Lively ‘City Council Candidates Convention’ engages hundreds of young voters at WHYY [photos + audio]

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With a shade over six weeks to go until Philadelphia voters head to the polls, the Democratic mayoral primary — and its seemingly never-ending collection of forum and endorsement events — has drawn the vast majority of attention.

But the line that started forming outside WHYY’s studios just after 5 p.m. Thursday spoke to a heightened interest in other portions of the May 19 ballot: Those being the races for district and at-large City Council seats.

What drew hundreds of voters and dozens of candidates to Independence Mall was Young Involved Philly’s (YIP) inaugural “City Council Candidate Convention,” a unique meet-and-greet event co-sponsored by the Committee of Seventy and hosted by WHYY. 

The set-up

One room featured a slew of candidates for Democratic at-large seats (both incumbents and challengers).

Another was set aside for Democratic district-seat seekers, with the bulk of attention focused on second-district candidates Kenyatta Johnson (incumbent) and Ori Feibush (challenger) for reasons including, but not limited to, the fact that it’s just one of three* contested primaries.

Yet a third enabled would-be voters to meet both Republican at-large candidates and a Pomeranian named Thatcher sporting a [Terry] Tracy for Council sign. In between it all were voter-registration tables and, of course, foods and beverages.

“If this event is not democracy in action, I don’t know what is,” said YIP President Nick Marzano, of the nonpartisan-group’s heretofore unseen structure.

Addressing the candidates, he added, “Thank you for running. When more people run, the entire city wins.”

After Marzano’s introduction, which followed a brief lead-in from WHYY news honcho Chris Satullo, Committee of Seventy CEO David Thornburgh envisioned a result where, years down the line, “10,000-15,000 people are claiming they were here to be part of this special night.”

Networking and interviewing

What ensued over the next two hours was a combination of mingling, noshing, sipping and friendly interviewing.

Candidates who stayed near their tables all night drew a steady stream of inquisitive attendees; their conversations seemingly varied (at times) from standard stump-speech fare into a more conversational arena.

Others split their time between table and working about the room to meet potential voters. One candidate (the Pomeranian-supported Tracy) wisely brought his own supply of Yards bottles not subject to the event’s two-ticket refreshment edicts.

Tony Dphax King, whose third-district candidacy remains subject to a challenge from incumbent Jannie Blackwell (hence, the asterisk that appears higher in the story), didn’t have a table.

So, he worked the room carrying mesh yellow “King 4 Council” hats, readily admitting that they were more props than giveaways like Kelly’s Yards bottles or incumbent Ed Neilson’s blue mini-footballs.

“It’s important for me, and other challengers, to keep running since so many [incumbents] don’t have any opposition. I just went up and told Ori Feibush that,” said the excitable King, who beamed when NinetyNine asked about a campaign photo in which he poses with a donkey in South America.

“People like us keep democracy alive,” he continued. “I represent the democratic process. You have to have choices when you got into that ballot booth.”

The council aspirants farthest away from the front door’s velvet rope were Democratic at-large challengers Frank Rizzo Jr. and Jenne Ayers.

The former is a political veteran attempting to return to office. The latter, daughter of the city’s former fire commissioner, is a first-time candidate.

Both had a chance to speak to a multitiude of potential voters; Ayers remained near her table, while Rizzo did a little roaming after sensing that attendees were congregating elsewhere early on.

“This is really fun. It’s exciting to have these exchanges with young people,” he said. “This is better than sitting at a long table, hoping you’re last to answer so you can hear what all the other candidates had to say before you speak.”

As a twentysomething herself, Ayers fit right into the evening’s primary demographic (yes, those oft-discussed millennials).

She pointed out the regularity of hearing from first-time voters who wanted to discuss a wide array of topics ranging from affordable housing and education to quality-of-life concerns.

“People have told me that they’re thinking about buying a first home, but are concerned things like litter on the streets. That speaks to how there are two cities here: downtown and the neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s exciting to see this tonight, but I don’t think it’s just this election. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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