To help choose from a crowded field, Philly voters pack WHYY to question council hopefuls

WHYY and a host of partners sponsored a speed-dating style event to help voters when they hit the ballot box on May 21.

More than 30 candidates for Philadelphia City Council and hundreds of voters converge at WHYY for a

More than 30 candidates for Philadelphia City Council and hundreds of voters converge at WHYY for a "speed dating" event in which voters moved from table to table to find out which candidate best suited them. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The list of candidates running this year for an at-large seat on Philadelphia City Council resembles a college football roster. Nearly three-dozen people are running for seven positions. And only a few of them are household names.

“It’s a lot to take in,” said Southwest Philadelphia resident Cheryl Wright. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”

To try to change that, Wright joined dozens of voters Monday night at WHYY studios for a so-called City Council Candidate Convention, a speed-dating style event that gave people the chance to match faces — and platforms points — with the names they’ll see on their primary ballots on May 21.

Twenty-eight Democrats and seven Republicans are running this year – the most crowded at-large field in four decades.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Voters will choose five candidates from each party to compete in November’s general election. The top seven vote-getters will make it to Council — typically, five Democrats and two Republicans, though it’s possible a third-party candidate could make it through.

Instead of giving stump speeches, those candidates stood behind tables Monday night and voters like Wright approached them with questions.

Wright wanted to know whether issues related to gentrification and income inequality were on their radars. She worries rapid development around the city will push residents out of their neighborhoods because they can no longer afford to live there.

Wright said some candidates shared her concern, but she wasn’t ready to commit to any of them yet — not before she does some more research.

“I’m still not sure what my decisions are. They haven’t been made today,” she said.

Carol Pasquarello, on the other hand, came prepared to cut candidates from her list as she whittles down the candidates she plans to vote for. On a small strip of paper, the South Philadelphia resident scribbled the questions she’d ask any candidate she talked to Monday.

A big one: Do you support or oppose the city’s controversial sweetened-beverage tax? Pasquarello is wholeheartedly behind the levy, created to fund expand access to subsidized pre-K for three- and four-year-olds and upgrade city parks, libraries, and recreation centers.

“If they’re hesitant to say whether they support it or not, I just walk away. That’s it,” said Pasquarello. “You’re not going to get my vote because if you can’t take a stand, how are you going to take a stand on an issue other than the beverage tax?”

Her question also has real consequences. A bill recently introduced in City Council would phase out – and possibly eliminate the soda tax. Which means some of the candidates Pasquarello spoke with could end up voting on the measure.

Valerie McLoyd and Bill Donohue had a different brand of litmus test. Both came Monday night hoping to separate the politicians from the public servants.

Like Pasquarello, McLoyd came with a question that, for her, cuts to the heart of the distinction: “If you don’t win, how are you going to still push your issue?”

“I don’t want a candidate that lays out all these issues because they’re running, but then after that you’re like, ‘OK, I’m not going do anything for the city,” said McLoyd. “I want someone who’s going to look at these issues and be serious about it whether they win or not.”

For Donohue, it’s mostly about a gut check —  a vibe he gets when he’s talking to a candidate.

“When that little voice says to you, ‘This is a good guy. This is a good woman.’ Might not agree with everything, but they’re going to give it an honest effort and they’re going to give it their best shot,” said Donohue.

Those are the candidates that pique Donohue’s interest — even if he doesn’t believe they can ultimately win the seat they’re seeking.

While taking a break in the hallway Monday night, Center City resident Carol Jessup said some candidates helped her make up her mind without having to say a word. If they were late or didn’t show up at all, she said they’d have a hard time getting her vote.

“I made it my business to be here early … so I don’t know if they value my vote,” said Jessup.

The Philadelphia Inquirer; Committee of Seventy; Urban Affairs Coalition; League of Women Voters; Young Involved Philadelphia; Philadelphia Education Fund; Media Mobilizing Project; Temple University’s Master’s Program in Public Policy; On the Table Philly; and the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia sponsored the event with WHYY.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal