Alex Torpey, at all of 23 years old, made a commitment to himself when, in 2011, he decided to run an insurgent campaign for mayor in his hometown of South Orange, New Jersey: He’d ask the political class for advice, but not for permission—a sentiment he’s trying to instill in the fellow twentysomethings across the nation he’s currently recruiting for public office as part of his role for Run For America to “inspire and support young post-partisan people to run for office.”
On election night 2011, Torpey scored a narrow, 16-vote upset victory. But more stunning than his surprise win was the way he governed for four years, before deciding not to seek reelection last year. Torpey wasn’t just a caretaker of the status quo; he spent four years rethinking government, updating it for the 21st century and bringing in three new council members who also had never held political office.
“I never wanted to be mayor for more than one term,” says Torpey, who, now 28, spent two months in East Africa last year studying fledgling democracies and development strategies from the ground up. “I ran to get people to think more critically about how government can and should work and that’s what I’ve tried to do each day.”
What did Torpey do? He not only balanced but gamified his city’s $33.5 million budget, so citizens could download, manipulate and visualize the data, performing exercises as though they were mayor. He incorporated into the city’s books a “Citizen Guided Budget Line;” using an app, citizens were empowered to decide how the funds in that budget line should be allocated—for a tax refund, say, or to rehab a city park. He added a public comment period before action in town council meetings, so legislators could hear from constituents prior to casting votes.
Under Torpey, crime in South Orange dropped 40 percent and his administration passed budgets with the lowest tax increases in over 15 years for four consecutive years. But it was how he did what he did that was truly innovative.
At every turn, Torpey’s government sought to be a facilitator, recruiting community groups to work side by side with developers on reinvigorating a downtown; partnering police with neighborhood watch groups, and using Twitter during torrential storms to communicate with constituents in real time.
Torpey, also an entrepreneur and a volunteer emergency medical technician, would go so far as to hold de facto office hours in a local Starbucks and went door-to-door to check on residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
It all added up to a new way to think about governing. “When I took office, town council meetings were long, controversial and oppositional,” Torpey says. “More than any particular accomplishment, what we did was change the culture of how local government operates by changing how it engages with its citizens.”
And he did that by empowering citizens as partners. “It’s their government,” Torpey says.Photo header: Rod Lamkey Jr.