“We Don’t Need You to Speak for Us. We Already Have a Voice”
Adrian Rivera-Reyes is a cancer biologist and democratic socialist running for Philadelphia’s city council today. In an interview, he talks about growing up in Puerto Rico under US colonialism, organizing a union with his coworkers at UPenn, and bringing activist pressure to city hall.
- Interview by
- Ronald Raju Joseph
Adrian Rivera-Reyes is running for Philadelphia city council at-large in the Democratic primary, which often functions as the de facto election in the strongly Democratic city. He is one of the more than twenty-eight candidates running for the at-large seats in the Democratic primary, five of whom with the most votes will run as Democratic nominees in the November election.
A native of Puerto Rico who came to Philadelphia to pursue a PhD in cancer biology, Rivera-Reyes is a Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member who is running on a left-wing platform targeting the crises of climate change, unaffordable housing, and inadequate funding for public education.
Rivera-Reyes sat down for an interview with Ronald Raju Joseph, a Philadelphia and BuxMont DSA organizer. The transcript has been edited and condensed.
Let’s begin with your story. Who are you?
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico in a working-class family. Like many working-class families, especially in Philadelphia and in the county, my story is the story of struggle. I grew up in a family where my parents had to take multiple jobs to make ends meet. Growing up, we struggled to afford a home. We, for a number of years, weren’t able to afford health insurance. My parents also struggled to send me and my brother to school.
So, it is pretty clear from my platform and story why I am a democratic socialist and why I know the importance of education, housing, and health care. That’s why I am fighting to make sure those three things are ensured as human rights and that we have local elected officials that are willing to fight for that. Then, as a scientist, a big part of my platform is a municipal Green New Deal for Philadelphia that combats climate change and transitions our economy to a green new economy.
Puerto Rico is a place where political power is really limited due to colonialism. There are all these injustices that are caused by the imperialism and colonialism imposed on the island for hundreds of years, first by Spain and now by the United States, that still plague the island and its economy. A lot of that was part of my upbringing, seeing these injustices and there being no real political process for us to get out of it. There is a lot of that in me, and that helps me bring the passion to fight injustice. And I get to Philly and it’s a “majority-minority” city and the largest poorest city in the country where racial inequality affects how government works, just like in Puerto Rico.
The tipping point for me when I decided to run was asking myself: “How come I grew up in Puerto Rico — in a place that is so limited in many ways and especially politically — and I still have enough resources and opportunities to get a good education here in Philadelphia while children like me growing in similar conditions in this city don’t have those opportunities? Why is our local government failing our children? Why is our local government failing our black and brown communities and our working-class communities?”
Could you describe your political work before your campaign for city council?
While I was doing my PhD in cancer biology at the University of Pennsylvania, I led the Penn Science Policy & Diplomacy Group and we focused on informing policy with science. We looked at science- and evidence-based processes to inform and create policy. Through that I started organizing in Philly with 314 Action, a national group based in Philly that endorses scientists running for office.
Through that group and while organizing for the grad student union that we tried forming at Penn, I met Molly Sheehan. who was then running in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s 5th congressional district. She became a friend and a mentor, and I volunteered as a policy analyst on her campaign. On that campaign, I did a lot of research on immigration and health care policy, especially on H1B visa programs and single payer health care, especially showing how the latter would be more cost-effective than our current private health insurance system.
Could you describe your experience as a labor organizer with the Graduate Employees Together University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP), the grad student union at Penn?
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was the major union helping us students to organize. I had my trainings and then had conversations with other students about GET-UP, workers’ rights, and their experiences, trying to persuade them to sign pledge cards. It was a lot of outreach work, especially reaching out to Spanish-speaking students among whom fears were especially real, due to possible repercussions from going against the University of Pennsylvania. So I did a lot of that outreach in Spanish and helped to expand GET-UP to student communities that might have been more hesitant.
Now you are running for city council at-large in Philadelphia. Why did you decide to run for local office? How do you see advancing democratic-socialist priorities at a municipal level if you are elected?
Philly has given me so much. This is where I came out of the closet. I see myself having a family here one day and I really want to contribute to Philadelphia. I also see a lot of people who, like myself, haven’t had our voices heard in our political process and with our elected officials.
And there is a lot we can do at the local level. People tend to focus a lot on the national level, but our city has a huge poverty problem and a really big racial divide. Twenty-six percent of the population in Philly lives below the poverty line and most of those families are black and brown families. In terms of policies, we shouldn’t have legislation like the ten-year tax abatement that gives exemptions to corporations on paying property taxes for ten years, while long-term homeowners face rising taxes, gentrification, and displacement. There is also the soda tax, a regressive tax that falls on working-class folks and not corporations, that especially hurts communities of color in food deserts that already lack access to healthy foods.
Ultimately many of these policies are crafted from people at the top without much care for people who are working class, who are the 99 percent. As democratic socialists, it is really important that we craft policies and have local elected officials put working people over profits. I am running because I want children growing up here in similar conditions I did to have a good education, a home to live, and access to health care.
Of course the political process isn’t just elections. There are also movements in streets and communities. If elected, would you commit to using your bully pulpit to amplify the voices of those movements?
Absolutely. We do a lot of that through DSA. I am a big labor person; unions are extremely important for building power for working-class politics. So, we really need to help unions expand into new sectors and incorporate more workers.
I am an activist; I am all for amplifying our voices. Elected officials are always saying that they want to be a voice for the voiceless. We don’t need you to speak for us. We already have a voice. We need you to pass the microphone. Let us speak for our communities.
If elected on May 21, I would be the first ever openly out councilmember in Philadelphia’s history; I would be the first democratic socialist, the millennial, the only one with a PhD on council, the only Latino city council-member at-large, and the only one with a health care background. These are all communities and groups that have been left out of the conversation and lacking a seat at the table for way too long. We need to acknowledge that and be open to having people speak for our own communities.
In the primary for city council at-large, five democrats will be elected to compete in the general election. Obviously the Democratic and Republican parties are not parties in the traditional sense due to the United States’ restrictive ballot access laws. Because of that, you find yourself running in a primary that also has someone like Councilmember Allan Domb, the neoliberal “condo king” who makes a lot of money off of the ten-year tax abatement and who also has been a champion for the developer lobby. How would you describe your relationship with the Democratic Party, especially in Philly?
My relationship with the party structure is limited. I am a new candidate, left of everyone, and a democratic socialist. But I will say that I have good relationships with most of the candidates running. I agree that there are people like Councilmember Allan Domb, who profit from the ten-year tax abatement and who is on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me, who we shouldn’t have on the council. But it’s a good relationship with most people, people I respect and who have done good policies.
But I will also bring the fight and the grit. Getting activism into city council and working with activist partners will be really important, especially in getting these conversations to flow to where they have to go and crafting policy in ways that benefit working people. So, I think by being on city council, I will be able to bring people to the left and enact policies that benefit working people.
As a Philly DSA member who is running for office, how do you think Philly DSA should relate to existing political groups and movements in the city?
Like everything, including my candidacy and DSA as an organization, our best work comes out when we build coalitions — and DSA is really good at that. So we need to make sure that we are building bridges and that putting important issues at the forefront, fighting for that and bringing in as many people as we can in the process. We are creating and sustaining a movement for everyone.
I think Philly DSA has this really big opportunity, especially if I get elected to council, to build power for the organization and help drive that activism into getting stuff done to address the issues that affect Philadelphians on a daily basis.
An issue that you have highlighted in your campaign is equitable funding for public education. Could you elaborate?
Let’s go back to the ten-year tax abatement, a policy that’s depriving our schools of $386 million every ten years. Our schools are in a very dire moment when the buildings themselves are falling apart. They are covered in asbestos, lead paint, and toxic mold. We see the impact on children, like the asthma rates which are higher than most places all over the county. It’s atrocious and inconceivable that we as a city has allowed this to happen. We really need to make that our priority.
For a while before I started the campaign, I was going to some meetings of the immigration group within the Caucus of Working Educators [a rank-and-file teachers caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers], and I heard firsthand the educational resources children needed, especially immigrant children. So it’s important work that these teachers — from the Caucus of Working Educators, Our City Our Schools Coalition, and other groups — are leading.
People constantly talk about schools, yet we don’t see that importance reflected from the policies that are actually made. Instead we have policies like the ten-year tax abatement which are depriving our school system. We need to eliminate that and put that money in our schools. And not only on the physical infrastructure side: we know that most of our public schools lack counselors, teachers, nurses, and teacher’s aides, all of whom are overworked and underpaid. To me, that’s an extreme moral failure and we need to do everything we can to ensure that our children are going to healthy schools.
And could you elaborate more on affordable housing, the other issue you have highlighted?
On housing, we have an extremely high eviction rate. And most evictions happen to single mothers of color. We really need legislation like rent control and just-cause eviction legislation. The city has done some good recently, with input from housing justice activist groups including in Philly DSA, like getting tenants lawyers if they are evicted from their homes. It gives tenants who don’t have the means to get legal defense to combat injustice from landlords, especially slumlords.
Going back to the ten-year tax abatement again, homeowners in the city are basically subsidizing corporate giveaways through the ten-year tax abatement, while taxes are increasing consistently for working people. What we have are policies that are gentrifying our neighborhoods.
In terms of issues and activism, Philly has been a hotbed for leftist criminal justice work as well. There is the Judge Accountability Table, which Philly DSA members have worked with to elect leftist candidates to judicial offices in order to reshape the criminal justice system in Philadelphia. What are your perspectives on that work?
I think that is extremely important. We have the privilege here in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania to elect our judges. We really need to be building a bench of judges who are accountable to people and be fair to everyone, especially communities of color which are consistently targeted by the criminal justice system here in Philly. I am extremely happy that it is happening, and we should build power in all three branches — in the mayor’s office, city council, and judge offices.
One of the constants in Philadelphia politics is the relationship between the Democratic city and the Republican state. What are your thoughts on the relationship between our city and the state and how that plays out in the state capital in Harrisburg?
I think Philadelphia has a huge untapped power because we are the biggest city in the state. And we can use that and leverage our position within the state to decide statewide elections, especially with the other progressive end which is Pittsburgh.
But there is a lot of work to do for us. I think it is important for us right now, right this moment, to build coalitions and bring people into the movement across the state. We build power when we connect the threads that unite us and build a movement on top of that. That’s the job of my lifetime.
In that context, do you see a lot of potential for more democratic-socialist, and broader progressive and leftist, organizing across the state?
Absolutely. Pittsburgh DSA has been doing great work. We also have BuxMont DSA, Delco DSA, and other DSA groups in the suburbs and other areas doing good organizing work. But we should also acknowledge that there are groups like Indivisible that have formed all over the state. These are groups that we need to engage that are already doing a lot of work and know their communities really well. So we should have those conversations about how we can move our communities and the state forward in the direction we desire.
Every political movement has its friends and enemies: Bernie and AOC vs the Democratic establishment, neighbors vs developers, and workers vs bosses. Who are your friends and who are your enemies in your vision for a Philadelphia that works for all?
My friends are Philadelphians. We are running a grassroots campaign that is accountable to the people. I am running to represent and be there for the 1.5 million people of Philadelphia, including the communities I am from. The big corporate interests — like developers and fossil fuel companies — who have a grip over our policies and others who stand against working-class Philadelphians are our enemy.