PlanPhilly: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and PlanPhilly. We focus primarily on urbanism issues – the built environment and transportation. That being said, the first couple of questions will be a little more about who you are. Unlike the Democrats, most of whom have been around for ages, you’re relatively new to Philadelphia, is that right?
Melissa Murray Baily: Yes.
PP: Until earlier this year, you were a Democrat. Why the switch?
MMB: Well, y’know, before you actually try to seek political office, it doesn’t really matter what party you’re in, right? You can be open-minded and you can always vote for the best candidate. But then when you are deciding to seek political office, it’s really important for you to make sure you have the political party right.
As I looked at the Democratic Party in Philadelphia and what that stood for, here in the city, it wasn’t really aligned with my values. And so I looked at the Republican Party and started to get to know several Republicans within the city, and determined that was the best alignment for my bid for mayor.
PP: You just emphasized, there, “in the city.”
PP: Does that mean that you’ll be supporting the Democratic candidate against [Senator Pat] Toomey or voting for Hillary Clinton/whoever in the upcoming Presidential election? Like, most candidates brag about bullet voting.
MMB: I do not bullet vote. And I will not become a bullet voter. I will continue to evaluate who the best candidates are and make the decisions based on that. I think that the Republican Party in the city is very different from the political party nationally. And so I’ll continue to have the values that I’ve always have had, and to make sure I’m voting for the person that best represents that. And that’s the process whether state or federal election.
PP: [staring at my phone] I swear I’m looking up a question here.
MMB: [Laughing] It’s ok. I’ve been taking notes in meetings on my phone, and I’ve been meeting with some older people, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t think I was taking notes, they thought I was completely texting during my meeting, so now I have to say “I’m taking notes right here, It’ll sync up with my computer.” So, yeah, its totally fine.
PP: So you work for Universum, a Sweden-based brand management consultancy that focuses on employee recruitment, right?
PP: And you’re heading up the Americas division. The website, the Universum website, says you’re based in New York. But you live here. Why?
PP: Do you commute? Telecommute?
MMB:I go to New York twice a week and work from home or some other part of the Western Hemisphere the rest of the time. I got recruited to work at that company, based in New York. And a lot of people say, oh, moving to New York is kind of the dream, right? But as we evaluated what we wanted to do, I really liked the job and the opportunity and the company, but we really wanted to be in Philly. So when they offered me the job, I said “I’d love to take it, but, I need to stay living in Philadelphia.”
And so we worked it out so I could be remote and go to the office twice a week.
But I think its representative of a lot of Philadelphians. On the Amtrak platform, there are people who have been for thirteen years, for every single day, going from Philadelphia to New York. I think Philadelphia offers a style of living that is both urban and neighborhood. So, Instead of living in New York City, you’re commuting from one of the suburbs. People, y’know, commute from Philadelphia to New York.
PP: So, Philadelphia is doing its own recruiting these days, to new businesses new residents, also trying to retain the people that are here today. What is Philadelphia’s brand to those people today, what should it be and how would you make that happen?
MMB: My expertise at work is market research on millennials, to help companies brand themselves to make them more attractive. Millennials are known to want to work for tech start ups, cool companies, but there are so many major companies in the US that have kind of an old brand, a more traditional brand. In order for GE, for example, to move forward, they need to still get the best people. So we figure out how do we marry the brand that we have with who millennials want to work for. That’s what we help them to do, to look inside themselves and say “What do we offer a GE that is innovative, that allows balance, that allows millennials to have an impact, and how do we make that apparent,” as opposed to stereotypes people might think of, being more of a traditional company.
I think of Philadelphia in the same way. Philadelphia has a long-standing history, but it also has a brand of being a little bit insular and closed off and not necessarily welcoming of new people coming in. You can see it all along the politics, right? Ever body starts every one of their introductions with “I was born and raised in Philadelphia.” Like that’s the number one credential, that’s most important. I think as long as we remain like that, it’s going to be hard for people to come, move in, feel welcome and stay.
So we really need to accept as a city that our path forward is embracing and appreciating the old, but also being really open to the new. Because, just like in companies, cities, when they have new ideas coming in, new people, new experiences, you get a diversity of thinking, which is only going to allow for better things to happen.
So, I think that the brand that we want to have going forward is a brand that is a destination for young people to come and start their careers. That means we need to have great mobility, we need to have great parks, we need to have great social life. But then, in order to get people to stay, you need to have great playgrounds and then great schools. Thinking about the evolution. And then activities for empty nesters to do as well.
It needs to be a more holistic welcoming brand for our city.
PP: We’ll get to the more PlanPhilly substance stuff now. The mayor doesn’t actually have a lot of power over city transportation issues. Most of our major roads, like Broad [Street], are actually controlled by PennDOT, SEPTA is a regional agency, you get two seats on the board out of fourteen, no appointments on the DRPA/PATCO board, city council needs to approve bike lanes – there’s just not a lot the mayor can do. But still, the mayor is the ultimate, buck stops here, office, and there are a number of major, potentially transformative projects in the city, like capping I-95, extending the Broad Street Line, bringing some sort of rapid transit to Roosevelt Boulevard. How would you as a mayor make those can actually happen?
MMB: I think that the role of mayor is really a role of leadership and setting a vision and plan for this city. That’s kind of one thing that, because there is so much deluded accountability and responsibility for things across the city – there are a lot of ideas floating around but no clear direction in who we want to be as a city and what we want to get done. So I think as mayor I think the first order of business is setting the vision for where the city is going to go, what goals are associated with that and then what things have to happen in order to accomplish those goals. Once that’s set, and set in collaboration with a lot of these groups, then everyone has a direction that they’re going on. They can choose to go in that direction or not go in that direction, but the absence of leadership and direction leaves a lot of people kind of floundering to figure out what are the most important things to actually get done.
PP: Continuing on transportation: Mike Nutter started the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities in 2008. What are your plans for it? Keep it? Get rid of it? Expand it, shrink it? Who is the sort of person you would have running that type of agency?
MMB: When I become the mayor, I want to make sure that we are prioritizing the most important priorities for this city. An example of that is education. Right now everyone is saying that it is the most important issue, but we don’t have any kind of demonstrated leadership that says that everything is going to go towards that. So I would make sure that we are evaluating our priorities and based on where transportation fits in those priorities, we would make the necessary investment in that.
As I look at leaders for the city, it needs to be a balance of people who have had experience in the city but also people that have had experiences in other cities where they have been able to be successful. Sometimes when you have an entire group of people that have been in the city and doing the same thing for a long amount of time, they’re actually blinded by what you’ve been doing and what the barriers to do that are. Sometimes you need to have people in with fresh perspective, who say “I’ve seen this work somewhere else. I understand all the things that could make it not work, but I’ve seen it work.” And I think we need more people in city roles that have seen things work and have been part of transformation, so we can really believe that we can be different and we can be better.
PP: So, I don’t think that I have ever read a good story about the Department of Licenses and Inspections. If there weren’t a child in the room, I would use curses to describe how terrible its run. What’s the problem with L&I and how do you fix it?
MMB: Yeah, I was talking with someone on affordable housing yesterday. I was in there office and they were using all the expletives possible.
One of the things they were most angry about was the fact that there was no transparency into what’s happening. So when you report something, or you –
[Cricket, Bailey’s daughter, finishes her cereal and walks over]
Cricket: Mommy, what’s transparency mean?
MMB: Transparency means you that you let people know what’s going on.
Cricket: What does transformative mean?
MMB: We can talk about vocabulary later.
Sean Bailey [Bailey’s husband]: Cricket, time to brush your teeth.
MMB: People don’t know what’s happening. He was using the example of the water department. When he was building an affordable housing community, the water department was letting him know all along the way what was happening. So…
[Cricket isn’t too happy about brushing her teeth and is complaining as children are wont to do.]
MMB: Cricket, c’mon. Thanks.
[Cricket stops, heads upstairs.]
MMB: So they knew what was happening and it wasn’t as frustrating. So I think there is one thing about transparency. I think there is another thing about technology and modernization. There are so many forms and so much administration that prevents people from doing things that actually need to get done, which is actually inspecting and making sure that things are safe. And I think that finally, there is no….
There is no call of action that things need to get done. In my job, when we have a back up of things – I mean, I couldn’t imagine having a 6 month back up at work – but if we had a back up of any kind, we would pull several all-nighters and get it done. And for some reason, in a lot of our government departments, there’s not that urgency or responsibility that says “we have a responsibility in our jobs, we are going to do what its going to take to get done.”
And I think that L&I is an example of that where buildings are falling, people are getting killed, yet the urgency is still not there to figure out how to get it done. We can have excuses all around: “we don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough resources.” But that is not acceptable in a corporate environment, to say you can’t get something done because of limitations. You need to relook at how you’re getting it done and figure out a way to make sure that buildings aren’t falling and killing people.
PP: But in a corporate environment, you’re also not dealing with union contracts that state very explicitly that work is from 9 to 5 and anything over you’re getting paid time and a half, and the [city] budget being the budget, what it is, does that mean you need to take on the unions to fix that? Or is there something else?
MMB: Yeah, well, I think that is a whole other conversation for another day. But for most of the city departments we need to look at how we are going to make some radical changes so that we don’t have these excuses circling around why we can’t be successful as a city.
PP: So a lot of the credit for growth has gone to millennials, young professionals and young families, like yourself. But immigrants probably deserve as much credit. When you look at the data, they are one of the huge drivers of growth in the city over the last couple of years. How would you work to keep Philadelphia as a destination for new Americans and work to make it even more inviting?
[Cricket comes running in, whispers something to Melissa]
MMB: [to Cricket] Yes. [Puts Cricket on her lap]
MMB: We talked a little bit about some of the things we need to do to make it more inviting. I think that jobs is going to be either the stimulus for the city or continue to take us down a really bad road. There are twelve percent of Philadelphians, I believe, who live in the extreme poverty, I think that’s making less than ten thousand a year. That shows us that we need to do more to get people working. That means we need to attract jobs to the city across the entire spectrum. We also need to recognize that college is not the path for everyone and even finishing high school is not the path for everyone. So we need to make sure in education, the number one priority in education is making people employable.
I think that is for people with English as a second language, I think that’s for people who just don’t have the interest or the aptitude for going to college. When we talked about attracting jobs to the city, a lot of times we’re talking about white-collar jobs. I think white-collar jobs are really important, but also, as we think about, y’know, farming, I think half the people that work in the farming industry and the food industry in Philadelphia are immigrants. So to be able to continue to have farming, manufacturing, call centers, and making sure that we have employability as one of our top target areas that we’re focused on, we’ll not only make Philadelphia continue to be friendly for immigrants, but also really address sour extreme poverty levels.
PP: Everyone knows that our schools are struggling. Education, though, isn’t really PlanPhilly’s bailiwick, but real estate taxes are. City council recently passed a resolution to look at the idea of PILOTs – Payments in lieu of taxes – which would encourage some of the larger nonprofit institutions in the city, such as Penn, Temple, Jefferson, the other hospitals, the museums too, which don’t pay real estate taxes right now, to encourage them to make annual contributions to the school district. What are your thoughts on that?
MMB: I think that if we could get them to do that, it would be great. And I think that they should want to do it. I think that we can’t plan our future based on that, because we can’t really make them do it. So I think we should try for it and have a plan for it, but we also should be solving for it through things that are within our control.
I think that we could explore the partnerships, as in Penn Alexander is a great example of the school having a partnership from Penn and really doing great things with that. So I think we could establish something that is more clear on what we would like them to do. We can say that we want them to make payment or that we want services, but what exactly do we mean by that? And where would it be the most helpful? Is it creating partner schools like Penn Alexander, or is just the money that we want? So I think we would have to look at that, and have to establish a program that would be very directive on what we would want and where we would want the resources to be going. But then at the same time, we cannot be dependent on that. We need to solve this school-funding crisis within means that can be guaranteed.
PP: What are you thoughts on the ten-year tax abatement for new construction in Philadelphia?
MMB: I think that the ten-year tax abatement has been really good for parts of Philadelphia and I think that we should continue to give people incentives to develop, especially in neighborhoods where we need people to go in. If we look at the land bank and all the vacant, blighted properties that we have, it would be great if we got young people, or older people, to make investment sin those properties and help to bring this city back. So I think we should re-look at the tax abatement, and maybe there are some creative things we can do with it to also help some of our housing challenges.
One of the things I mentioned a couple weeks ago is the idea for multi-family units. If we required some percentage of them to be affordable housing units in order to qualify for the ten-year tax abatement. So I think there are more things we could do to help us bring the development in the city, and not just have blanket ten-year tax abatement but some other things that go along with it.
PP: So far, we’ve usually had the candidates have some staffer grab them at around this point and tell them they have to go.
MMB: Usually people probably don’t have their daughter asking vocabulary questions at the same time, either.
PP: So far, no. It’s been a little different….
Housing the homeless. Would you support a housing first model like that used in Salt Lake City, Seattle, Denver, Boston, where, instead of… the basic idea is give homeless people homes first, services after, as opposed to the ad hoc sort of shelter system that we have today.
MMB: We have a major problem with housing. I think there are a hundred thousand people on the waiting list for housing, and only a vision for creating six thousand. So while I think that is a great idea and a great philosophy, I don’t think that we have the ability to do that right now. So I think first we need to look at things like, how do we get people who qualify for the homes that we have in the homes?
There is a veteran development that has just been created. The developer built it, it is built, now it’s sitting empty. The reason it’s sitting empty is that there are so many different stage gates that you have to go through in order to get into that housing. So you go and get one done and you’re waiting for another sign off to happen. In the meantime the original sign off is expiring.
For the housing that we have, we have to make it much easier and quick to get into. I think that is first and foremost. And I think we need to have a plan that allows us to have a vision and a strategy on how we get the number of houses that we need to even think about a home-first strategy.
PP: One last question.
Cricket: Mommy, can you please take me to school tomorrow?
MMB: No, I can’t take you to school tomorrow. I’m almost finished, honey.
MMB: I’m almost finished. I will take you school today.
Cricket: And Thursday?
MMB: I don’t know yet.
PP: Weird, I was going to ask you the exact same question: are you going to take me to school tomorrow?
Cricket [laughs, mainly because Mommy is laughing.]
PP: So I’ve been to a handful of the forums. You’ve given some of the better answers to some of the questions. You’re articulate, you’re personable, you’re more polished than half the candidates up there. Why are you running? You are too smart to know – to not know how stacked the odds are against you. Why are you running, and are you running to raise your profile for some other race or venture?
MMB: Well, I appreciate the compliments. I appreciate that.
The only reason I’m running is because I think I have what it takes to bring real change to city government in Philadelphia. That is the only reason. I don’t have some other aspirations politically. I have a great job, and I’m on the path to be a CEO of a global company, which this is definitely putting into jeopardy. I know what the odds are.
But I do believe that there are enough people in Philadelphia who are tired of asking the same questions every election. If I look at the questions that were asked four years ago, and eight years ago, and twelve years ago, they are very similar to the questions being asked now. So at some point of time, and I hope its this election, the people of Philadelphia will say, if we truly want things to be different, then we will need to look to someone different to be able to get us there.
If we keep having the same thing, we’re going to keep getting the same thing. And that’s the definition of insanity. And I am to a fault a glass half full, optimistic person. So I’m doing this for no other reason than to hope that the city can get better and that the people in the city want it to be better.
Now if they don’t want it to be different or better, then I’m not the right choice. I’m going to come in with a totally different perspective. I’m going to look at things with a different lens. I’m not going to know all the things that have been done before, so I’m not going to be limited by that. So that’s really it. I’m a leader, I take on really difficult things. For the past, maybe eight years now, I’ve been taking on different roles in different companies that are the hardest role in the company, because I really think I have the ability to make changes and to make it better – and I’ve been able to show that in my job, building things, turning things around, coming from an outsider perspective and becoming knowledgeable. Y’know, that’s the thing: because I’m new, I’m learning and I’m listening.
I don’t assume that I know things. So when, in all this process, I’m going to community meetings and I’m listening more than I’m talking, and I’m asking questions and I’m inquisitive about why don’t politicians come to your neighborhood. Why have they let the neighborhood get this way? What are these things so I can really gather the information, so I can collect it all, then stack it together and then figure out what do we do in order to make it different.
PP: Thank you for taking the time on what I imagine is a very busy day.
MMB: Thank you for coming here. As much as I can be around when she’s around, even if I’m still working and doing stuff, it’s still better.