Being an active participant in a free society is all about choice. These choices — where to live, what to do for work, how to pursue our own version of happiness — are most clearly exhibited through voting, an action John Lewis called so “precious, almost sacred.”
It’s that hallowed choice, or rather the lack thereof, that prompted Robin Jervay Aluko to run an unlikely write-in campaign for the City Council seat currently held by Council President Darrell Clarke. Thanks to a combination of reported political infighting between Clarke and state Sen. Sharif Street, Clarke’s own coyness about his future plans delaying his retirement announcement, and an astonishing level of incompetence or bad luck by would-be candidates, only one name appears on the ballot in that district’s Democratic primary.
In other words, there’s no choice. You can either go with Jeffrey “Jay” Young, who himself seems as surprised by the events as everyone else and admits he’s the only candidate listed by sheer happenstance, or nobody at all — unless you’re willing to write in a candidate.
“I don’t think it’s ever a good idea for just one person to be on the ballot,” Aluko says. “As a City employee, I could not participate in elections [due to ethics laws prohibiting political activity] so now that I can, and feel that I’m qualified, I thought that it was important for voters to have a choice.”
Waging a write-in campaign
A longtime resident of Strawberry Mansion, Aluko worked for over two decades in procurement for the City water department, poring over government contracts and agreements to ensure taxpayers got the best deal and that contracts under her purview stayed above board. Today, she’s technically retired, at least from her municipal job. Now, she offers notary services and brokers insurance and real estate services for the neighborhood.
It was the distressing idea that voters wouldn’t have a choice, that they’d be stuck with Young or no vote at all, that bothered Aluka. Too much is at stake, she argues, for the choice to default to someone who, like Peter Sellers in Being There, just happened to be there, his history of troubling public tweets and all.
While Aluko refuses to talk much about her opponent, it bears mentioning that Young’s Twitter history is replete with statements that for any other candidate in any other timeline would be disqualifying. For instance, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Young has used the frenetic platform to opine on everything from women’s rights — “I swear I hate b*tches,” reads one tweet, “Ur not a whore, you just have a friendly vagina,” reads another — to race relations and immigration – “Dear Chinese Stores, we don’t eat dog, cat, or rat here in America, on purpose at least,” details another.
“I don’t think it’s ever a good idea for just one person to be on the ballot,” Aluko says.
Young reportedly admitted the tweets were his and expressed regret for his youthful indiscretions. To be fair to him, he was simply a grown man in his mid-20s when he posted them.
“It’s bad for all of the above,” Aluko says, when asked about Young’s ballot placement in light of his public statements.
Voters in the 5th District are hardly alone this year in being robbed of their choice. Across six of the district council races, candidates, mostly incumbents, face no opponent at all in the primary. “I think that’s …” Aluko pauses, “not good for us.”
To be frank, waging a write-in candidacy is an uphill battle, but it’s not impossible. In 2017, Philadelphian Phillip Garcia won a race to be Judge of Elections in his ward and division by simply writing his name in as a joke, garnering national headlines. But even legitimate candidates sometimes overcome obstacles involving ballots and petitions, like Emilio Vazquez’s write-in win in the 197th state house district in 2017’s special election.
Aluko says that the dearth of information about write-in candidacies, and what is and isn’t allowed, is a built-in barrier for her and other Philadelphians who might otherwise want to participate in the process.
“It’s been difficult to find out or learn more about rules related to a write-in campaign,” Aluko admits, pointing to her hesitancy to be too aggressive with traditional tactics. “I’ve committed myself to using free tools like Twitter, Facebook, email, and my own database … I have a neighbor next door asking me when I’m starting campaigning, and I said, ‘Sir, I’m already campaigning!’” That’s true, especially digitally where Aluko has gotten some press as a result of reaching out directly to journalists and publications.
Unlike her opponent, her Twitter use is seemingly G-rated and professional. Occasionally, she replies candidly with a cheeky “lol” to other tweeters, but she doesn’t seem to be the kind of social philosopher opponent Young is.
Bikes — and cars — and better development
On the issues, Aluko offers a combination of common sense and ideology. Pro-protected bike lane but not anti-car, acknowledging the national rise in shootings while still saying Philly can do its part at lowering crime, and refusing to oversimplify issues in exchange for hokey sound bites or gimmicks, she navigates various issues without coming off as incendiary or absolutist.
“I love riding bikes, but I am so afraid to ride in the street because when I get out there I feel that drivers are trying to push me off the road! They don’t pay attention, and I have seen [crashes],” Aluko laments. “We need more protected bike lanes.” She’s not alone there, with City officials finding with near seasonal regularity that the vast majority of Philadelphians want protected bike lanes and street safety prioritized.
Still, Aluko acknowledges the City must still accommodate cars, as well. “ “It’s sometimes necessary to use a car, but I think we have too many cars in our city,” she says.
Aluko says she wasn’t terribly impressed with Clarke’s handling of development during his tenure on City Council, which seemed to be beset by a belief that the more complicated and ad hoc the City’s zoning and planning process, the better.
As Aluko sees it, if the city wants to get to its planning goals of new residents and thriving neighborhoods, “we have to make it easier for developers to create new buildings and increase density.”
“Everything I need to sustain my family, my life, my work should be here. There should be businesses here that support the community and a community that supports the businesses here,” Aluko explains, touching on the Jane Jacobs idea of a living city where you live, work, and play in a hyper-localized area, known these days as the “20-minute Neighborhood”.
Aluko does not have a specific plan for how to achieve this. It’s clear after just a few minutes that she’s not a professional candidate — she even admits her secret cheesesteak order at Max’s in the center of the district as “a mushroom and swiss with mayo, hot peppers cooked into it, and fried onions — and slap it up with some barbecue sauce.” But that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for voters.
“I don’t want to say, ‘I have hope,’” Aluko laughs, decrying the common refrain of long-shot candidates. “I think I can win this, I really do! Many of the people who [support] me already did so with vote by mail. It’s easier to write-in that way than in-person at the machine, at least people think that. I say there’s no reason why you have to push the button next to someone’s name. So if you don’t want to vote for someone, don’t vote for that person. Do a write-in.”
MORE ON CITY COUNCIL ELECTIONSRobin Aluko, Philadelphia City Council At-Large candidate. Photo via the campaign