In a way, it made sense for 26-year-old Adrián Rivera-Reyes — the youngest candidate vying for an at-large seat at City Council — to pull the marble labeled “1” out of Philly’s political sorting hat, an old Horn & Hardart coffee can.
See, according to the Pennsylvania election code, ballot placement is determined at random. But drawing the first number in the lottery for the upcoming primary elections felt a bit less random in the case of Democratic Socialist Rivera-Reyes, who could become the first openly gay council member to serve. He could be the first millennial, or one of the first.
But Rivera-Reyes, a cancer researcher soon to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, could also be the first City Councilmember in the 21st century to bring his STEM background to a government body typically stacked with lawyers and political operatives.
Philly lured the scientist away from his native Puerto Rico in 2014, and he spent the past four years studying sarcoma, a type of cancer that occurs in the bones and soft tissues. His interest in the disease began in Puerto Rico, where he joined a nonprofit called Un Rayito de Sol en tu Habitación, which brought food, arts and crafts to patients inside the pediatric patient wing.
“We made them forget they were there,” said Rivera-Reyes.
While at Penn, aside from studying the disease in depth, he’s led the creation of the Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy group (a merger between the diplomacy and science policy communities) and been involved a group called 314 Action, which promotes scientists’ involvement in the political process. In 2017, he attended one of the group’s training programs for potential candidates.
Amid a crowded race for the at-large council seats — more than 30 are vying for a spot just on the Democratic side — what does the candidate bring to the table, as the only one with a background in STEM?
“As the only doctor and STEM candidate, I’d be bringing that evidence-based mentality for policy making into the mix,” said Rivera-Reyes, who also served as a policy analyst for former congressional candidate Molly Sheehan. “With the opioid epidemic, we have to talk to experts but we don’t have have a single [councilmember] with a background in healthcare.
“I think scientists have qualifications that make sure that we’re enacting sensible policies, looking at issues objectively and with input from the communities.”
If elected, would Rivera-Reyes be the first councilmember in local history to bring a science background to the office? Not quite. City Council responded to our inquiry by calling our attention to Constance H. Dallas, who served on the council’s inaugural convening in 1952. According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Dallas — who represented the eight district — also brought STEM into local government: She studied nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and even served with the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps in the 1940s.
Seeking a more recent example, we asked long-time political observer Larry Ceisler, who said that as far back as he could remember, no councilmembers with a background in science came to mind.
“That’s the problem,” Ceisler said. “It discourages diversity because of the nature of the job. You need people who don’t have the typical political background.”
Asked how he’d link his STEM background to policy-making, Rivera-Reyes points to his plans for a Municipal Green New Deal, a local riff on the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-led stimulus package that aims to take SEPTA to clean energy transports by 2030, update building codes with an eye toward sustainability and get the city to stop burning half of its recyclables.
“It all goes back to evidence-based policy making,” the researcher said of his core policy proposal. “We need to look at data, ask why aren’t we investing in infrastructure and can we build new systems that actually lead to what we need. I think scientists have qualifications that make sure that we’re enacting sensible policies, looking at issues objectively and with input from the communities.”
Count on a potential Councilmember Rivera-Reyes to bring in voices from the tech community into the fold.
“I am not an environmental scientist,” he said. “I understand the data but I’m not an expert so, in a lot of these things we need to bring in experts and make sure we’re forming boards and commissions with experts to make sure we’re looking at all considerations before enacting policies.”
But before any of this can come to fruition, the scientist — and the youngest one on the ballot — has to prove himself politically. In the most competitive race of the upcoming primary, does Rivera-Reyes like his odds? Does he think he can win his first election?
“I truly think so,” Rivera-Reyes said. “It is tangible and feasible and we’re working in it. I was lucky that I got the number-one ballot. Opportunities like these rarely ever come to people like me, and I want to be able to do the most that I can, and make sure that if elected I bring in all of these people with me.”