Mayoral candidates gather at business forum, offer ideas - and a few jabs

Romao Algarin, 16, an 11th-grader at KIPP Charter School, asks a question of the candidates.
Romao Algarin, 16, an 11th-grader at KIPP Charter School, asks a question of the candidates. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Six of the seven Democratic mayoral candidates gathered for their first shared experience in public scrutiny Thursday at a West Philadelphia business forum.

Romao Algarin, 16, an 11th-grader at KIPP Charter School, asks a question of the candidates. Gallery: Mayoral candidates gather at business forum, offer ideas - and a few jabs

The forum, sponsored by the Business Association of West Parkside, revealed the group, not unexpectedly, to hold rather uniform views on the need to better fund city schools, solve the looming pension funding crisis, and integrate criminal offenders into community life once released from prison.

Each of the six, however, offered his or her own prescriptions for problems, giving voters an inkling of the differences they might bring to the mayor's office if elected.

The session also exposed the stylistic variations in a field, ranging from a determinedly strident, almost angry Nelson Diaz, who was not above shouting his answers for emphasis, to the gregarious, upbeat Doug Oliver, who at 40, reveled in his relative youth against his much older opponents.

Beyond Diaz, 67, and Oliver, in attendance were Jim Kenney, 56; T. Milton Street, 75; State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, 57; and Lynne M. Abraham, 74. Missing was the Rev. Keith Goodman, who announced his candidacy Sunday.

Here, briefly, is a look at how the contenders sold their candidacy at the forum, which was moderated by Richardson Dilworth, director of the Center of Public Policy at Drexel University.

Diaz, a former Common Pleas Court judge who reminded his listeners of his rise from poverty, repeatedly emphasized that fixing the Philadelphia school system would be his primary goal.

"It is criminal what the school system is doing to our children," he said. He said he would work for more funding, seek to eliminate the School Reform Commission, and support pre-K education city wide.

He also highlighted his record of fighting for civil rights as evidence that he could be counted on to support minority business opportunities and find ways to help ex-offenders be reintegrated into society.

Oliver emphasized his youth, and his lack of experience in public office, as evidence that he could bring new ideas to an arena in which some argue that current efforts have not worked. He said he would work to have Philadelphia's tax-exempt universities and medical centers contribute funding to the city.

To invigorate city nightlife and raise more revenue, he suggested allowing drinks to be served after 2 a.m. He also reminded listeners of his support for Mayor Nutter's plan to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works to raise money to the municipal pension fund.

Kenney, in response to a question, said his hoped-for-legacy if he were elected would be "to dramatically reduce poverty" in the city. To that end, he has proposed a $54 million plan to ensure that every 3- and 4-year-old in the city has access to affordable prekindergarten education.

Finding more opportunities for former inmates was part of his plan as well. He said he would work with the building and trades unions to see that that happened. "I think the building and trades unions can be talked to," he said. "This is something they should be doing and should have been doing for years."

Williams, too, favored expanded pre-K education, adding that the city should provide small subsidies for day-care costs as well.

He continued his staunch defense of charter schools, an issue that has been a hallmark of his since he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. "Charter schools are no different than magnet schools," he said, referring to public schools that draw talented students from throughout the city. "Charter schools did not create the fiscal crisis. That is a false argument."

Abraham stood out for her willingness to challenge opponents on their past positions on issues. She took direct shots at Williams, the perceived front-runner, and Kenney.

She criticized Williams for his support of the cigarette tax used to raise money for the School District. "I believe that a cigarette tax to support the schools was a bad idea," she said. "It encourages more people to smoke and get cancer to support children's lives. Not a good move."

She also took issue with Kenney's support of legislation that allowed bonus checks to be sent to city pensioners regardless of how underfunded the pension fund is.

The checks are meant to offer cost-of-living relief and are issued only when the pension fund outperforms expectations.

Abraham said she would ignore or seek to overturn that legislation.

Finally, Street offered a variety of sometimes outlandish, yet well-received, panaceas to urban ills.

He was cheered when he said he would not bother with legal niceties when it came to abandoned factory buildings that dot parts of the city. "I'm not going to look for the owners," he said. "I'm going to use those buildings and make the owners find me."

He also promised to name a deputy mayor to find ways to help ex-offenders reenter society. An ex-offender would fill the job. Finally, he said he would make sure minority businesses received the bulk of city contracts, not just a portion.

 


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