Massive stakes: Who is running for mayor in the bankrupt city of Chester?

Two outsider Democrats, Stefan Roots and Pat Worrell, are running to unseat incumbent Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland in a race with unprecedented stakes.

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side by side photos of Stefan Roots, Thaddeus Kirkland, and Pat Worrell

Stefan Roots (left) and Pat Worrell (right), two Democratic candidates running to unseat incumbent Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland in Chester's mayoral election. (Kenny Cooper, Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s mayoral race might snatch all the headlines with its crowded field of candidates, but another election with far more dire stakes is brewing just a few miles down the I-95 corridor.

Three Democratic candidates each believe they’re Chester’s best shot to keep the city alive, setting the stage for a contentious May 16 primary election. The winner will likely win the general election — without any guarantee that the city will even exist throughout the length of their term.

“This is a stake election. ‘You can get with this or you can get with that,’ is pretty much my slogan,” said Stefan Roots, 62, a first-term council member who’s now running for mayor. “‘This’ is a new vision for the city. ‘That’ isn’t even pretending to change anything that they’re already doing. They’re going to continue down the same path.” 

Nearly 30 years ago, Pennsylvania declared the city of Chester to be financially distressed. Plagued by the everlasting presence of polluting industry and poverty, Chester has hemorrhaged both residents and businesses.

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Since former Gov. Tom Wolf declared a fiscal emergency in Chester in 2020, state-appointed receiver Michael Doweary has been tasked with handling the city’s finances and finding the root of its problems. 

However, a deeper look revealed the city’s circumstances were far more dire than many speculated. In November, Doweary filed for bankruptcy on behalf of Chester, hoping for a legal life raft as he moves to plug the various financial holes sinking the cash-strapped city. 

Now, Chester is at a crossroads. If a solution to its money problems is not implemented by the end of the year, there very well could be no way out. Disincorporation, or the complete dissolvement of the city, might be the only option left.

“My plan is to work with the receiver – number one, in cooperation in making those decisions and taking those steps forward to get us through this bankruptcy, and not to litigate this and that. Because it’s not helping, and it’s not moving us forward,” said Pat Worrell, 63, a local real estate broker who’s running for mayor. “We need to work together, bring everyone to the table that is a decision maker, make the right decisions so that we can move the city forward, and do it with urgency, because we don’t have a whole lot of time.” 

If Roots or Worrell wants a chance at saving Chester — they each have to worry not only about their fellow challenger, but also figure out how to unseat a fixture in city politics.

Thaddeus Kirkland, mayor of the city of Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Thaddeus Kirkland, mayor of the city of Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mayor Kirkland wants another shot in office

Incumbent Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, 68, is running to retain his position in city hall. Kirkland has been serving as Chester’s mayor since 2016, but this isn’t his first stint in elected office. 

In 1993, voters in the southern tip of Delaware County chose Kirkland to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ 159th District. He held that role for 23 years, managing to win his reelection campaign 10 times. 

Kirkland, a champion of the city’s partnership with the Covanta incinerator, has long battled with the Chester’s environmental justice activists. Kirkland has led the push for the city to sell the Chester Water Authority to Aqua Pennsylvania for $410 million.

More recently, Kirkland has publicly clashed with the city’s receiver. Doweary has accused Kirkland and a majority of city council members of refusing to cooperate with his recovery efforts. In January, Doweary asked the Commonwealth Court to strip the city’s elected officials of their administrative powers.

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Kirkland and his allies on the council have since appealed that action, along with the bankruptcy court’s ruling. Doweary has blamed the appeals for halting Chester’s attempt at a financial recovery, and subsequently pushing the city’s shot clock closer to zero.

A spokesperson for the mayor did not respond to an interview request. 

At a heated forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Central Delaware County, Kirkland painted a picture of progress for the city, and touted his role in the success of the Chester Partnership for Safe Neighborhoods.

“We made the promise to reduce the crime in this community, and we’ve done just that. We also made the promises to lighten up our communities, and we’ve done just that with brand new LED lights. We also made the promise to bring about tutorial programs for our young people. And we’ve done just that,” Kirkland said.

During the event, Kirkland expressed his support for constructing housing in Chester, defended the incinerator, and upheld his stance on his ongoing litigation against the receiver.

“Let me just tell you the truth. Violent crime is down 67%. Let me just tell you the truth. New businesses are here in the city of Chester. Let me just tell you the truth. We opened up a brand new recreation center on the west end of town,” Kirkland said.

Kirkland’s final plea to voters was countered by Roots, who has served as the lone foil to Kirkland and his allies on council in the past couple of years.

“This mayor has taken us to receivership. This mayor has us in bankruptcy. This mayor, if elected again, will probably disincorporate our city,” Roots said. “Everybody’s talking about this mayor on the streets and what they’re saying is it’s time for a change, Mayor.”

Stefan Roots is a Democratic candidate for mayor of Chester City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Stefan Roots is a Democratic candidate for mayor of Chester City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Roots, a political outsider, says he’s all in on Chester

Before Roots was elected to Chester City Council in 2021, he said he had to take on the machine — in his own party.

The Chester Democratic Committee did not endorse Roots, but he won anyway. He never intended on becoming a politician. Roots, who currently works in operations and engineering at the Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority (DELCORA), had a brief stint as a reporter at the local paper before he launched his own news outlet in 2006.

He said people have been telling him in recent years that he should throw his hat into the political arena.

“I’m at a stage in life where I can take this on financially. I’m gonna lose a little money, but I’m going to save this city. Because if we continue down the road, we’re going with the decisions that are being made in city government – we’re going to lose our city. There has to be an alternative,” Roots said.

As a Chester native, Roots has seen the real-time decline of the city. Recounting stories from his father about Chester’s heyday in the 1940s, he said if you had a strong back, you were guaranteed to have a job.

However, Roots said industry left and city leaders had no plan in place to fall back on.

“The suburbs were built up in the sixties and white flight took place, so that took a lot of families with jobs. The school district starts to deteriorate, the tax base starts to deteriorate, the housing stock starts to deteriorate. While that’s going down, what’s not coming up is new businesses, new industries. Some of the worst industries have tried their best to come in the city of Chester, and many of them are the same pariahs that show up in most black and brown poor communities – the ones that usually end up being targets of environmental racism,” Roots said.

In recent years, Roots said he’s witnessed a different problem. He said that despite the city having a $65 million budget, it’s being run like a “family corner store.” And he believes working with the receiver should be the number one priority.

Several years behind on financial audits, he said city leaders do not have their priorities in order.

“Unfortunately, our mayor and council have not worked closely with our receiver, and our receiver has to go to last resorts like go to the judge and say, ‘I need your help.’ And the judge has responded and says, ‘Here’s the help that you need. Proceed.’ And then my city government says, ‘We’re going to appeal that opinion.’ That costs money and that costs time. I am not in favor of any of those solutions. I want to work with the receiver,” Roots said.

Addressing the city’s financial crisis is Roots’ main concern. However, he also said that when talking to residents, trash and illegal dumping comes up as another area that needs to be addressed.

Roots is renting a space to serve as his campaign headquarters in the heart of Chester. If he wins the primary, he intends to keep it open as a meeting space for residents, but also as a main base of operations for his transition team. 

He believes Chester’s government needs an infusion of new faces. Roots doesn’t want to refuel a machine that he said is ‘out of gas.’ He wants to start something new.

“We’ve got to fill that pipeline. You just can’t build buildings overnight. You can’t knock down a slew of abandoned houses that are surrounding you right now overnight. But at the end of four years, I would have created a path of success for the city. Whether I come back in four years and run again, I don’t know. But I’m going to tell you the fear and intimidation that keeps a lot of people, especially young people, from getting involved in city government is going to be over,” Roots said.

Just as he’s taken swipes at Kirkland, Roots has also characterized Worrell as a political unknown. He said voters constantly ask him who she is.

Worrell responded during the recent debate by contrasting herself with Roots.

“What we don’t need is a militant in the mayor’s office. We need someone who’s professional. As a voter, as a resident, as a business owner in this city, I don’t want somebody in the mayor’s office with a militant attitude. I want someone with professionalism and integrity that could work with council to come together in agreement and reason and come up with some decisions, the hard decisions that need to be made. A militant is not going to do it,” Worrell said.

Pat Worrell, a Democratic candidate for mayor, serves as a board member on the Chester Zoning Board (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)
Pat Worrell, a Democratic candidate for mayor, serves as a board member on the Chester Zoning Board (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

Worrell says business background makes her the best choice for mayor

Worrell was born and raised in Massachusetts, and moved to Washington D.C. to raise her children. Eventually, Worrell settled down in Chester in 2007. 

“I really got involved in ‘08 with community programs and getting some lighting for the street. I know there was an issue with not the city not having a supermarket at that time. I got to know the city officials at that time and just wanted to get involved,” Worrell said.

In addition to her own business in real estate, Worrell has served on the Chester Zoning Board for the past 10 years.

Worrell believes her background in business administration, finances, and real estate propel her past the competition.

“Neither one of them is a business person. Neither one has the experience, background experience, a life-long experience that I have in business administration, financial management, accounting principles. Neither one of them has that background. So I bring that extra experience and that is not there right now,” Worrell said.

Worrell, who previously ran for state senate, magisterial judge, and Delaware County council, said she got her start in politics at a very young age.

“I’ve been in politics since I was 12-years-old, way before I was even able to vote. My aunt was a state representative out of the state of Massachusetts, and she served for almost 30 years. And I worked on her campaign,” Worrell said.

Worrell also highlighted the common cliche about the importance of voting, but she said this election cycle is much different.

“What happens in this election and what goes forward after that is going to be whether we decide to disincorporate, said Worrell.” It’s whether our children and our next generation have a city to grow up in, to establish themselves in business and home ownership. That is at stake.” 

Worrell said her plan to save the city from dire financial straits is rather simple: more collaboration with the receiver and all of the region’s big decision-makers.

In conversations with voters, Worrell said people’s main concern is about whether Chester has a future to provide for its next generation of residents.

Voters can cast their ballot in the primary on May 16.

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