Teacher runs for city commissioner, backed by team of educators
City commissioner candidate Luigi Borda has taught in public and Catholic schools all over the city.
Borda walks fast, and he talks faster. An immigrant from southern Italy, he became a U.S. citizen in order to cast his first vote after graduating from Central High School. Now he’s running for one of two Democratic seats for city commissioner in Philadelphia.
The city commissioners’ office runs Philadelphia’s elections, and one of its duties is to increase voter turnout. Borda aims to do that both in general elections and in primaries and also to bring back civics class for teenagers.
He’s always believed in the importance of voting, but his real political awakening came as an activist fighting to get more funding for Philadelphia’s schools. A proud member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a building representative (shop steward) for Masterman, where he teaches, Borda ran 100 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg in 2011 to protest massive cuts by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. And he’s been a public education activist ever since.
“We’re never going to get our fair share of education funding from Harrisburg unless we vote,” Borda said.
Borda points to a map of Philadelphia’s wards and committees that is plastered on the side of a campaign truck, along with his name. He says that most residents don’t even know about this party infrastructure. But he thinks that it can be used to dramatically increase voter turnout, just as he did as a committee person in his own South Philly ward.
During the 2016 election, Borda and a group of teachers helped recruit candidates to run for committee seats where they live. A committee person is the first point of contact for the everyday voter. But, as they discovered, many voters have never heard from their committee people. Some couldn’t tell you what a committee person is.
So the teachers recruited educators of all stripes to run for committee seats, and more than 100 of them won, in 64 of the city’s 69 wards. They went to work increasing turnout in their divisions. Borda’s division had a 69 percent voter turnout in the 2018 midterms shortly after he was elected, compared to 49 percent in the 2014 midterms.
“The climate today in politics has more people active, and that’s wonderful,” Borda said. “But we need a real plan for the commissioner’s office to make Philly the number one county in Pennsylvania and the number one big city in voter turnout.
“And that will get the attention of Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. They might not like us, but they will have to deal with us.”
Borda’s head is full of numbers. In the 2016 presidential election, more than two million Pennsylvanians cast their votes. Donald Trump won the state by just 44,000 votes. But more than 300,000 registered voters in Philadelphia did not vote at all that year.
“Those statistics made me feel like I have to do more,” he said. “I think the commissioner’s office in Philadelphia is positioned perfectly for that, and my team has a plan to do it.”
Borda wants his team of teachers to assess turnout in every ward and committee division in Philadelphia.
“We want to reward and replicate the work of wards and committee people who are doing well,” Borda said. “We also want to go to the wards that have challenges and find out what we can do to help.”
Borda’s strategy is simple. Face-to-face conversations with neighbors matter. Communication is key — even if it’s just to distribute flyers in the neighborhood in advance of a vote. Every little act counts. Simple door knocking and handing out flyers to neighbors boosted turnout in his division. His team of committee people had similar stories, with just hours of volunteer work leading to great improvements in turnout.
“I got the [voter] lists, talked to people – just reached out. I put a simple flyer in each voter’s door on Election Day, starting at 5 a.m., that said ‘please come vote today’ and it had my name,” Borda said. “You would be surprised how many people came to vote and then told me, ‘Hey Lou, I got your note this morning!’ Two hours of my time increased voter turnout in my division.”
The truck that Borda drives with his campaign advertised on its sides is not just for show. It’s also his mobile campaign office, with a bathroom and a small conference room inside. And he won’t just use it for the campaign.
“With our ‘Vote Borda mobile,’ we want to have a tour of every ward in the city where we want to listen,” Borda said. “Then we want to teach. Then we want to do the work to get that message out.”
The city commissioners’ office has a history of controversy. Anthony Clark, one of the two current Democratic commissioners, is not seeking reelection after the media reported that he rarely showed up to his own City Hall office, phoned in from Egypt to one city commissioners’ meeting, and had not himself voted in years.
The controversy led the Republican commissioner to vote for the other Democrat, Lisa Deeley, to replace Clark as chair of the three-person board. But Clark will still serve out his current term. After he won his last reelection, but before the controversy, Clark signed up for the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) – a pension that will eventually award him a lump-sum payment of $495,000, but only if he finishes serving his term.
Deeley is backed by the city’s Democratic Party. She has worked as a staffer for various local Democratic politicians, most recently as City Councilman Bobby Henon’s director of community outreach.
Although voter turnout was abnormally high in 2018’s midterm elections, turnout in the city’s primaries last year did not improve from the previous primaries. It was just 17 percent – even lower than the state average of 18 percent.
“In a city where seven out of eight registered voters are Democrats, the primary is the election,” Borda said. “Our team aims to increase voter turnout in every primary — permanently.”
Borda aims to instill the importance of participating in civic life in future voters. He calls it Civics 101.
Borda wants the commissioners’ office to create the civics class as an extracurricular activity at the city’s high schools. And he’s been shopping the idea around City Council. So far, seven Council members have agreed to make an appearance and co-teach the class at a local high school alongside a social studies teacher. They are Mark Squilla, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Derek Green, Curtis Jones, Jannie Blackwell, Kenyatta Johnson, and Al Taubenberger. Borda said he had not yet asked every Council member.
Borda, a social studies teacher who now teaches geography at Masterman, has designed a curriculum of 10 lessons that cover the entire political system, starting with the functions of committee people and wards, leading all the way up to Congress and the presidency.
“It’s my goal that every student who graduates from high school in Philadelphia – any high school – will get a certificate and share those 10 lessons with family and friends,” he said. “We need to start young and make it a habit. And we need to get into every ward and every community with that message.”