Marny Walsh came prepared. The committeewoman from the 21st Ward, which includes Roxborough and Wissahickon, wound around the first floor of the WHYY studios Monday with a detailed list of questions to ask candidates running for City Council.
As a voter looking at dozens of names — including many first-time candidates — how will she figure out who gets her vote?
“Panic,” Walsh said with a laugh. “I’ll ask what they think they can bring to City Council. I’m not so much going after specific issues as getting a sense of their background and what they think they’ll bring to the table.”
The forum, sponsored by The Inquirer, WHYY, the Committee of Seventy, and other partners drew more than 30 candidates and about 250 people like Walsh, who, faced with dozens of names on the May 21 primary ballot, thought she might as well meet the candidates face to face.
The candidates were stationed behind tables, although most stood in front to draw as many voters as possible.
It’s especially difficult to stand out this year, with the most candidates running for seven City Council at-large seats since 1979. This year, 28 Democrats are running for Council at large (Democrats typically hold five seats, and only three incumbents are seeking reelection). Seven Republicans, including both incumbents, are vying for the remaining two at-large seats.
In such a crowded field, success will be a mix of money — and the name recognition it can help buy — endorsements, and luck (where your name appears on the ballot). But Monday’s event was about who could connect with voters one-on-one.
“Running for office is a job interview,” said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Committee of Seventy. “We layer all kinds of things on top of this, but that’s really what it is. So, this is really a reverse job fair. You have the job seekers behind their tables or out front talking to the hiring committee, which is the voters.”
The meet-and-greet forum was also where the amount of money in your campaign bank account, whether you were endorsed by your party, or whether you’ve ever held office didn’t matter much.
“Nobody gets special treatment," Thornburgh said. “This strips it back to the basics. Even if you’re running for reelection, you should be willing to talk to voters in small groups and make your pitch.”
And pitch they did.
They shook hands, passed out brochures, offered chocolates or mints. Several also had private meetings with the Inquirer Editorial Board, which will publish endorsements in May.
Letty Thall of Spring Garden, which is in the 5th Council District, spoke to only a couple of candidates but picked up literature for many of the others.
“How do I figure it out?” she said. “I now have a whole list of everybody that I can take home and have a scorecard to really think about and decide before I go into the polls.”
Thall name-dropped several Council members she’s worked with from her days as an advocate for women’s organizations and nonprofits. But she said she was glad to see new faces.
“There are a lot of people here who I haven’t seen before, which says, hopefully, there is a whole new generation, a whole new group getting involved,” she said.
All around her, candidates were getting asked about their opinions on the city’s education system, “sanctuary city” policy, and violent crime.
Asa Khalif, an at-large candidate, held court with about five people discussing poverty.
A few feet away, Isaiah Thomas, also running as a Democrat at-large, talked about standardized testing.
Drew Murray, a Republican, pitched the need for fresh moderate perspectives in Philly’s underrepresented GOP.
If there was one overwhelming theme to questions it was taxes — the soda tax, tax abatements, and property taxes.
“I would really love to talk about something other than the soda tax,” Eryn Santamoor confessed to a woman who asked her position on it. (Santamoor, a Democrat running at large, said she wouldn’t vote to repeal it unless there was a proven alternate money source to pay for the programs it funds).
It was a chorus of “I will" and “I would." Some voters learned for the first time what district they lived in and what a Council at-large member does. Others had detailed notes and specific questions for candidates.
“I’m such an extrovert that talking to people really fuels me, and I love hearing about what’s important to Philadelphians," said Beth Finn, a Democrat running for at-large.
Vinny Black, also running at large as a Democrat, was a bit more downtrodden about the process. “I don’t like it, because the problems in our city, our society, are so deep, and they’ve been building up for many years, and there’s an urge to kind of peddle a cheap, easy answer to people when it’s not going to be a cheap, easy answer," said Black, who shows up to all campaign events in a neon-yellow construction vest.
“To be honest, I’m kind of disillusioned with how you get elected.”
Staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Committeewoman Marny Walsh’s name.