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What is a "New Blood?"

And why should you care?

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 20 or so weeks off, the city car, the six-figure salary. No wonder we have so many council people warming their seats for life.

The Citizen’s “New Blood” series looks at Philadelphians who are doing what for a long time was the unthinkable: Bucking the system by running for office with ideas and experience—not just by dint of being the usual suspects. Not all the candidates we profile will end up with your vote—that’s not what this is about.

Hopefully, though, they will have your attention for at least as long as it takes for you to take in the stories. Because if there’s one thing we can’t have enough of it’s this: More people paying more attention to our local politics, running for office, offering solutions and calling for much-needed change.

New Blood: Lauren Vidas

The next in an ongoing series looks at the former Council staffer and lobbyist who is challenging Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. Her slogan? “Expect more and demand better.”

The next in an ongoing series looks at the former Council staffer and lobbyist who is challenging Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. Her slogan? “Expect more and demand better.”

About a decade ago, there she was, suddenly, a Zelig-like figure in local politics. As an aide to then-Councilman Bill Green, she was the one suing Mayor Michael Nutter when he tried to close Library branches. Then there she was, turning around and joining said mayor’s administration, helping to pass ethics reform.

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You’d run into her at events at night and find her shaking her head over the latest anecdote of plodding incompetence at City Hall, muttering what I came to consider her catch phrase: “This is why we can’t have nice things,” more outraged than resigned. Back then, Lauren Vidas—like so many young Council staffers or mayoral administration wonks before her—gave off a sense of youthful impatience when it came to making her city better.

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Of course, in Philadelphia, fresh and new has a way of becoming corrupt and contented in short order. That’s why I was eager to catch up with Vidas last week, in between her call time and door knocking in Council’s second district, where she’s challenging incumbent Kenyatta Johnson, he of the cozy, Councilmanic Prerogative land deals, whereby, most recently, he has twice reportedly directed sweetheart city-owned properties to a campaign contributor.

Vidas has spent recent years engaged in her neighborhood—the South of South Neighborhood Association—and earning a living as a lobbyist (the soda industry was among her clients); most recently, she managed East Coast client relations at the government advisory firm Public Financial Management. Had she mellowed, I wondered? Was she still the bad-ass reformer I remembered?

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It didn’t take long into our conversation before I had my answer. Not 10 minutes in, the change agent was alive and well. “This city has to study everything to death,” Vidas said. “We miss out on opportunities. We’ve studied litter, e-scooters, violence. It makes you want to put your head through a wall. Can we, like, get something done here? Can we bring a sense of urgency to public policy and take measured risks? So much of city government is rooted in the fear of failure. The fear of political blowback is all around. Better to have our streets totally filthy than to ask people to move their cars, because that will get some people angry. City Council is unwilling to be more aggressive at problem-solving.”

And that’s why, as Vidas used to say, we can’t have nice things. If Vidas were to upset Johnson—rumors about him being indicted by the Feds continue to swirl, but you underestimate Johnson at your peril, as his 2015 challenger, developer Ori Feibush, found out—she’d be, at 38, Council’s first-ever openly gay member. Moreover, she’d represent an infusion of energy into what is too often a purely transactional body.

Vidas calls herself a “professional problem-solver,” and now, knocking on doors in the 2nd District, she’s hearing about a whole host of problems in need of fixing. Every day, she hears voters who are—finally—connecting the dots between subpar city services and corruption.

Therein lies the risk associated with taking on a district councilmember. You’d think that at-large members—those hired by all of the city—would be our most powerful, but the tradition of Councilmanic Prerogative, which gives district members feudal lord-like control over development in their fiefdom, upends that supposition. That’s why, historically, district members seldom face opposition.

Candidates like Vidas hear a lot of “attaboys,” but many would-be donors fear their names showing up on challengers’ campaign finance reports. The empire, after all, has a way of striking back, part of a Kabuki dance that is by now more than a matter of conjecture. Back in 2016, the aforementioned Feibush won a jury verdict against Johnson in a Councilmanic Prerogative-related case that shed light on a practice that has arguably done more to stunt growth in our city than anything else.

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Vidas calls herself a “professional problem-solver,” and now, knocking on doors in the 2nd District, she’s hearing about a whole host of problems in need of fixing. Every day, she hears voters who are—finally—connecting the dots between subpar city services and corruption.

“People have seen their taxes go up, and yet they feel like city services are slipping,” she says. “Our streets are a total mess and, if one person calls out sick, a library branch shuts down. Don’t get me wrong—we still have that ‘Philly Shrug,’ but I really think that, for the first time, people are connecting the sweetheart insider deals with the service they’re getting, and they know it’s not right.”

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Vidas is a throwback, a politician who actually talks plainly about right and wrong. A public moralist, if you will, a mindset that can keep you quite busy in Philly. But for all her fire and brimstone, she’s also a policy wonk who will nerd out over her platform. That includes supporting term limits (“It can create a sense of urgency if you know you only have 12 years to get something done”) and calling for a Charter Convention (“We haven’t had one since 1951 and all these Charter amendments are death by a thousand cuts.”) It also includes long disquisitions on “strategic upzoning” strategies to add affordable housing stock and deep dives into community land trusts, public/private partnerships that provide housing to low-income buyers.

And then, of course, there’s Councilmanic Prerogative. “We need to empower the Planning Commission,” she says. “Right now, it’s toothless. Developers and Council ignore it. It’s important to hear voices of highly trained professionals who are trained to help manage a city’s growth. But, again, there’s so much fear. Like, if you give up control in your District, the sky is going to fall. The idea that you can only have community input if you have Councilmanic Prerogative is just a false choice.”

“I don’t want to pretend like I have all the answers,” Vidas says. “But I want to work together to develop short and long term visions for each neighborhood and I want to be held accountable to that.”

Which Vidas knows from her grassroots work at her own neighborhood association, a master class in how community groups can shape their own destiny. In fact, she says, the 2nd contains both the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods, Graduate Hospital and parts of Southwest, respectively. So her plan as a Councilmember is to work with every neighborhood group in her district to help them develop their own plans for growth—complete with goals and timetables, for her and for them. “I don’t want to pretend like I have all the answers,” she says. “But I want to work together to develop short and long term visions for each neighborhood—do we want 25 percent more trash cans on the street within the next year or two?—and I want to be held accountable to that.”

Vidas is an attorney, like both her parents. (The only time she goes off-the-record with me is when I ask whether she partied during her law school years at the University of Miami.) Even so, you don’t get a sense that it’s the law that shaped her values. Her moralism harkens back to a less relativistic age. No wonder, given her personal story. Her great-grandfather came from Croatia and opened Acme Piano Company at Second and Queen streets. From an early age, she studied her grandfather, Joseph Vidas, also known as “Spike,” whose World War II dog tags she owns and cherishes today.

“I remember being a kid and seeing my grandfather washing the feet of a homeless person and giving him socks,” she recalls. “There were hundreds of stories like that. He was just a kind, generous person. If I could do for people in my district what he did for his neighbors, that would be a fitting tribute.”

Then comes Vidas’ other influence: The hard-charging example set by Richardson Dilworth, Philly’s legendary reformist mayor. “His mother once told him, ‘If all you do is pay dues to your golf club and go to church on Sunday, you haven’t earned the privileges you’ve been given,’” she says. “I love that.”

But, in her plain outspokenness—“I believe in compromise, but you also have to call out people for their misdeeds; like, Jewell Williams should not be running for reelection.”— Vidas also takes something else from Dilworth: The notion that public service ought be paired with a fighting spirit. “Yes, I am an emotional man, but I am a fighter,” Dilworth once bellowed on the campaign stump. “Where would the cities of this country be if it were not for men like me who fought for them?”

Dilworth knew that there is nothing inevitable about the American city, and you get the sense that Vidas shares that insight: Some things are worth fighting for. For a visionary, about the only thing Dilworth missed some 70 years ago was that it wouldn’t just be “men” like me called to be on the frontlines of the fight for cities—as Lauren Vidas’ candidacy attests.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Vidas

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