Plenty of tough, wonky, policy-driven questions were lobbed at the Philadelphia mayoral candidates at a forum hosted by students at Central High School Tuesday.
Among them were carefully worded queries about the city’s unfunded pension liability, City Hall’s perceived pay-to-play political culture, and – especially relevant to the social sciences students who organized the event – the future of Philadelphia public education.
But unlike the multitude of other mayoral forums organized this campaign season, this one also allowed the candidates to shake loose and dish one-word answers on the students’ pet issues.
Things like: Weed, movies and cheesesteaks.
More on that later. But first, here’s how the candidates responded to the question that most directly pertained to public education.
The panel of Central seniors in charge of pressing the mayoral hopefuls got an up-close view of how candidates often don’t answer questions directly.
“Public perception is that charter schools can provide a viable alternative to public schools. What specific steps would you take to work with the School Reform Commission to improve public schools?”
Boiled-down candidate answers:
Common Pleas Court judge Nelson Diaz critiqued supporters of vouchers, before calling for the abolition of the SRC.
“We have to make sure that the school system is run by its parents, and that, I, as the mayor have the total responsibility, and that you hold me accountable,” said Diaz.
Melissa Murray Bailey, the lone Republican in the race, said she’s appalled by what she sees as waste within the school district.
“No. 1 thing I would do is make sure the money actually gets to the children,” said Murray Bailey, who moved to the city three years ago.
Former city district attorney Lynne Abraham is hopeful that Gov. Tom Wolf will bring increased funding to the city’s schools, and said it was unproductive to squabble about the differences between school sectors.
“The first thing we really need to do is understand that charter schools and public schools are here to stay, and that they have to co-exist and coalesce as one,” she said.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who is backed in the race by a wealthy trio of school choice advocates, cited his track record sponsoring legislation that has brought additional state resources to city schools.
“The reality is if a public school – a neighborhood school, a magnet school, a charter school – doesn’t work, we should find other alternatives for families in need, and fund them to the level that they are actually able to perform,” said Williams.
Former city Councilman Jim Kenney, endorsed and supported financially by the city’s largest labor unions including teachers, also hopes Wolf can maneuver his agenda through the Republican-held state legislature.
“If we get charter reimbursement as Gov. Wolf has proposed, life can get a little more fair as far as the public schools are concerned, and we can live together,” he said.
Kenney also said that teachers at charter schools should be held to same certification standards as those in district schools.
Former Philadelphia Gas Works executive Doug Oliver said the SRC should be viewed as a regulator like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or the Public Utility Commission.
“They guarantee certain things. They don’t bother so much with the operation of companies, but rather that they deliver on a basic promise,” said Oliver.
Former state Sen. T. Milton Street, convicted tax-evader and brother of former Mayor John Street, proposed putting a moratorium on charter schools.
“We have to have quality education across the board, but it’s complicated,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
Throughout the 90-minute forum, students gave the warmest reception to Oliver, the youngest Democrat in the race.
Afterward, many students confirmed that they were leaning toward the former PGW executive – who also acted as Mayor Michael Nutter’s first spokesman.
“He’s reaching out, not just to the students and people our age, but everybody out there,” said senior Adriana Hudson, 18, of Oliver. The Mt. Airy native said she’s still undecided though.
Jamie Atwater-Chiappetta, 17, was one of the panelists asking questions. She won’t be able to vote until the general election in November.
“I feel that Doug Oliver is an underdog,” she said. “I think they really gotta watch out for him.”
The Central students seemed unmoved by the cash-and-connection endowed Democrats who will likely dominate television ad space as the campaign winds toward the May 19 primary.
If not Oliver, many students expressed an interest in Diaz or Street.
Evan Sidener, 18, Roxborough, said that his friend has been lobbying him to support Kenney, but he walked away from the forum favoring Diaz.
“He seemed angry, and like he would really make the necessary changes we need in this city,” Sidener said.
East Oak Lane senior Richard Path, 17, liked that Street has made counter-violence the cornerstone of his campaign.
“As close as Central is, and La Salle is, you would think the security is very safe,” said Path. “But just across the street, people are getting shot, people are getting robbed, friends are getting beaten up.”
“Hearing him today and seeing him, I really enjoyed his figure up there,” Path said of Street. “Most of his answers pertained to us.”
At the end of the event, students gave the candidates the chance to offer one-word answers to a series of lightning-round questions of mixed importance.
The forum at this point had run over time, and Abraham and Williams left before this segment began, citing previous engagements.
Questions are reproduced below in the order in which they were asked. Responses are quoted verbatim.
How would you grade Dr. William Hite’s performance as schools superintendent?
Kenney: B+Street: AOliver: ADiaz: CBailey: B
Can you guarantee that Philadelphia will be a wireless city before the end of your first term?
Kenney: NoStreet: NoOliver: NoDiaz: YesBailey: No
Is Comcast a monopoly?
Kenney: CloseStreet: AbsolutelyOliver: YesDiaz: CloseBailey: No
Would you retain Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer?
Kenney: NoStreet: YesOliver: YesDiaz: NoBailey: No
Do you support the legalization of marijuana?
Kenney: Oh yeahStreet: YesOliver: YesDiaz: YesBailey: Yes
Describe the culture of Philadelphia in one word.
Kenney: DiverseStreet: ComplicatedOliver: YoungDiaz: Terrible schoolsBailey: Passionate
Keep or sell PGW?
Kenney: KeepStreet: SellOliver: KeepDiaz: KeepBailey: Sell
Describe Mayor Michael Nutter’s tenure as mayor:
Kenney: DifficultStreet: TerribleOliver: ChallengedDiaz: DisappointingBailey: Progressed
Uber or taxi?
Kenney: UberXStreet: UberOliver: UberDiaz: EitherBailey: Taxi
Agree with Mayor Nutter’s 9.3 percent property tax hike proposal?
Kenney: NoStreet: NoOliver: NoDiaz: NoBailey: No
Should Philadelphia put in a legitimate bid on the 2028 Olympics?
Kenney: SureStreet: YesOliver: YesDiaz: YesBailey: Yes
Who will win 2016 Presidential election?
Kenney: HillaryStreet: HillaryOliver: UnknownDiaz: HillaryBailey: Unknown
Should Philadelphia host Super Bowl LIII?
Kenney: YesStreet: YesOliver: YesDiaz: YesBailey: Yes
Other than “Rocky,” what is your favorite Philadelphia-based movie?
Kenney: “Philadelphia”Street: I don’t know any.Oliver: No response.Diaz: No response.Bailey: “Silver Linings Playbook”
What’s the last book that you read?
Kenney: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (by Jean-Yves Leloup)Street: The BibleOliver: Team of Rivals (by Doris Kearns Goodwin)Diaz: J.F.K. Bailey: How to Grow a Girl
Should Philadelphia bars stay open 24 hours?
Kenney: NoStreet: NoOliver: NoDiaz: In Center City, in a special district, yes.Bailey: No
Kenney: Tony Luke’s (South Philly)Street: Delassandro’s (Roxborough)Oliver: Ed’s Pizza House on Wayne AvenueDiaz: Fiesta Pizza in Chestnut HillBailey: Pat’s Steaks (South Philly)
Do you favor the development of more casinos in city limits?
Kenney: NoStreet: YesOliver: NoDiaz: NoBailey: Yes
Who is your favorite musical artist or group?
Kenney: U2Street: MadonnaOliver: Jay-ZDiaz: Jennifer LopezBailey: Jon Bon Jovi
What Philadelphia major sports team will be the next to win a championship?
Kenney: The BirdsStreet: FlyersOliver: EaglesDiaz: EaglesBailey: Phillies