Young voters using PACs for political engagement


2015 could go down as the year that Philadelphia’s Millennials woke from their civic slumber to participate in local campaigns for City Council and steer political debate towards topics that concern them most. Maybe. Philly’s had an abysmal young voter turnout for local and state races in the past, with the exception of the galvanizing 2008 election of President Barack Obama. With a much-hyped mayoral and Councilmanic primary coming next month, a few local political action committees (PACs) are revving up the volunteer and donation efforts to compel candidates to care about the issues of particular concern to Philadelphians between the ages of 18 and 35.

The 5th Square, a reference to City Hall, is a December-founded PAC with a distinctly urbanist set of interests. Its website ( is where voters can find platforms and opportunities to donate and volunteer, and it soon will have candidate score cards and endorsements. Of the nearly dozen platforms overseers have set forward, the big ones could be boiled down to bike lanes and protected bike lanes, SEPTA, parking, street sweeping, trash, parks, open data and fair governance and a Vision Zero plan adoption.

The last one’s an important one to Geoff Kees Thompson, a resident of the 2200 block of Kimball Street and 5th Square’s chairman. As the platform says, “between 2008 and ’12, Philadelphia witnessed 8,690 crashing involving 9,051 pedestrians,” causing 376 major injuries and 158 deaths. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia included the now-international concept of aspiring to zero crashes in its Safer Streets report and City Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced a resolution to call for hearings for a Vision Zero plan in December.

“We are being much more targeted in the issues that we’re going after. The success that we’ve had is getting candidates to focus on our issues and one of those issues is Vision Zero,” Thompson, also the founder of a civic blog This Old City, said.

In fact, the success of the blog and readers spurring him and his team to act is the main motivator behind 5th Square’s founding.

“You have some great ideas, but what are you doing with them?” he said followers asked.

They’ve raised nearly $15,000 in roughly two months through about 100 small donors.

“We have two missions at The 5th Square: our first is to endorse candidates that support our issues, and the second goal is voter education on issues,” Thompson said.

Which issues?

“We are a pro-Urbanist PAC, which means we support candidates that support progressive zoning land use, transportation, public space, better park funding and governance reform,” he explained.

He said their oldest board member is in their 40s with their youngest at 23, Southwark School, 1835 S. Ninth St, School Partnerships Coordinator and resident of the 1700 block of South 13th Street, Lily Goodspeed.

“What I love about 5th Square is that it’s community-centered and -oriented, we’re building on things in our everyday lives that matter, the things that we tend to just accept without questions” advisory board member Karenina Wollf, who is a a cycling advocate and family practice and immigration attorney practicing out of 1815 E. Passyunk Ave., and a daughter to a Mexican mother who’s retiring at 25h and Christian streets, said.

Wolff has helped organize a South Philly Latino Business Organization and recruits immigrants into civic meetings that include information sessions about civic stuff like zoning.

It’s been her calling to speak for the underrepresented, adding “you feel like you’re this ignored underdog, [but] knowing that there are people who want to help you improve and grow, it’s heartwarming. So many people are invested in each others’ success.”

According to Census reports, 70 percent of Philadelphia voters 18 to 24-year-old are inactive, including voters not registered. Forty-one percent of voters aged 25 to 34 are dormant, too.

While Millennial engagement is part of 5th Square’s modus operandi, it is the explicit goal of Philly Set Go, another PAC whose chairwoman, Gabriela Gauracao, spoke from George Washington University, where she’s studying Security Policy.

“We came together with the idea to galvanize Millennial participation in local elements, which are arguably the most important of our Philly life,” the 27-year-old said, adding the average age for their board is 29.

They’ve raised about $7,000 primarily through their 400-strong listserv, calling for attention to the things important to Millennials: “job growth, quality of life, and education.”

“Looking at numbers of Millennials that are in Philadelphia or have moved here in the last two years and how often officials point to the growth of Millennials here,” you’d think public servants would take heed, Guaracao argued. “However, these politicians aren’t politicians to this age group once they’re elected,” she added, suggesting the Millennial rhetoric from current races is, frankly, “lip service.”

Philadelphia 3.0 splits the difference between 5th Square and Philly Set Go – it’s motivating, sponsoring and encouraging young Philadelphians to take ward committee seats, civic association leadership positions, and naturally, Council seats. TJ Hurst, the 30-year-old PAC’s deputy director and a resident of the 2000 block of Christian Street., said 3.0 signifies a reboot in the city’s history.

“There’ve only been a couple times where there’s been new leadership, and we kind of think it’s time to encourage more people to run,” Hurst explained. “The crux of it is we want to get more people involved in the political process and support independent-minded politicians.” They’ve logged 600 new voter registrants by canvassing in emerging neighborhoods of South Philly: on East Passyunk Avenue and in the Italian Market and Bella Vista.

They’ve already endorsed six City Council candidates: Tom Wyatt, D (At-large), Derek Green, D (At-large), Isaiah Thomas, D (At-large), Paul Steinke, D (At-large), 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez for re-election, D, and Terry Tracy, R (At-large).

Thompson encourages Philadelphians of all neighborhoods and ages to visit their site throughout the campaign process for impending endorsements and candidate assessments and noted it might be time for some new (and young) blood in City Hall.

“Our average term for City Council candidates is 15 years, which is much higher than the national average,” he said, adding even his social media feed’s much more full of Hillary Clinton than any mayoral or Council candidate.

“I see a ton of interest in Hillary, but very few people my age are talking about the mayoral race and even less people talking about City Council. We want to make sure that people understand how much power City Council has,” Thompson said.

He believes we could see great changes this time next year if younger voters mobilize.

“We believe that if just a couple more percentage points could turn out for the primary, we could see a totally different city.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.