Adrian Rivera-Reyes represents a lot of potential firsts for the Philadelphia City Council. If elected, he’d be the first out gay person elected to be a council member, as well as the first scientist, and one of the first millennials to join, as well.
Rivera-Reyes was served a dose of luck on his way to election day, which is May 21st. Ballot order for city elections is determined randomly and in the ceremony to determine order, Rivera-Reyes got first spot on the ballot, making him statistically more likely to win. He spoke to Out about his plans for a Green New Deal for Philadelphia as well as how he plans to help those who are most vulnerable as Philadelphia undergoes rapid gentrification.
Adrian, what are the issues that drove you to run for city council?
I always say there are two major things. It comes down to the issues, of course, but something that’s very important to me is the diversity and representation side of things. We have a city where 65% of the population is under 44 and we have no one, not a single millennial on the council. I’m also a Ph.D. scientist and we don’t have a scientist. In a city with a thriving LGBTQ+ community, there’s no one LGBTQ+ on the city council. In a city that's 15% Latinx, there are no Latinx council members.
I come from a working class family — I grew up with a lot of struggle, my parents had multiple struggles to make ends meet. This campaign about showing others, especially children in the city, that when we have a government that invests in our communities in the city, we can succeed. We don’t need a “voice for the voiceless.” We should be speaking and leading for our communities.
What are the one or two issues that are most near and dear to you?
The cornerstone of my campaign is a municipal Green New Deal for Philadelphia. We’re at a crossroads with what’s happening with our planet with climate change. It’s important that cities like Philadelphia lead the way. We know our government isn’t going to do anything anytime soon. We have the power to change our economy to a green economy that will create good paying jobs for Philadelphians. We have a 26% poverty rate, the largest among U.S. major cities. We have to be very mindful in how we transition our economy and that we're thinking about job creation and making sure we’re implementing policies that will battle climate change.
And of course the Green New Deal touches on all other parts of my platform, like updating our public school building. It touches on affordable housing and how we build and rebuild affordable housing units, economic justice for people like creating a public bank, and also the healthcare component. Right now, we have an extravagantly high asthma rate, especially among Black children. That’s a testament to the poor air quality we have, but also the buildings we live in and the buildings we send our kids in to go to school.
You spoke before about your background in science. What do you think that kind of background would bring to your work on the council?
I’m a scientist. My Ph.D. is in cancer biology and cancer research. What we do there is answer one of the toughest questions we’ve known, which is, “How do we cure cancer?” It’s our job to answer that question with evidence. I want to bring that evidence-based mentality to policy. I want to make sure we look at the data and the input from the communities. Right now our current council members want to push for a liquid and natural gas plan in Southwest Philly, and the community doesn’t want it, and gas isn’t green energy. It goes against science — facts and data — and it goes against input from the community.
I’m also a democratic socialist, so it would be a very different voice from what we have on city council. I would go in with the platform of empowering our communities, focusing on the marginalized and the poor and crafting policies that aren’t for corporations, but for the people. It’s always about people over money. That connects to the Green New Deal.
Philadelphia in the past has had an issue with racism in its gay community, especially after the release of the video with the owner of the bar iCandy using racial slurs against the bar’s Black patrons. Are there ways that you want to work for Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ community specifically?
We really need a comprehensive approach to dealing with racism, a lot of which is institutionalized. Since that happened, we’ve processed some legislation about sensitivity training for business owners, especially in the gay community, but it’s still evident, and you can see it. I myself am a gay, brown man. We really need to work to focus on issues of inclusion and work to make sure our community is being inclusive amongst ourselves. From an education perspective, we need to teach children about LGBTQ+ inclusion from a curriculum side of things. But also the healthcare aspect of it. In our city, about 33% of our homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+. So we really need to be very aggressive and work so that our community and children from our community aren’t being thrown into this cycle of poverty.
You’re going to be at the top of the ballot come election day. What was it like to draw that spot?
Yeah, that was an interesting day. It seems so far away, too. It was just two months ago, but you know that changed the campaign. It allowed for us to get some more visibility and you know from the very beginning, this campaign was about fighting for visibility. Walking into this space being new to the political landscape in Philly and also again coming from communities that generally don’t have wealth, it was hard. A lot of people weren't willing to bet on me and the first ballot position helped us solidify some support but allowed us to run a really good and competitive race, and also to fight for what needs to be done in this city.
Obviously, Philadelphia is changing a lot. What does it mean for you to serve on the city council at a time when the city is going through a rapid gentrification process?
That’s a really big issue — the gentrification and displacement of communities, which has happened because of the policies that we’ve put in place that are for real estate developers and not the people. It is inconceivable that we are displacing long term homeowners, especially communities of color and working class communities. We really need to craft policy that helps long term homeowners stay in their homes. We have a high eviction rate and most of these evictions are single mothers of color. We really need to change the focus. That’s why we need to elect new people to council, because that hasn't been happening. And so to me, that is about safeguarding our neighborhoods, improving our neighborhoods without displacing and gentrifying. That's why affordable housing is a part of my platform, but also economic justice with creating an economy that has to be a green economy.