Candidates for Philadelphia’s 2nd Councilmanic District primary election Lauren Vidas and incumbent Kenyatta Johnson took to the Tenth Presbyerian Church on Spruce Street in Center City Wednesday evening for a debate hosted by the Center City Residents Association. The debate was moderated by former CCRA president Jeff Braff. At the debate, both Vidas and Johnson sparred over a variety of city issues such as the soda tax, the city tax abatement and term limits. There was no opportunity for either candidate to offer rebuttals, so the debate event functioned essentially as a forum rather than a debate. Questions from the audience were also submitted via notecards to Brown, who picked several throughout the event to ask the candidates.
Despite being opposed to the tax prior to its implementation in part due to its regressive nature, Vidas said that she would not vote to repeal it.
“What I will do is make sure that every single cent that is collected from that tax goes to the programs that they are intended to go to,” she said. “I will make sure that it doesn’t become another City Council slush fund, that the money that’s collected from the sugar and sweetened beverage tax goes to pre-K, goes to community schools and goes to Rebuild.”
Johnson, who is a vigorous supporter of the tax, also said he would not vote to repeal the tax.
“I’ve been in City Council for roughly eight years and there is no other money to pay for primarily poor people…primarily young people who are coming from poor neighborhoods,” he said. He attributed much of the negativity toward the soda tax to lobbying from “big soda corporations.”
“Don’t be bamboozled,” he said, “[by] big soda corporations when their sole bottom line is about making a profit, not about the children. I’m always going to stand on behalf of the children.”
Real estate tax abatement program
Both Vidas and Johnson agreed that the tax abatement program needs to be reformed.
“I have long-term residents who feel like the tax incentive is immoral because as you see development taking place in areas such as Point Breeze and [as] the neighborhood [gentrifies], people feel that it’s unfair that new residents get a 10-year tax abatement and the development is on their backs,” Johnson said. He would support a bill introduced by Helen Gym that makes sure proceeds from reforming the tax abatement would go toward the School District of Philadelphia.
Vidas called the policy “far too broad a policy that is taking too much money away from our schools,” she said. “ I wouldn’t stop with the tax abatement, though. I think the city needs to take a look at every single tax incentive, tax credit it has on the books…We should get rid of any tax incentive program and abatement program that’s not earning the city more revenue than it’s giving away. We need $170 million in repairs for our school facilities. Our libraries and recreation centers are tremendously understaffed. We cannot leave a cent on the table.”
An audience question asked the candidates about what they feel is the “single most effective” thing they support to reduce poverty in Philadelphia. Vidas responded by talking about the city’s need to create a “world-class education system.”
“We need to start investing in our education system more aggressively,” she said. “We often think of economic development in the city as the number of planes in the sky, and what we need to start thinking about is the quality of brains in our classroom. A good education with a well-paying job leads to an ability to put food on your table for your family, so I think it needs to start with education.”
Alternatively, Johnson talked about raising wages for working-class people and his experience taking on American Airlines to make sure the company’s workers at Philadelphia International Airport receive $15 an hour while working.
“I would start by increasing the wages that individuals receive,” said Johnson. “Make sure that everyone has a living wage, make sure that a young lady or a young man doesn’t have to decide to pay for childcare as opposed to paying for their real estate taxes and that all starts with getting everyone a living wage and a pay raise and so I’m proud of that particular initiative that I focused on, but most importantly just making sure that we raise wages and produce jobs.”
One of a handful of topics the candidates had a stark disagreement on was term limits. Johnson, who’s currently running for his third term, said he was against term limits and would not support a bill that would create a ballot question asking whether the Home Rule Charter should be amended to provide that Council members shall not be eligible to serve for more than three terms in office.
“I think people underestimate how intelligent the voters are,” he said. “When it’s time for you to go, the voters will make it loud and clear that you’re not doing your job and you need not be in office anymore. So I think the voters are the best people to make the decision on who should still be in office or not.”
Vidas, who responded after Johnson, offered her dissent.
“The councilman and I agree that the voters should be allowed to make the decision, which is why it’s a charter change question that will be put on the ballot for the voters to vote on,” she said. “I believe in term limits.”
Vidas went further, saying that the city also needs campaign finance reform. She said it’s difficult for candidates who may be, say, a schoolteacher, to take on incumbent candidates “who have spent four years fundraising” and have “hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank.”
Toward the end of the debate, Brown selected an audience question that asked about the candidates’ opinions on the pros and cons of councilmanic prerogative and whether they were for or against it. Vidas slammed the concept, which she believes creates a “pay-to-play” culture.
“I think when we look at councilmanic prerogative and when we hear City Council members talk about councilmanic prerogative, we’re being presented with a false choice,” she said. “We’re being presented with this idea that you can only have community input if councilmanic prerogative exists, and that’s just simply not true. What I think we’ve seen with councilmanic prerogative – whether it’s city land sales, whether it’s zoning issues – it’s really created this culture of pay to play.”
Vidas proposed restricting donations from developers to district Council people as a solution to the problem.
“We have similar restrictions in contracting, but for some reason we don’t have these same restrictions when it comes to land sales and that’s just got to stop,” she said.
Johnson said he was supportive of councilmanic prerogative because it allows for increased community input. He cited examples in Bella Vista and Eastwick in which the community revolted against projects proposed by developers and were ultimately killed.
Additionally, he took exception to Vidas’s “pay to play” comment.
“I just honestly think it’s insulting when people think that just because a person donates to your campaign, there’s always going to be some type of quid-pro-quo,” he said.
The Philadelphia municipal primary is May 21.