Phila. mayoral candidates have one thing in common: Advanced age

It is not news that the current crop of Democratic mayoral candidates is a bit long in the tooth. Heck, half the known field is eligible for Social Security.

What you might have missed, however, is that Philadelphia seems guaranteed this year to elect its oldest first-term mayor since the adoption of the 1951 Home Rule Charter.

That presumes, of course, that Doug Oliver, Mayor Nutter's former spokesman and a comparative child at 40, doesn't pull off the greatest upset since the tortoise smoked the hare and that the city's GOP doesn't find a candidate who can overcome a nearly 8-1 registration disadvantage. Those seem both pretty long bets.

Where does that leave us? Well, of the remaining Democrats, former City Councilman James Kenney, at 56, is the kid. Should he win, he will be 57 years and four months old when inaugurated in January 2016, or a month older than Richardson Dilworth was when he took office Jan. 2, 1956.

From there, the field rapidly ages: State Sen. Anthony H. Williams turns 58 on Feb. 28; former Common Pleas Court Judge Nelson Diaz is 67; former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham turned 74 on Saturday; former State Sen. T. Milton Street Sr. is the oldest of the crew at 75. Their average is 62.

That is significantly older than 50, the average age of the nine mayors who have served since 1952 at the time they took office. The youngest was Bill Green III, who was 41 and six months when he was sworn in in 1980.

None of this is to suggest any of the current field is too old to be mayor. But the geriatric nature of the contest certainly raises questions. Such as: Why does it seem you need an AARP card just to get on the ballot? And how might all this play with the booming millennial population that is remaking large swaths of the city?

"It is pretty surprising," said Nutter, who was 50 when he took office. "I think this data is an indicator we need to pay more attention to what is going on in the future of politics in the city. We need to create more opportunities, open more doors, mentor more young people to get them ready for future service."

 

Rigged system?

Raise the issue with young, politically active Philadelphians, and they complain the system has been rigged against them.

For instance, they say, election costs are staggering, working against midcareer politicians without the support or personal wealth of their elders.

Analysts say a credible bid in this year's mayoral campaign could run $3 million to $4 million.

"Part of the reason is the way modern campaigns are funded. They are wildly expensive," said Aubrey Montgomery, 31, a principal with Rittenhouse Political Partners, a fund-raising firm. "Older candidates have networks, more relationships they can draw from."

City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, 46, expressed a similar view.

"In people's most formative years, they are raising families and making choices about what kind of financial sacrifices they are willing to make," she said. "Running for mayor is a huge financial sacrifice."

Former City Councilman Bill Green, 49, was among those who suggested the Democratic Party itself had not done enough to identify and mentor talented young politicians.

"When you look at the Democratic political machine, you don't have a party that seeks to promote the sort of candidate who would be qualified to run for mayor one day," said Green, now the School Reform Commission chairman. "All the party does is perpetuate the people who are already in office."

Often, to break into the ranks, he said, a newcomer has to stage an insurgency campaign, much as Green did in 2007. Which was ironic, as he was the son of a former mayor and grandson of the party's former chairman.

If there is an outsider insurgent this go-round, it would be Oliver, who has not held elective office, has little financial backing, and has no obvious organizational support.

"Ultimately, if you want to get in the game, you have to step in whether you are invited or not," he said. "I don't think this is the first generation that has had to do that. If you look at the current leadership in the city, they had to make similar choices, be it 30 or 40 years ago."

Ben Stango, 26, is on the board of Young Involved Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works to engage more young Philadelphians in civic life.

Among his peers, he said, "there has been a lot of conversations about how the older political establishment, who are primarily 50, 60, and up, have not been developing the younger generation of political leaders."

 

'The barriers'

As a result, he said, there seems to be a shortage of midcareer elected officials in their late 30s and 40s positioned at the moment to be viable candidates for higher office.

"That is something we at YIP and a number of other groups are trying to change," he said. "One of our goals is to break down the barriers to the political system for young people."

YIP's research into voting patterns suggests millennials can play a very large role in this year's election if they vote, Stango said.

According to YIP's research, about 250,000 of Philadelphia's 1.1 million registered voters are between 18 and 30, he said. In 2012, when President Obama ran for reelection, that group's turnout was 63.7 percent, better than the 62.5 percent turnout of voters over 30, Stango said.

A year before, however, when Nutter ran for reelection with no serious opposition, just 7.8 percent of voters 18 to 30 cast ballots. For those over 30, the turnout was 28.3 percent.

"This can be a kingmaking demographic," Stango said of his peers, "if it is properly mobilized. But that is a huge lift. There has to be a candidate who can really appeal to what we care about. We have not seen that yet."

 


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