We’re four weeks from an election, and it doesn’t exactly feel like change is in the air, does it? We’re likely headed toward coronating the mayor. And the race for City Council—both among district and at-large seats—has been…weird. As we’ve chronicled, there are some impressive newcomers to our electoral process, but we haven’t exactly been overwhelmed by innovative agendas for change, have we?
Instead, we’ve gotten a lot of pandering before the narrow questioning of super-engaged interest groups, exhibited most clearly at last month’s so-called People’s Forum at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. There, at-large candidates were given “Yes” and “No” placards and instructed to raise them in response to “progressive” questions ranging from opening a public bank to ending the tax abatement. If a candidate so chose, he or she could be granted a whole minute to add a modicum of nuance to the “debate.” Somewhere, Ben Franklin was gyrating in his grave.
Within days, Council at-large candidate Eryn Santamoor released her action plan for Philadelphia, which—get this—she wrote herself. It’s a document that, in its breadth, thoughtfulness and originality, stands in stark contrast to the scene that played out in that Broad Street sanctuary. Santamoor is a 39-year-old mom and a veteran of the Nutter administration, where she was deputy managing director and one of the driving forces behind the adoption and implementation of a citywide 311 service—which caught Philly up to other cities when it comes to customer service, much to the chagrin of Council members, who saw it as their role to respond to your complaints about potholes.
Santamoor was one of many talented young Philadelphians drawn to public service under former Mayor Michael Nutter. A mix of good government reformers and practical technocrats, they were mostly behind-the-scenes, doing the blocking and tackling that results in governmental change. Now, Santamoor has decided to be front and center, because, she says, a new generation needs to step up. “It’s time for practical professionals to lead the city,” she said when I caught up with her recently.
Santamoor’s blueprint for Philly is more complete and innovative than anything put forth by any candidate anywhere—and that includes the Mayor and his opponents. She blanches at the “nerd” label, but grudgingly admits that she lives for rolling around in the policy weeds. And she’s noticed that other would-be public servants don’t necessarily share her problem-solving passions.
“This is a real thorn in my side,” Santamoor says when I remark on the unbearable lightness of this season’s campaign debate. “In this day and age, when we have so much access to information, to not be thoughtful about putting together a plan, you should just do something else. Feelings are not facts, and public policy is an actual profession. Studying the issues and telling voters what you want to do should be the standard for running.”
“I’ve always been a compassionate and empathetic human being,” she says. “But my own experiences have led me to believe we need policies that have an understanding of what people are going through.”
There’s much to like in Santamoor’s plan and even some things that strike me as wrongheaded…but, reading it, at least you realize that you’re in the hands of someone who has given serious thought to the challenges that confront us. There are economic development ideas like expanding the Sustainable Business Tax Credit and reforming the real estate tax abatement, and there are improvements to city services like modernizing trash collection and actually paving our streets. She would make the Inspector General permanent and independent, and require Council to disclose its annual itemized budget.
In true nerd fashion, Santamoor’s voice bounces into an excited lilt when I bring up some of her more creative ideas, like the Productivity Bank, which would track and display savings from financial management reforms—regularly showing how your government works for you. “This really is a ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ idea,” Santamoor says, laughing. “So much of government is about identifying areas of opportunity to save and then invest that money back into the community. The Productivity Bank is about transparently communicating those opportunities to the people, so they can have trust in their government once again.”
Santamoor supports the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Action Plan, but she’d go one step further, recommending the hiring of a “Commodities Broker” in the Streets Department to make sure the city’s recycling is sold at the highest price and for the best use. “I love talking trash,” she says. “A commodities broker position would combine greening the city with economic growth. We should be managing recycling like it’s an actual business. We need to think about the future of this stuff, how clean and green tech can actually drive economic growth, not hinder it.”
Given Santamoor’s policy chops, it would be tempting to consider her as just another bureaucrat, an automaton immersed in data. But there’s a flesh and blood heart that informs what she brings to the public sphere, as this video attests:
When Santamoor learned of her husband’s alcoholism and addiction, she says, it opened her eyes to the degree to which trauma is all around us. Rather than run from it, she—and her husband—dealt with it. In their struggle, Santamoor sees the struggle of her city. “I’ve always been a compassionate and empathetic human being,” she says. “But my own experiences have led me to believe we need policies that have an understanding of what people are going through. Life gets tough on everybody. There’s so much lack of control people are feeling, they need to feel connected and supported.”
What does this mean from a policy perspective? Well, for example, Santamoor calls for a social and emotional learning curriculum in our schools. She has done the work to make herself more emotionally intelligent and wonders why our schools don’t have a feelings teacher. A feelings teacher? “If you have a question about history, you go to the history teacher,” she says. “If you have a question about math, there’s the math teacher. But if you have a feelings issue, who do you go to? Who helps you talk through conflict? Who helps you assess what you can control and what you can’t? That’s a big part of becoming a successful adult.”
In a city with an exploding murder rate and worst-in-the-nation poverty, Santamoor suggests, teaching emotional intelligence just might be a sound investment, no?
Santamoor grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she took in her first lessons of politics. Her mother was a nurse and her father a labor leader for a New York state manufacturing union. The idea of service to others was in the air. She’d see her dad field calls at night from members who, as mere cogs in vast machines, found themselves alone and needing an advocate. That’s when it dawned on her what public service meant: “People need someone to depend on,” she says.
At Cornell, Santamoor was a gymnast and studied policy management—natch—before moving to Philly in 2004 to get a Master’s at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government. That’s where she first met Michael Nutter, after writing a paper about the smoking ban that wasn’t altogether flattering of the then-Councilman. “He read my paper and said ‘I need someone like you to help keep me in check,’” she recalls, laughing. Santamoor became Nutter’s first hire in his groundbreaking 2007 campaign.
If this election is about any theme bigger than the daily who’s up, who’s down narrative, maybe it’s about the question raised by Eryn Santamoor’s campaign: Will voters respond to substance?
Now it’s her turn to hire young, ambitious staffers. And, as she sees it, to build on the transparent and smart city policies first started under Nutter, programs like PhillyStat, the performance management tool that received mixed reviews and has since been discontinued under Kenney. Santamoor concedes that PhillyStat might have needed improvement, but says: “Can you imagine any business not holding regular performance meetings and reporting progress to the public?”
There are certain words you hear a lot from Santamoor, words like progress and transparency. If this election is about any theme bigger than the daily who’s up, who’s down narrative, maybe it’s about the question raised by Eryn Santamoor’s campaign: Will voters respond to substance? Will a long-disrespected electorate consider nuanced problem-solving over finger-pointing and easy, ideologically-driven, sloganeering?
Hell if I know. But this much is clear: Between now and election day, Eryn Santamoor will continue nerding out, evangelizing for bringing best practices from cities across the nation to her adopted hometown. Is that enough to win an at-large council seat? That may well be the wrong question. The right one: Is that the right thing to do? Eryn Santamoor knows the answer to that question. Before we hang up, she says something you rarely hear anymore, and it makes me wonder if things wouldn’t be better if we did: “I believe in government,” Eryn Santamoor says. “Government is my playpen.”