Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.
[UPDATE: The election isn’t until 2016, but when the Firefighters and Paramedics Union Local 22 endorsed challenger Jared Solomon in his ongoing bid to unseat 40-year incumbent State Representative Mark Cohen in the Northeast’s 202nd legislative district, it was proof that the rematch of last year’s close election is already heating up. In March, we brought you the story of Solomon, who continues to serve his constituents…even though he hasn’t been elected by them.]
There was an unusual political gathering in Northeast Philly a couple of weeks ago. On a frigid, rainy weekday night, about 65 residents of the 202nd state legislative district showed up at Casa Brazil, a popular Brazilian steak house, on Bustleton Avenue. They were there for a free buffet dinner of grilled meats, plantains, beans and rice—and to receive the warmhearted thanks of their host, 36-year-old Jared Solomon, a Center City lawyer, last year turned his mom’s basement into a headquarters and waged an insurgent primary campaign against longtime state representative Mark Cohen, losing a nailbiter by a mere 200 votes.
It was a classic matchup between old guard and reformer. Cohen, who has served for 40 years, has long been the local face of political entitlement. One year, Cohen hit the taxpayers up for $39,000 in per diem expenses, often for days when the legislature wasn’t even in session. Unlike pols who have a sense of shame, he expenses his annual trip to the Pennsylvania Society gala in New York and, over one two-year period, had the gall to bill taxpayers for $28,000 in book purchases, claiming that staying informed makes him a better legislator. (Does that explain the biography of Mark Twain we put on his bookshelf?)
“I may have lost the election, but I am serving,” Solomon said recently. “That’s what I’ve always done in the Northeast. I want to make government real for people, show them that, through public/private partnerships, we can make change in the neighborhood.”
Solomon had been a local activist; the grassroots neighborhood association he started, Take Back Your Neighborhood, took on nuisance crime and hosted after school basketball leagues for kids. After the close loss last year, he wanted to thank his supporters by treating them to the dinner at Casa Brazil. But he also wanted to update them. Because, it turns out, Jared Solomon is the George Costanza of local politics. You remember Costanza, right, from Seinfeld? The guy who, after being fired from his job, simply kept showing up at work? Well, Solomon may have lost the election…but he’s been governing nonetheless. The dinner at Casa Brazil was also a de facto town hall meeting.
“I may have lost the election, but I am serving,” Solomon said recently. “That’s what I’ve always done in the Northeast. The whole campaign, I talked about investing in the community. I want to make investments that are real—to get behind projects that my neighbors can feel and experience. I want to make government real for people, show them that, through public/private partnerships, we can make change in the neighborhood.”
So what those constituents heard that night at Casa Brazil was nothing short of a litany of public projects this still-private citizen was making happen. It was a report from a type of shadow government. After all, Solomon might be the only private citizen in America who has his own constituent service contact. He tells residents of the 202nd to contact Carmen Woodruff from Take Back Your Neighborhood if, say, they need a stop sign somewhere, or their trash is not getting picked up. Call Carmen, he’ll say, and she’ll cut through red tape for you.
As his friends and would-be constituents sidled up to Casa Brazil’s buffet, Solomon briefed them on his work’s latest developments. First came the top-of-mind issue of security. The lower Northeast is one of the most diverse areas of the city, but immigrants often arrive and seem to live sequestered from their neighbors. Often, that’s because no one has approached them. Aware of the growing Turkish community, Solomon reached out to the Turkish Cultural Center; his overtures were so welcome that the group agreed to fund a pilot neighborhood security program. Solomon hired a private security company and consulted with local police. Soon, a patrol car will be on the streets. “We’re starting small with one patrol car,” Solomon said. “But it’s the type of investment that could have a substantial impact if the community responds well.”
For the first time ever, Solomon reported to his guests, the 1,300 students who attend Spruance Elementary would have a real playground this spring. Through a contact, Solomon reached out to the Eagles Youth Partnership, which will be helming the one-day build (complete with a handful of players) in April. And, across the street, the dilapidated Max Myers Recreation Center will be getting a rebuild, thanks to a private/public partnership Solomon formed with TD Bank and resources courtesy of Councilman Bobby Henon and Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez.
This summer, Solomon reported, thanks to the support of Legacy Tennis and an as-yet unnamed corporate sponsor, there will be a seven-week summer enrichment program for neighborhood kids, who will get lessons in tennis, while learning life and leadership skills. “My goal is to make this a year-round program at the rec center,” Solomon announced.
Finally, there is Solomon’s partnership with Jidan Cleaning, which is owned by African-American businesswoman Patricia Claybrook. Claybrook was looking to hire people who live closer to the clients she serves in the Northeast. Solomon started rounding up potential hires through his network of sources.
Uh, Jared. Don’t you, like, have a day job?
“Yeah,” he says, laughing. “I’m a securities and anti-trust attorney at Kohn, Swift and Graf. But this is my passion.”
And with that, Solomon is off on a spiel about his beloved Northeast. How poverty is up 62 percent since 1999 and median income dropped 17 percent between 2000 and 2008. How the commercial avenues of Bustleton, Castor and Rising Sun no longer provide the middle class jobs they once did. And how that makes the actions of their state representative all the more maddening. “It’s a great contrast, really,” Solomon says. “I am focused on investing in the community. I don’t take a penny from my community group. I put my own money in, or our funding comes from partners. Mark takes from the community. But I want to be fair. Mark has, in his career, been the champion for people who are voiceless in our community. But most of his legislative accomplishments are decades removed.”
Cohen maintains that, far from “taking” resources from the community, his exorbitant expense account filings have come because he’s the hardest working man in Harrisburg.
Of course, that doesn’t explain how $28,000 in books lining the shelves in the study of his Harrisburg home helps anyone in the 202nd District.
When I tell Solomon he’s the Costanza of local politics, he laughs. “I know it’s unusual,” he says. “A lot of people use campaigns to put out ideas and see what hits. I did the opposite. I put out ideas, lost, and started to deliver. I am serving, yes. But I’d love to do the legislative part, too. We just have to wait for that.”