Richardson took her teaching experience into an 11-year career in city government under her mentor, former City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, and now brings it to her own office as an at-large councilmember.
Issue-wise, Gilmore Richardson is straight-forward.
“The first, second and third issue is poverty, and everything falls under that,” she said.
Her solutions lie in further supporting educational initiatives, like reinvesting in trade schools and providing more internship opportunities for high schoolers in the corporate, nonprofit and government sectors.
She’s also a big believer in better supporting Philly’s small businesses.
While Gilmore Richardson is the youngest woman to ever be elected to an at-large seat, Isaiah Thomas is the youngest person ever elected to a city office in Philadelphia.
Despite the designation, which Thomas says is only by “a couple months,” it’s something he doesn’t focus on.
Born and raised in Oak Lane, Thomas grew up in a family of athletes.
“Sports probably were in my life from the time I was conceived,” he said.
His dad was a coach and his six older brothers were all involved in athletics in some way growing up.
He’s taken that experience into multiple careers helping Philly youth, and he says his time on City Council will be no different.
For Thomas, it’s all based around breaking a concerning status quo that hangs over the city’s youth.
“I don’t know that my conditions aren’t ideal until someone shows me what it’s supposed to look like,” he said.
Whether it be hazardous school buildings or abusive and racist police, the projection from Philadelphia is a city that doesn’t care, especially for black and brown children and adolescents.
The solution for Thomas is in providing high schoolers with more tools and opportunities to succeed beyond their senior year.
To that end, Thomas wants to push for mandatory civics, financial literacy, media literacy and tech classes for high school seniors.
In the realm of opportunities, he says that providing better career pathways for Philly’s youth can also serve to tackle other issues in the city. He wants more high school seniors to know about the option of a career in the police department, in hopes more will take advantage of it and start to heal some of the ingrained distrust in Philly neighborhoods for law enforcement.
“The only way we’re going to change the way police perceive people, is if those police are the same people from those neighborhoods,” said Thomas.
Unlike her other new colleagues, Jamie Gauthier is not an at-large Councilmember, but she is the new face of District 3 in West Philadelphia.
She scored the biggest upset of the May 2019 primary, when she handily defeated longtime Councilmember Jannie Blackwell before coasting into the general election unchallenged.
“For the first time, people in the city were really ready for change,” said Gauthier.
Gauthier is born and raised in Kingsessing and in seeing how her neighborhood has changed over the years, has gentrification at the top of her priority list.
Some reform to the city’s current tax abatement law was introduced before the end of 2019, but Gauthier could be one of the new members to push for further reform alongside other staunch opponents already in City Council.
She also wants to reevaluate both how the city assesses property value and its zoning procedures.
In her mind, more affordable housing should be located around public transit hubs, so more people can get to and from work and school.