When your parents first met at the Democratic National Convention, there’s a certain inevitability to what you’ll end up doing in life.
For 37-year-old politico Kellan White, the campaign director for Rebecca Rhynhart’s mayoral bid, that might be an understatement. His parents, Deborah White and former Philadelphia City Councilmember John White Jr., didn’t just meet by happenstance among a sea of party delegates. “Ted Kennedy introduced them,” says White, who was born and raised in the city.
“From a very young age, public service was instilled in me,” he says. “It was never not an option.”
Over the past decade, White has pursued his own path in the family business, albeit as more of a behind-the-scenes figure: a connector, campaign operative, and constituency builder with deep ties throughout the city. For this work, White is part of Generation Change Philly, a Citizen partnership with Keepers of the Commons that aims to highlight the next cadre of leaders in the city.
After volunteering and working at the YMCA in South Philadelphia, White began his career in politics as a City Council intern and aide. At the same time, he also began dedicating time to organizations aimed at young, civically-engaged professionals in the city: He restarted the Young Dems, served as a longtime president of New Leaders Council, and was an active member of Young Involved Philadelphia.
One of his early turns in the spotlight came when White began co-hosting an event billed as an alternative to the Pennsylvania Society’s annual dinner, the Pattison-Leader Ball. Unlike the well-heeled Society dinner, which is always held in New York, the Pattison-Leader Ball took place in Center City, and was geared toward those who cared about “the next era of Philadelphia,” White said at the time.
“He can be likable, but he can also be very tough — and that combination is hard to find,” says Rhynhart, who resigned from her post as controller in October to declare her candidacy for mayor. “Politics is a game of chess with a lot of relationships. You have to be able to maneuver with a lot of emotional intelligence. And he does.”
White’s most visible political achievement to date came in 2017, when he ran Rhynhart’s victorious campaign for City Controller. As with the Pattison-Leader Ball, White’s work in helping Rhynhart upset three-term incumbent Alan Butkovitz showcased a propensity for blending well-timed agitation with affability. “He can be likable, but he can also be very tough — and that combination is hard to find,” says Rhynhart, who resigned from her post as controller in October to declare her candidacy for mayor.
During that 2017 campaign, Rhynhart says, “We didn’t have the support of the Democratic Party establishment, and had to run an alternative Get Out The Vote operation. Kellan thinks three, four, five steps ahead. Politics is a game of chess with a lot of relationships. You have to be able to maneuver with a lot of emotional intelligence. And he does.”
Now he’s trying to continue what his father started. “I recognized that while I worked hard and grinded, at the same time I had an in because some people remembered my family — and in Philadelphia that matters a lot.,” White says. “My goal was always to be a door opener, not a gatekeeper.”
“A strange, winding road”
For White, taking a path into politics seemed like destiny. Until it wasn’t.
In 1999, when White was a teenager, Philadelphia City Paper endorsed his father, City Councilmember John White Jr., in that year’s mayoral race, noting his capacity for leveraging diverse coalitions to improve the city: “Of all the candidates, his leadership style stands the best chance of uniting this highly diverse city … His wide-ranging support — Black, White, straight, gay, business, labor, rich, poor — suggests that many Philadelphians agree.”
White watched his father make a late surge only to fall short of John Street, finishing in third place in the Democratic mayoral primary, receiving more than 21 percent of the vote.
The hard-fought defeat made for a cautionary tale for his son. “My dad losing the mayor’s race when I was a kid really made me disenchanted about the whole thing,” White says. The race was also bookended by tragedy: White lost both his mother and grandfather within a two-year span. “As a 11, 12, 13-year-old, I got hit in the face three times,” he recalls.
After graduating from Germantown Friends School, White got out of town, attending the University of North Carolina before working inside the athletic department for a Big 10 school and then writing copy for a basketball magazine in New York City. “I was resigned to the fact that if I stayed in Philadelphia, there was no escaping” politics, White says, before jokingly making a comparison to Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. “I wanted to challenge myself somewhere where nobody knew my family.”
But only a few weeks after joining Dime magazine, the company began layoffs, and White was out the door. Around the same time, his father got sick (John White Jr. is happily living in Overbrook Farms these days), which led White to boomerang back to Philly.
Then, an opportunity to volunteer at the Christian Street YMCA changed his life. It was the era of the highly racialized flash mobs in the city, which led to citywide curfews and a spike in youth detentions. “Council had a curfew law that wasn’t evenly applied to all neighborhoods … Teenage boys disappeared from the Y,” says White. “And when some came back, they went from being mischievous teenage boys to getting in fights and tagging the building and having a level of disrespect they hadn’t had before.”
White recalled another young woman who began showing up at the Y because she’d been suspended from school. Her father and brother were in jail for tragic-if-not-questionable circumstances, and the school district would not give her a bus pass because her foster mother lived a half-block too far from the catchment area.
“It’s a strange, winding road, but I ended up working with teenagers who lived in Point Breeze,” White says. “You see the disparities in the services they get, and what their lives are like, and I’m someone who is very blessed and never struggled. Even when I thought I was struggling, I wasn’t struggling. It’s a different ballgame.”
It was a realization that led him back to the family business. “If there’s one thing I knew about Philadelphia politics, it was that my dad is a known commodity, and if I’m John White Jr.’s son, I’m going to make a ruckus and you’re going to listen.”
Building a pipeline
White started at the bottom, taking an internship in then-Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown’s office, where he focused on constituent services. With his family background, he already knew the local Democratic ecosystem, while still trying to speak to everyone and build bridges wherever possible.
The energy he brought to networking helped make White a well-liked individual around City Hall. It also solidified a major decision in his career. “I recognized that I had a foot in the door, because some people remembered my family, and in Philadelphia, that matters a lot,” he says. “But what good is having the access if it’s just me?”
“Ultimately, I made this decision: if you get elected, you have one seat; if you get really good people elected, you have many seats,” White says.
“My dad ran for mayor almost 25 years ago, and they were talking about gun violence and public education and trash pickup, all the same things we’re talking about now,” White says. “Can it be fixed? In my mind it can. I will do everything I can to do that.”
White has set out to do just that, not only through elections, but also his involvement with myriad civic groups. For eight years, he served as the president of the Philly chapter of New Leaders Council, a national organization with chapters in more than 50 locations that trains civic leaders to reinvest in local communities, uplift equity and diversity, and develop cross-sector relationships. White is now head of NLC’s Nationals Programs Committee, working with alumni of its program on a national scale.
“Kellan is one of the longest, if not the longest, volunteer chapter presidents in the country,” says Karen Pandy-Cherry, NLC vice president of programs. “Our Philly chapter embodies what NLC is all about.”
There’s an impressive list of alumni (including Councilmember-at-large Isaiah Thomas) who’ve gone through the NLC Institute from the Philly Chapter, and White has been part of a larger project to permanently grow a pipeline of young leaders in Philly.
“I got a seat at the table, you know, at a relatively young age,” White says. The problem is that “I’m still the youngest person at a lot of these tables.”
“All the same things we’re talking about now”
Having grown up in the orbit of politics, White was prepared better than most for the up-and-down nature of the field. The Trump era brought even more extremes.
In 2016, he ran Democrat Katie McGinty’s campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who won the election by less than two percentage points as Republicans retained control of the Senate and retook the White House.
“I got on the McGinty campaign, to be honest, because they were looking for someone who could navigate Philadelphia politics and who, at the time, could get both Chaka Fattah and Marian Tasco to talk to them,” White says. “I was one of the few people who could navigate through multiple political affiliations.”
But losing that race opened the door to a new opportunity. Rebecca Rhynhart called shortly after announcing her bid to challenge Butkovitz in the Democratic primary for City Controller. “I asked a few different people who to hire, and his name came to the top of several people’s lists — people who didn’t necessarily like each other,” says Rhynhart.
Rhynhart’s camp made several savvy moves during that election. Knowing that Democratic committee people — the folks who make up the party’s boots on the ground at polling places — would pass out sample ballots with Butkovitz’s name on it, White engineered relationships with four of the seven candidates for District Attorney (including eventual winner Larry Krasner) to include Rhynhart’s name on their own literature and sample ballots. White was also instrumental in winning over labor support for Rhynhart while directing a strategic advertising campaign that held no punches against Butkovitz.
After winning the election, Rhynhart named White her first deputy, which put him in charge of community engagement and outreach for the controller’s office. The duo has since worked together on nearly every aspect of Rhynhart’s portfolio since taking office — including investigations into the city’s pension fund, anti-violence efforts, Parking Authority, and even the flawed procurement of voting machines.
“Kellan has been my work partner and like a younger brother ever since we met,” says Rhynhart. White even spent some of his Thanksgiving at her house. “Together, we can really do anything,” she says. “We’re building up the team now. We 100 percent have a plan to win the mayor’s race.”
White has a sense of kismet about his work with Rhynhart. “As a kid, I did the math — because of course I did the math — and I always wanted to be the 100th mayor of Philadelphia,” he says. “And here I am managing a campaign for a person to be the 100th mayor of Philadelphia.”
The best part of working at the controller’s office, White says, was helping to give a voice to city employees and residents who felt taxpayer money was being misspent. Throughout her time, Rhynhart was willing to wade into areas that the office traditionally had avoided, such as an investigation of how the city responded to civil unrest in the summer of 2020 or when she called for immediate action to address issues at the city’s jails.
In many ways, the challenges the city faces are the same as they were decades ago, even if the solutions are unrealized. “My dad ran for mayor almost 25 years ago, and they were talking about gun violence and public education and trash pickup, all the same things we’re talking about now,” White says. “The wheel keeps spinning in a way that’s detrimental to our city. And can it be fixed? In my mind it can. I will do everything I can to do that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Kellan White’s mother. It was Deborah White.
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Photos by Sabina Louise Pierce