Political outsider Melissa Murray Bailey says she’d do things differently as Philly mayor

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When Melissa Murray Bailey approached Philadelphia’s Republican Party in December about running for mayor in next month’s general election, she knew she was a long shot.

Philadelphia hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the early 1950s, and Democrats have a 7-to-1 edge when it comes to voter registration.

Bailey also doesn’t fit the profile of a typical mayoral candidate. She has never run for political office before and has not had much involvement in Philadelphia’s civic life. In fact, she’s only lived in the city for three years. 

She admits running for mayor has been a big detour for her personally and professionally.

“I had a great life before this,” she said. “This wasn’t the next step in my career. It’s actually so far from the next step in my career. They’re not even on the same highway. But I cannot stand by.”

At 36, Bailey is already a well-respected businesswoman. She’s an executive at Universum, a Swedish firm that helps employers market to fresh talent, where she oversees teams in the U.S., Canada and eight countries in Latin America.

Bailey grew up in Absecon, New Jersey, and lived in Washington, D.C., Australia and Singapore before moving to Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood with her husband and 4-year-old daughter in 2012.

In that time, she only voted in three out of six elections (she told Philadelphia Magazine, which broke the story, that she didn’t think her vote mattered) and was a registered Democrat until January of this year. 

Still, Bailey insists, she has what it takes to start fixing some of the city’s most intractable problems.

“I know that there are things that can be done differently, and I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that there’s that opportunity … to impact people’s lives in a different way and not do anything about it,” she said.

So Bailey’s cut back at her day job to run for mayor.

Her strategy is to meet as many people as she can before Election Day, convinced that she could earn their vote if they would only give her the time.

Learning the ropes while running for the city’s highest office

On a recent morning, Bailey made her first campaign stop of the day at Career Wardrobe on Spring Garden Street. The nonprofit helps people, including former inmates, get back into the workforce.

First, she gets a tour from executive director Sheri Cole. Then, Bailey makes her pitch.

“When I think about the two key areas that I would organize everyone … around, the first would be reading by third grade,” she explained. “We have so many nonprofits that are doing things in that area. Let’s get everything focused around that. And then the other thing is the pathway to work.”

Bailey vows to get all third-graders in Philadelphia reading at grade-level by the end of her first term. She would pay for reading specialists by cutting other programs. 

She also wants schools to prepare students for jobs, whether they graduate or not, and to beef up programs that help adults find work.

Democratic nominee and longtime councilman Jim Kenney, who won the crowded May primary by a landslide, has also visited Career Wardrobe. While the nonprofit cannot endorse candidates, Cole wanted to hear how each of them would help the poor population she serves. 

Cole thinks Bailey has some good ideas for addressing poverty, “but was sort of less familiar with some of the nuances of what’s going on.

“I just felt our conversation with Councilman Kenney went more into depth with what’s happening in the system,” she said.

Cole’s assessment underlines a major weak spot of Bailey’s campaign — the fact she is learning the ropes while running for the city’s highest office.

That’s something Republican Party leaders openly acknowledge. 

“Look, we realize she lacked in political experience and probably local connections, and I understand many of the Democrats have those things, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Joe DeFelice, executive director of the Republican City Committee.

He sees Bailey, whose business career has taken her around the world, as a fresh face for Philadelphia’s Grand Old Party. Plus, as a young mother, she can relate to the plight of many parents in the city who are deciding whether to flee to the suburbs with their school-aged children.

Instead of fleeing, DeFelice points out, she’s staying put.

As for her lack of insider knowledge, DeFelice suggests maybe that’s a strength, not a weakness.

“The system has been broken for a long time, and we’ve elected insider mayor after insider mayor after insider mayor, and the system still hasn’t been fixed,” he said.

Bailey unsure she’d run again

Unfortunately for Bailey, Philadelphia’s Republican Party just doesn’t have the money or the clout to help her push that message.

She’s only raised about $20,000 herself and so far, there are no plans for the kind of TV ads that moved Kenney to victory in the Democratic primary.

So, she’s trying, mostly on her own steam. She has some help from her five-member campaign staff, which includes her husband, Sean Bailey, who serves as communications director.

After her visit to Career Wardrobe, Bailey called a press conference on a street corner in North Philadelphia close to the site of a recent shooting.

“We’ve had kids getting grazed by bullets, we’ve had shootings at playgrounds and neighborhood picnics and yet, nobody is talking about this,” she said. “We are in a time of crisis in our city.”

Longtime anti-violence advocate Terry Starks was by her side. He told the small group of reporters gathered that he is promoting Bailey because he didn’t get the support he wanted from Kenney. It’s not exactly a full-throated endorsement. 

“I don’t have nothing against Jim Kenney,” said Starks, who is disillusioned with the city’s Democratic Party as a whole.

“They got so comfortable in the spots that they’re at that they don’t care about the actual humanity of the people, and we for the people,” he said.

With about two weeks until Election Day, Bailey is already willing to admit she’s not sure she’d run for office again.

“I don’t know about politics in the future after this. It is …”

Bailey paused.

“It’s what everyone thinks it is.”

Politics, she said, is corrupt, and success is based on the people you know and how much money you have.

Running for mayor has been a baptism by fire, but at least Bailey believes she’s figured out what she’s fighting for – even if she loses.

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