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New Blood: A Former Janitor Turned Policy Wonk Talks Solutions

A desperately needed new generation is stepping up to change Philly by changing City Council. In the second of an ongoing series, meet at-large candidate George Matysik

New Blood: A Former Janitor Turned Policy Wonk Talks Solutions

A desperately needed new generation is stepping up to change Philly by changing City Council. In the second of an ongoing series, meet at-large candidate George Matysik

Talk to most candidates for public office, and you get hard-bitten political speak. You get tactics, you get horserace analysis, you get practiced talking points. Talk to 33-year-old Council at-large candidate George Matysik and you get the feeling you’ve walked out of the political realm and into an urban studies class. The ideas come, fast and furious.

A self-described “policy guy,” Matysik was, until recently, the unassuming director of public policy and government relations for Philabundance, the groundbreaking hunger relief organization. For some time, however, he’s been known in political circles as a savvy behind-the-scenes guy. A former campaign manager for then-Delaware County Congressman Joe Sestak, Matysik ran his friend Jared Solomon’s near-miss insurgent primary campaign for the state house last May against veteran legislator Mark Cohen, he (shamefully) of the record-breaking expense account and per diem reimbursements. (Matysik and Solomon grew up near each other in the Northeast. “We can smell the crab fries off each other,” Matysik jokes.)

City Council has seldom been confused with high-mindedness. Thirty-five years ago, when our then-mayor was calling it “the worst legislative body in the free world,” two Council members came to blows on the chamber’s floor, wrestling like schoolchildren. One of those men went on to become mayor—John Street. It was then, as it is now, a place for bare-knuckled petty politics (see: the aborted Gas Works sale) and an insular, transactional culture. Statesmen have been in short supply—as have innovative ideas.

Now here comes this policy nerd, a candidate who has already released one in-depth policy white paper on education, and who promises to inundate us with many more. Talk to him and he seems more grad assistant than Philly pol. But maybe that’s been part of our problem.

“I’m not the most outgoing person in the world,” Matysik says when asked about this first turn of his as front man. “I’m a shy extrovert. I’m not the guy who is going to walk up to strangers and tell them all about myself. But when you look at this city, I just figured the stakes were too high. Campaigns usually have the same old stale talking points. Someone has to step up and talk about real ideas. I’ll let the experts tell me why I’m going to lose while I run the race I think the city needs.”

His story is certainly compelling. Matysik is a product of Castor Gardens in the lower Northeast, which has seen a 62 percent spike in poverty over the last decade—fueling his urgency. After high school, he got a full-time job as a janitor at the University of Pennsylvania, eventually parlaying that position into an opportunity: He’d wake at 5 a.m. to clean the school’s administrative offices and, upon clocking out at 3 p.m., he’d become a full-time urban studies student. Sestak, Philabundance and heading an aggressive three-year fundraising campaign for the Mifflin School in his East Falls neighborhood followed, before his decision to seek a Council seat.

“Mifflin is 85 percent economically disadvantaged, and we raised close to $100,000 for it,” he says.  Inspired by that success, Matysik wonders if the work he and others have done for a handful of neighborhood schools could be a city-wide model. (Fellow at-large candidate Tom Wyatt similarly cut his teeth as an activist and advocate for a neighborhood school.) He asks why we don’t have a School District Board of Directors to raise money for our schools. “The Free Library has a Foundation that raises money and advocates for it,” he says. “The same could be done for our schools.”

He proposes Education Improvement Districts—voluntary, hyper-local property tax increases that each community could choose to enact by voting for it, with the proceeds going directly to neighborhood schools. After all, he reasons, we have neighborhood improvement districts—why not ones dedicated to improving particular catchments?

And don’t get Matysik started on the Parking Authority. His data shows that Philadelphia schools currently reap a lower percentage of funding from tickets and fines than before the state Republican takeover of the Authority in 2001. “It’s an easy case to make to a conservative state legislator,” he says. “If you’re a true fiscal conservative, isn’t Philadelphia better off getting 45 cents on the dollar of Parking Authority revenue versus 30 cents? Aren’t you in favor of efficiency?”

You must be thinking: Slow your roll, kid. This is Philly. Term papers don’t get stuff done. Relationships do. And Matysik says he gets that. He reports that he has already secured endorsements from a couple of Teamster Locals and indications are that the Philly 3.0 PAC—made up of business leaders, led by parking magnate Rob Zuritsky—will devote some of its independent expenditures in support of his positions. But, Matysik says, don’t confuse his policy chops with political naiveté.  “At Philabundance, I worked more closely with Bob Brady than anyone in the delegation to bring the first non-profit grocery store in the country to Chester,” he says. “Because of Brady and [Brady consultant] Ken Smukler, we were able to come up with a public/private partnership that was an innovative project.”

George Matysik will shake hands and hand out Matysik for City Council buttons. But last week he was in a rush to get back to his computer screen. He was putting the finishing touches on his next white paper, which will feature his ideas for combating our crippling poverty rate.

For more on Matysik, click here.

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