At-large interview: Isaiah Thomas

Council-at-large candidate Isaiah Thomas. Photo provided by Isaiah Thomas for City Council At-Large.
(Council-at-large candidate Isaiah Thomas. Photo provided by Isaiah Thomas for City Council At-Large.)

As primary elections approach, NEast Philly will interview council-at-large candidates so readers can get to know the names they’ll see on the ballot.

Today we speak with Isaiah Thomas. The Frankford High School graduate has a psychology and social behavior  degree from Penn State University and a masters in education from Lincoln University. His work in the community ranges from his role as executive director at family education center Mature Cradle, Inc and a consultant for United Way. Thomas is also a project director at Sankofa Freedom Academy in Frankford — a natural transition from his decade-long involvement at Freedom Schools.

NEast Philly: Why council-at-large and not a specific district?

Isaiah Thomas: My goal is to help our entire city. While the work district council members do is important, I believe I can have a larger impact on the lives of our youth citywide as an at-large member.

NEP: You’ve mentioned Council term limits and corruption as areas that need addressing. Why those focal points? Any other main focal points you’d like to address, or that you’d like Council as a whole to address?

IT: In 2010, corruption cost taxpayers in Philadelphia anywhere between $9 million and $36 million. The annual operating cost of a public library is between $4 million and $8 million. From my own work with the Freedom School Program, I know it costs roughly $1,000 per student to hold a quality six- to eight-week summer program. By these estimates, corruption has cost more than 9,000 students quality summer programs in our city. Furthermore, if we had these millions our elected officials continue to mismanage, many firehouses, libraries, and summer programs might still be open today.

NEP: You’ve been mentored by Jorge Santana and State Rep. Tony Payton. What lessons have you learned from them?

IT: I learned how a young, effective leader makes an impact on a community. As a legislative assistant, I helped organize several park cleanups around the Frankford area, and also began a program called “Back to School Drive” which is still in effect today. This program provides school supplies to local children in need.

As a coach, educator, mentor and servant leader, I believe education reform is the most pressing issue our city faces. Every parent wants an enriching, safe environment for their children to receive a quality education. Quality education remains the key to a successful life for our youth. Overall graduation, math and reading proficiency levels have improved in recent years, however rates continue to lag well behind state and national averages.

Current trends indicate that we will not achieve full proficiency in math and reading until 2123. We cannot afford to wait more than a century for our needs to be met. I have laid out a set of proposals to improve education in Philadelphia. My proposals are specifically designed to ease the burden on working families, improve graduation rates, improve math/science proficiency, and responsibly expand the choices families have when it comes to their children’s education.

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NEP: Why now? Why run for council in 2011?

IT:  It is clear that many of our elected officials are simply out of touch with the citizens and do not have their best interest at heart. Too many of our officials are making lucrative careers on the backs of our residents. My servant-leader approach will be a refreshing change from what we currently see in City Hall. I have never waited for change, and I do not intend to start now. There is no better time than the present to make a difference.

NEP: Paint us two pictures of the future: One in which you’re elected, one in which you’re not.

IT: The time to elect new leaders is upon us. With several long-term incumbents retiring, City Council will undergo its first major change in nearly two decades. We can no longer afford to elect self-serving leaders. It is time to elect a servant-leader with a people-first attitude, and I believe I am that leader. If the people of Philadelphia do not choose me to be their city councilman-at-large in 2011, I will return to my work in the community and with our youth. Being an elected official is certainly an effective way to help our community, but not the only way to make a difference.

NEP: Is there anyone in Council right now you think is doing a particularly good job at addressing a key issue?

IT: I believe Blondell Reynolds Brown has done a great job keeping children and youth as her focus on City Council. While we may not agree on every issue, I believe she is a leader who has truly sought to make adifference for the youth and I respect that very much.

NEP: What should people expect from their council and council-at-large members?

IT: Currently in Philadelphia, nearly 70 percent of people describe Philadelphia as a great place to live. We are a proud city with proud residents. At the same time, nearly three out of five citizens feel their city is not on the right track and disapprove of the job City Council has done. It is time we restore pride in our City Council, and elect leaders we trust to fix the pressing issues of the 21st century.

NEP: What’s your take on DROP?

IT: Programs like the Deferred Retirement Option Program perpetuate distrust among citizens and plague our city’s budget. In 2010, a report claimed this program cost our city between $21 million and $36 million annually. I would act quickly to eliminate DROP. These are funds that could go back into our communities, instead of the pockets of our elected officials, to build a stronger Philadelphia.

NEP: What’s the next big event coming up in your campaign?

IT: On May 6, Pro-Bowl Offensive Lineman and Frankford native Jahri Evans will be co-hosting a fundraiser with State Rep.Tony Payton, Jr. to benefit my campaign.

NEP: Do you think your age is at play at all in your candidacy?

IT: Absolutely. Nearly two-thirds of our city is under the age of 44, and we have a younger population than state and national averages. Furthermore, the largest portion of jobs in our city is from the education sector. I am the youngest candidate running for city council at-large. I have an education background and therefore I have the best opportunity to connect with those portions of the population. Having a council member who is accessible, available and from a similar background will have a significant impact on re-engaging many of those citizens.

NEP: Council-at-large can be a tough sell. How do you plan to get into the neighborhoods and reach out to other candidates and constituents?

IT: I have already reached out to several candidates around the city and have developed relationships that will greatly enhance my ability to make a difference when elected.


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