Mayor Alex Torpey would like to see civic innovators, particularly millennials, run for office.
Sitting in the front row at the rise conference in Philadelphia, organized by Technical.ly, I found myself totally captivated by a young man on stage during a panel discussion about public-private partnerships of the future.
His name was Alex Torpey, a smart, insightful, twenty-seven year-old who serves as the Mayor of South Orange, N.J., a town of 20,000. A not-so-great drummer, but pretty good debater, Mr. Torpey took office on May 16th, 2011, at the age of twenty-three, and has roughly another 6-7 months in office.
There was no defining moment that Mr. Torpey, a former student government President, can point to and identify as the reason he ran for elected office. In his words, it was snowball effect; a multitude of conversations with people about the topic – some who told him not to do it – that eventually led to 10,000 flyers with his face on it.
“It’s amazing how quickly things go when you’re really thinking about it,” he said, as we talked over lunch.
The way Mr. Torpey described his journey – making phone calls in between knocking on doors and trying to convince people to listen to his vision before judging him on his age – you would think he was a fearless superhero with a heart of steel. But that’s wasn’t really the case, as he admits to me “there was never a period of certainty.”
“There was an enormous amount of uncertainty, anxiety and nervousness before I made the decision. But once I made the decision to do it… the fear was gone. You have to figure out where your decision point is and once you cross the decision point… don’t look back.”
Being the mayor is quite ironic for Mr. Torpey, given the fact that he’s a stubborn guy who prefers self-employment and now works for 20,000 people. But it seems being the chief executive of small town, at a young age, was necessary, as Mr. Torpey now understands “the limitation of any one person to accomplish something.”
And though he won’t be seeking re-election nor another office in government – at least not right now, as he still pretty frustrated with the lack of progress government makes, how disconnect people are from it and how poorly government represent the public – he’s overwhelmingly optimistic about the potential of a generation of people to change the system.
What initially attracted me to Mr. Torpey’s ideology was during the panel discussion he asked if anyone in the audience has an amazing idea to improve cities: nearly everyone raised their hands. When he asked those same individuals if they hold elected office or plan to campaign for one, no hands went up.
“That’s the problem,” he said.
Drafting the innovation and civic tech class – and bold, fearless activists – into public service has been my thinking as of late and the subject of a recent op-ed I authored entitled “We Need a Movement to Change the Perception of Politics.”
It seems people with the most passion, integrity and ingenuity don’t want to engage politics because they believe it’s either inherently corrupt and that it would taint them by proxy or that they’re not the type of person that fits into the ideal image of a politician.
Mr. Torpey agrees and said that after visiting a third grade class and meeting a nine year-old girl who was super-excited once she found out a woman could be mayor – she inspired the town’s Mayor-for-a-Day program – his focused shifted from just policy to finding people to run for office.
“The type of person who runs for office needs to be changed because it’s not working. So if people don’t think they’re the right type of person for government, that means they should definitely run. Do it and don’t be afraid, because the people who are doing it right now are not doing a great job.”
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™