Kid candidate challenges aging incumbent

Local makes a bid for seat Harrisburg
By T Martin

Philly’s 179th District is looking for change in Harrisburg, and this year’s new candidate for State Representative might be their answer. Democratic state rep candidate and former Aspirante Rafael Collazo announced his candidacy for the position against incumbent Bill Rieger during his Monday, March 1st press conference.

Knocking on over 1,600 doors, collecting over 1,800 signatures, and garnering support from allies such as State Rep. Angel Cruz of the 180th District, Collazo is taking his fight for cleaner streets and safer neighborhoods all the way to the polls on April 27th.

“We are going to bring cleaner streets, safer neighborhoods, after-school programs and representation for a change to the people of the 179th District,” Collazo proclaimed.

Door-to-door introductions of himself and what his candidacy could mean for the 179th District has driven people to recognize the need for change and to offer their support to the 29-year-old candidate.

The first serious challenger to oppose Reiger in over 10 years, Collazo continues to build support and momentum throughout his well-organized campaign and level of trust and understanding of the communities he would represent if elected.

Man on a mission
One of Collazo’s strengths is his direct connection with the people of the North Philadelphia communities. Born and raised around 8th and Pike, he attended St. Veronica’s for grade school and graduated from Roman Catholic High School before going to New York to get his B.A. in history at Columbia University. He returned to Philadelphia to organize for voter registration campaigns.

Only recently stepping down from his post as Secretary of the Board of Directors at the Delaware Valley Voter Registration and Education Project, Collazo is no stranger to politics and knows his way around the political arena with the same ease he gets around North Philly. He attributes this familiarity to his upbringing.

“My family has always been involved in community work,” he told NF months before announcing his candidacy. “I was taught responsibility and passion for helping people.”

And though the spry and energetic young candidate has more than once called for a one-on-one with 81-year-old Bill Reiger to challenge him on several issues, Collazo says that the election shouldn’t come down to one person’s motives or objectives.

“It’s not about Bill Rieger or Ray Collazo; it’s about what the people want. They don’t want politics the old way.”

Some of the points on which Collazo wishes to challenge Rieger include why the legislator maintains a Rising Sun row house as his voting address when he hasn’t lived in his district since the 1970’s; why he hasn’t been around the old neighborhood while remaining leader of the 43rd Ward there; why he hasn’t put in an appearance in Harrisburg to represent his constituents.

In his favor, Rieger is described as being a “sickly old man”, suffering heart and prostate ailments. Perhaps this condition is what spurs Collazo to fight harder for the people of the 179th District to have a leader they can depend on.

“I’ve collected over 1,800 signatures of people who agree that it’s time for a better government, that it’s time for a change and that it’s time to send Bill Rieger home!” he declared during his press conference.

He also described the increase of trash in the streets, the breakdown in security, a rise in crime and the desperate need for more – and stronger – after-school programs for today’s youths.

“Many things have changed over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the right for people to live in a community where their concerns are met and their questions are answered,” he added. The only way to accomplish this, Collazo feels, is to conduct a head-to-head campaign with Rieger.

“We are on a mission: a mission to make sure our community is never neglected a gain. Bill Rieger has broken his promises. He hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain. We are going to let Bill Rieger know that he can’t get away with it anymore!”

And after a comfy ride about town with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick, Jr., Collazo is confident that people will wake up to what Rieger has failed to do for them over the last few decades.

On the campaign trail
The real ride, though, began for Collazo last summer when thinking about running for office became more vivid a goal for him.

“I started thinking about it as early as 2003,” he told NF. “The more I explored it, the more I wanted to do it.”

At the time, nothing was official, and would remain unofficial until January 2004 when he began the process that would put him in the running as a candidate. Even so, he went from neighborhood to neighborhood, “wherever community folks are” to host and conduct meetings to find out what the people wanted in a state rep.

“The most important thing we can do is talk to the people that want to see change through servant leaders. They want service they can touch, see and feel,” he discovered.

Questioned early about his primary focus and strategy, Collazo said he would run for office “by listening to people” and providing them more access as a “facilitator to resolve their issues.”

Listening was his key strategy, and it’s worked up till now. Wherever he was accepted – at local churches, in community centers, even in people’s homes – Collazo introduced himself as a product of North Philadelphia, and his education shone through in every word of his articulate speech. He organized meetings with community leaders and members to hear what they wanted, not to tell them what they wanted to hear.

In January he began the real work of the campaign: collecting enough signatures to get his name on the ballot as a Democratic candidate for State Rep of the 179th District. He spent New Year’s Eve with Juan Ramos at the party newly elected City Councilman-at-large hosted at the Society Hill Hotel. The following Saturday, Collazo and a dedicated team of organizers started beating the streets, knocking on doors, and collecting signatures to prepare for his candidacy.

Backing a winner
Collazo’s crew would also visit high-traffic areas, like local supermarkets, as well. Catching people as they left the store, organizers were ready with pens in hand for registered voters to pen their names to the petitions that would place Collazo on the ballot.

“We explained to people that they didn’t have to vote for Ray Collazo and that the petitions weren’t binding or anything,” one campaign team member told NF. “We told them we just needed signatures to ‘give him a chance’ to run for the office.”

But the chance to run isn’t enough. Collazo’s vision is to improve neighborhood conditions, and he proves it every time he visits a Liga del Barrio game at Edison High School to talk to players and their parents. He shows it every time he jots down someone’s information with a promise to get back to them about a concern expressed to him. He’s demonstrated it with every cold he suffered this winter as a result of being out too early in the morning until too late at night just to give the community a chance to be represented in Harrisburg the way they should be.

Clearing the way for change
And the chance to run shouldn’t be enough. Children are often told that winning isn’t everything; that the chance to play or the chance to participate is enough. But if that’s true, then in politics, nobody wins. Collazo feels that this is a struggle for justice to a wronged community and that fighting back will make everyone winners.

Sometime in December 2003, stories about other possible candidates surfaced, and names like Victor Velazquez, Freddy Ramirez, Rafael Hernandez Colon, and Frank Garcia were appearing in editorials in local community papers. Velazquez, also a columnist, has already confirmed that he is not running for office in this year’s election. In fact, none of the others have stepped up to the plate. It’s as if Collazo is the ideal candidate to take on Reiger, and the others are moving out of his way.

But in January, two other names appeared on the ballot: Virgil Addison and Emilio A. Vazquez. Given their close connection to Rieger’s committee and district, both could well be Rieger’s hope to split the vote and keep Collazo out of office. If the old fellow wants to fight this way, Collazo is not discouraged. In fact, he sees the tactic as Rieger’s last fight, and a challenge which Collazo is prepared to tackle.

“It takes a fighter to do this job,” he said during the press conference announcing his bid for office. “It takes a winner to do this job. My friends, I promise you one thing: that as your State Representative I will fight for you every single day I’m in office. I will fight for better government. I will fight for a better community… and together, we will win!”