After announcing his at-large Council candidacy last Saturday, Tom Wyatt, a lawyer at Dilworth Paxson, admitted he was embarking on a daunting task. “It is scary,” he said. “But not as scary as working minimum wage and not being able to feed your family.”
He knows whereof he speaks. Wyatt’s story is a compelling one and he tells it thoughtfully and dramatically. His CV doesn’t begin with some outsized accomplishment. Instead, it begins with a desultory high school career—“I was sleepwalking and nearly flunked out,” he says—and it includes a stint flipping Whoppers at Burger King and living in a trailer park outside Bloomsburg, PA. Then came two years teaching the poorest children in the nation in the Mississippi Delta and counseling inmates at a halfway house, coaxing them toward reentry into society. “It wasn’t lost on me that some of those who had made bad decisions could have been me,” he says.
Wyatt went to college and, ultimately, law school because of public programs. “I’m a beneficiary,” he says. “Of public schools, the free lunch program, Pell Grants. And a whole lot of luck, not to mention the generosity of others.”
He spent a decade in the executive suite at Voorhees, NJ-based American Water Works, a large public utility, before joining Dilworth last fall—largely because of the law firm’s storied history of civic engagement. (Dilworth CEO Ajay Raju is chairman and chief benefactor of The Citizen). “American Water is a fabulous company, “ he says. “But I wanted to be part of a culture steeped in the history of corporate citizenship here. Dilworth is the heart and soul of Philadelphia.”
For the last two years, Wyatt has led the community group that has helped invigorate his neighborhood school, East Passyunk’s Andrew Jackson Elementary. They’ve built a green garden roof and renovated a playground—baby steps towards a goal of raising test scores and high school admissions. “We have miles to go before we sleep,” says Wyatt. Meanwhile, his activism on behalf of one school woke him up to the possibility of doing more, citywide.
“Everybody sits back and thinks there’s no way to put your hand on the lever and make a difference in a city this large,” he says. “I’m ashamed to say I felt that way. Then my daughter was born and I said, ‘Holy smokes, every parent feels this way about their kid.’ So there are hundreds of thousands of us in this soup together. My wife and I just dug in.”
If elected, Wyatt will voluntarily limit himself to two terms. “I’m not a career politician. I want to pave the way for future leaders,” he says.
Which gets us to Wyatt’s elevator pitch. “Look at my skill set,” he says. “Experience getting things done on the ground in the neighborhood, in the classroom, and as an executive. There’s a clear opportunity here for Council and the Mayor to better collaborate. We need problem solvers.”
Like so many of us, he was disheartened to see the tragic dance that was the aborted selling of PGW: “I don’t even know who was right and who was wrong,” he says. “I was disappointed as a citizen that we couldn’t even have public hearings about what to do with this cherished public asset.”
You’re no doubt familiar with the depressing narrative that is City Council. It’s often seen as a place where petty personal interests trump the common good. For many who serve on it, it may be the best gig they’ll ever have: The 23 weeks off, the city car, the six-figure salary. No wonder we have so many council people warming their seats for life – something Wyatt wants to do something about. He pledges that, if elected, he’ll voluntarily term limit himself.
“If I’m blessed enough to be elected, two terms of service would be enough,” he says. “I’m not a career politician. I want to pave the way for future leaders. I love sustainable ideas and being part of a team. I’m not fascinated by a career in politics.”
His message is resonating: Since early December, Wyatt has raised $70,000, mostly from family and friends. And he’s talking to Philly 3.0, as well, the group of local businessmen, led by parking magnate Rob Zuritsky, that is laudably stepping up to help those inclined to bring City Council into the 21st Century.
Wyatt isn’t a bomb thrower. He’s thoughtful, even careful; for example, he says he sees both sides of the councilmanic prerogative debate and hasn’t formulated an opinion on it yet. Spoken like somebody who, if elected, wants to forge relationships and get stuff done, instead of just being a lightning rod. He entertains nuance in a soundbite culture. On the highly-charged charter versus public school debate, for example: “Competition and choice makes sense,” he says. “But in order to make that a real choice, we need to have highly efficient neighborhood schools in all of our neighborhoods, and working towards that needs to be our baseline.”
Or, when asked if he sought permission from the machine before throwing his hat into the political ring: “The only person I asked for permission from was my wife,” he jokes. “But I don’t want to be flip. I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s commitment to public service because they’re engaged in a form of it that I’m not. I’m going to reach out to the ward and committee structure and make sure those people know my story and that I’ll work with anyone who wants to move this city forward.”
Tom Wyatt won’t make bombastic headlines and play the political finger pointing game, either in this campaign or if elected. He seems, instead, to be what is so often in short supply in our politics: Reasonable and measured. Talk to him and you come away thinking you’ve just spoken to an adult.
For more on Tom Wyatt, click here.