Four city council candidates made their pitch for the endorsement of 5th Square, Philadelphia’s urbanist political action committee, on Oct. 10 at Buffalo Billiards in Old City.
With the 2019 municipal election less than a month away, groups like 5th Square are organizing
around issues important to their members. Named after the five original public squares in Philadelphia, the group is a nonpartisan, completely volunteer-based organization that advocates for policy related to transit, land use and public space in the city.
Will Tung, an organizer with 5th Square, got involved with the group about three years ago.
“We advocate for a livable city, and livable meaning planning wise,” said Tung. “And, livable by our standards is one where there’s basically less cars. So, more transit, more walkability and more bike lanes. We would love to see a city that actually looks like a city as opposed to a suburb.”
5th Square meets on the second Thursday of every month, and each meeting usually entails a speaker and a specific theme. For September, author Lily Bernheimer spoke about her book, The Shaping of Us, which focuses on the issue of public space.
In October, the theme was accessibility and affordability of Philadelphia public transit. Group leaders asked members to attend a hearing on Oct. 16 regarding City Council Bill No. 160710, introduced by Councilmember Jannie Blackwell.
5th Square is firmly against the legislation, which would increase the minimum parking requirements for new housing projects, which ended up being held at the Oct. 16 city council subcommittee meeting.
Later, Working Families Party candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke and independents Joe Cox and Sherrie Cohen stopped by the monthly meetup. The candidates each gave a speech before answering questions, most related to urban or environmental issues, from the members.
Chris Mejia-Smith is an active volunteer with 5th Square and passionate about urban issues like land use.
“We have a unique opportunity to change the partisan dynamic of city council, so I think it’s great that we have some third parties that are interested in stepping up and trying to join city council that have viable candidacies,” said Mejia-Smith. “I think it’s good to have them come out and make their pitch and appeal to us as to why they should be on the city council.”
In between speakers, members mingled, either discussing issues important to them or just getting to know each other. Buffalo Billiards provided the group with happy hour specials, so members hung out or played pool while waiting on the speakers.
Stephanie Davis discovered the organization through a petition campaign a few years ago and is now the head of the Organizing and Elections Committee.
“I think what 5th Square focuses on circles around the built environment and better transit policy,” said Davis. “I think that the stuff that we work on stands to help the most Philadelphians.”
Already, the group has endorsed two city council candidates in November’s election: at-large candidate Helen Gym and Third District candidate Jamie Gauthier. 5th Square made four other endorsements in the primary, but those candidates lost their races.
Also related to the upcoming election, 5th Square produced a candidate questionnaire that any candidate, regardless of party affiliation, could answer. Questions focus on three main categories: streets, transportation, and land use.
A total of ten candidates — five Democrats, two Republicans, two Working Families Party and one independent — participated, and their answers are public at 5th Square’s Election Center.
Although the organization did not promise any additional endorsements, between 20 and 30 members came out to the meeting on Oct. 10 to see what the non-major party candidates had to say about the issues important to them.
Brooks and O’Rourke, who share a progressive Working Families Party platform, presented together and spoke about the importance of transit affordability, additional bus lanes and environmental justice. Brooks voiced support for the Green New Deal but questioned what that policy specifically meant in Philadelphia.
Tung was impressed with Brooks’ answers to the group’s questionnaire and said she even adjusted parts of her platform to align with the group’s issues. During her speech, Brooks thanked the group for the questionnaire and said it brought up issues she had not thought about in-depth before.
5th Square announced approximately two weeks after the meeting that the group has formally endorsed Brooks for city council at-large. Brooks is the only additional endorsement to come out of the October meeting.
Cox, who is running as a progressive independent, talked about the importance of LGBTQ+ representation and answered questions about transit and accessibility. Cohen, who dropped out of the Democratic primary due to controversy, addressed the issue regarding her former campaign manager and explained why her decision to rejoin the race.
In the coming weeks before the election, 5th Square will continue to activate its members through canvassing efforts, depending on what endorsed candidates believe would help them the most.
Davis anticipates land use issues will arise in the next city council term.
“With the five at-large spots that you can vote for, we hope to make sure that as many as possible are champions of these causes that have to do with the built environment,” said Davis.
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