Karen Heller: Council race's youth factor

Isaiah Thomas sits outside his campaign office, also his brother's home. "I have vital, fresh ideas," he said. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)

True, Isaiah Thomas has a great name, sharing it with the hall-of-famer point guard.

He has youth, being all of 26. While Thomas was canvassing in Olney the other day, older voters - which, frankly, was almost everyone - tended to lecture him rather than listen.

He's pulled a great ballot position, second among the Democratic at-large candidates for City Council for the May 17 primary.

Above all, Thomas brims with optimism. He says such things as "I don't claim to have all the answers. I just have vital, fresh ideas. Because I'm young, I'm willing to learn. And I'm positive." You know, idealistic stuff young people say.

Other than these assets, and a remarkable ability to speak to strangers, Thomas concedes he has few advantages. He isn't a committeeman, ward leader, or former mayor's son, which constitutes almost 18 percent of Council's current makeup.

Thomas' huge East Oak Lane family - he's one of 10 children - is involved in education and social services, not politics. He's picked up only two endorsements, one from his mentor, State Rep. Tony Payton Jr. "I just think he's a breath of fresh air," says Payton, 30. "Isaiah's about community first, and politics second."

Campaign manager Shane Seaver, 26, says they've raised $10,000 - pocket change compared with at-large Councilman Bill Green, who brought in more than a quarter of a million by January.

Thomas' money goes for stickers, leaflets, and pizza for volunteers, average age 15. They call him Brother Isaiah or Zeke. Most are students at Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School where, until he took a campaign leave of absence, Thomas served as associate dean of students, athletic director, and basketball coach. His campaign office occupies the first floor of a brother's house just off the Boulevard.

There are 53 candidates running for City Council. I am prone to exaggeration, but here I do not.

Fourteen Democrats are running at-large, which requires campaigning across the city. Five Council members are retiring, a seismic shift in a chamber where legislators tend to depart in handcuffs or a pine box. But all five at-large Democrats hope to retain their jobs, making the task difficult for the nine challengers. It is, Thomas concedes, "an uphill battle." He briefly considered running for the Ninth District until his mother told him "you can't run against Marian Tasco," the six-term majority leader who hopes to become Council's next president.

With 17 members, City Council could mirror the city's diversity but the current makeup includes no Asians, gays, Muslims, Jews, or WASPs. The age range lists decidedly toward AARP. Challengers include two Asians, two gays, a candidate who is legally blind and, representing youth, Thomas. He decided to run last summer when, as it so happens, he became eligible for office. As Thomas points out, almost 35 percent of the city's population is under age 25, and 60 percent is under 40.

"Being somewhat young, I represent our youth and our children," he says. "My big issues are about children, education, after-school programs, recreation."

Canvassing Olney, a community that is remarkably diverse, not block by block but rowhouse by rowhouse, Thomas gets an earful. A school district employee tells him how he doesn't like charter schools. Thomas listens for 10 minutes. The man ends up pledging his vote. Outside a corner bodega, a social worker debates his proposal for the city to take over the school district from the state. She asks where her brother might play baseball. Thomas suggests several programs, then gives her his cell number. She promises her vote, too. He works Alex's Exotic Barbershop at Chew and Olney, a feast of potential votes.

"If I were to be an elected member of City Council," he tells me, "I wouldn't need the current 12 weeks of vacation." It's more like 16, but who's counting?

"We need someone new and fresh," two neighbors tell him. "New blood." Ten minutes pass, ending with, "We'll vote for you."

Thomas shoots a basket (misses) with a trio of teenagers, asks who their coaches are. His strategy is to work the athletic leagues - he played for Frankford High before Penn State Abington - rather than the Democratic machine. When he meets students, he gives them leaflets for their parents. He'll approach almost anyone. "The worst are the people who don't care what you have to say. They don't care at all. That's sad for our city."

How's his social life? "Terrible." Two more weeks. "If the city knew I existed," Thomas says looking not the least bit exhausted, "I know I would come in first."


Contact columnist Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Read her blog posts on Blinq and her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.


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