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Where is The “Punk Rock Candidate” For Mayor Now?

March 10, 2011

Text by Tom Mates. Image courtesy of Larry West.

For better or worse, John Street’s mayoral tenure will be forever associated with the FBI bugging scandal and investigation into pay-to-play corruption in city government. While Street was never implicated, numerous people went to jail.

Street’s reign was so marred by controversy that in 2007, Michael Nutter essentially ran for mayor as the anti-John Street.

As if that campaign season wasn’t strange enough, Street’s brother, Milton Street, announced that he would run for mayor – despite facing federal charges for corruption and tax evasion, and the fact that he sort of lived in New Jersey. During a poorly attended rally next to City Hall, Milton announced his intentions and then sang gospel songs while leaning on a casket, preaching to the city that he could end the violence on the streets.

Oh, and Milton Street repeatedly called Nutter “Watermelon Man,” referring to the 1970 movie about a bigoted white man who wakes up one morning as a black man.

Most people just ignored Milton. Or laughed at him. Not Larry West, then a 22-year old metal-head with a Mohawk, who wanted to be your mayor.

He, alone, protested Milton’s rally. Wearing a studded Guns-n-Roses jacket, he brandished a sign reading “Stop Milton Street/ No Criminals in City Hall.”

Then Milton Street approached him.

“Why don’t you like me?” Street asked West, a lifelong resident of Mount Airy.

The two opponents were instantly swarmed by cameras and microphones, and West was formally introduced to the people of Philadelphia.

Milton Street, who might have thought this moment was his, immediately went on the offensive, prodding West with questions about crime in Philadelphia. With some polite but sharp answers and a wry smile, West sent the former mayor’s brother packing.

West’s mayoral quest was more unusual than just his attire and hair. He wasn’t legally allowed to run for mayor. Philadelphia’s City Charter states that no person under the age of 25 can run for mayor or city council.

West received a considerable amount of media buzz for someone running as an independent write-in. Maybe it was his rally cry for “radical change” in Philadelphia politics, or perhaps it was the oddity of a mayoral candidate with a six-inch Mohawk.

It was certainly the latter which garnered West the nickname the “Punk Rock Candidate,” which is a real misnomer as West is more Megadeth than he is Dead Kennedys.

In the end, West was unable to overcome Nutter, the other candidates or the City Charter.

So he returned to private life.

•••

Now, in 2011, we are once again greeted by an election season, with Milton Street threatening to put on another sideshow. One might wonder, where is Larry West now? What has he been doing? What does the “Punk Rock Candidate” think of our incumbent mayor? Is he going to run again?

Well, he’s not happy. But he’s not planning to challenge Nutter.

After the election, West faded from public view. He works a day job – his employers asked him not to mention where. He shreds on his guitar, uses his weekends to work on freelance graphic design projects and, in his free time, West does pro bono concert promotions for metal bands coming into the city.

At the moment, the 26-year old doesn’t have any desire to enter into the political arena again though that doesn’t mean he’s lost interest in the city’s politics. He says he’s lost confidence in the Nutter administration.

“In terms of the job he is doing now, I am horribly disappointed,” says West.
Like many Philadelphians, West took issue with the attempts to shut down the city’s pools and libraries, with the proposed taxes on sanitation and garbage collection and with Nutter’s placation of the casinos.

West understands the implications of the immense budget issues Nutter was dealt, and supports efforts to close that gap. But he says there has to be a better way.

“The soda tax alone made me want to punch walls,” says West. “Don’t lie to people and tell them you’re taxing soda to try and make Philadelphia healthier. That’s a bullshit lie. Just say you want more money. We’ll understand.”

West believes Nutter should be pursuing people and businesses that are not paying their taxes. Alternatively, he says Nutter could step-up enforcement of finable offenses, as West proposed.

•••

Metal as a musical genre is not typically associated with political movements but that is not really the case. Metallica has often taken a vehement anti-war stance with their music, especially in songs like “One” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Megadeth’s 1986 classic “Peace Sells … but Who’s Buy- ing” takes the stance that peace has be- come more of a buyable commodity than a political goal.

Metal is certainly an influence in West’s political activism and helped to shape his perspective on the role of government in people’s lives.

“I had a website called ‘Refuse to be Denied,’ when I was trying to change the age limit [to run for office],” says West. “Anthrax has a song called ‘Refuse to be Denied.’”

Metal is very abrasive. It leaves little room for subtlety. It beats people over the head with the messages and emotions it tries to convey. This certainly does not resonate with the average person’s view of politics or politicians but when you are calling for “radical change,” as West was, perhaps that is the mentality one should have.

“They always tell you that there is one point you always want to get across when you’re doing an interview and make that the thing that sticks,” says West. “So, I decided to make mine ‘Philadelphia needs some sort of radical change.’ I thought that was perfect. It’s exactly what we need.”

West called for extreme campaign finance reform. He wanted to lower the limit that one person could contribute to a campaign from $20,000 to $1,000. He also encouraged greater enforcement of minor offenses, like jaywalking.

“If you focus on minor crimes the bigger ones aren’t going to happen,” says West.

West also saw this enforcement of minor crimes to be a way to earn the city some much needed money.

“If you’re honest about it, like ‘Yeah we’re kind of doing this to make money but we also want you to obey the law that’s already there,’ people are going to be a little more receptive to it than any-thing else,” reasons West.

•••

Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s budget was not the only one to give West nightmares. Near the end of his campaign, he faced his own deficits.

“My mother had passed on two years before and I was kind of living off that,” says West. “But unfortunately it did run out. Before the end of the election everything started to fall apart, around September. I can say this now, I almost lost my house.”

During this brief period of hardship, West was forced to do something most politicians would never dream of doing: work in retail. At Kohl’s.

“I kind of made an agreement with myself,” he says. “I was kind of just doing this because I was afraid of Milton and [I told myself] ‘If Nutter wins the primary, I’ll probably just drop out.’ I really did agree with what he wanted to do. But then, right before the end of the primaries, he talked about his Stop and Frisk program and I said ‘No.’ That’s a violation of so many civil rights. I cannot support that. That’s why I kept running.”

After getting hired, West underwent Kohl’s orientation. It was here that he faced some culture shock – the kind he thinks more people running for office should have to experience.

“We were in this room – it was probably 15 by 15 – and I was in there with probably seven other people who had just been interviewed and hired,” recalls West. “I’m in my shirt and tie. We’re going around the room talking about what we did. They get to me and I go ‘Well, I’m running for mayor right now and I need some extra income.’ It was really depressing being in that room, not because of that. The stories I heard almost made me cry. In fact, I’m thinking about it right now and I’m almost ready to cry just thinking about it.”

West pauses for a moment to compose himself.

“There were people working there who already had another job,” West continues. “This was a second income for them. There was someone who had started working there – it was their third job.”

Again West takes a moment to compose himself before continuing with his story, the sadness in his voice replaced by an incredulous tone – we let Philadelphians struggle like this?

It was for people like that individual working three jobs that West ran for office in the first place.

“I saw the entire [campaign] as me trying to do something to help everyone and that’s always been the one thing I really enjoy doing,” says West. “Running for office, for me, was that. It was doing the ultimate good deed.”

•••

It is for that reason that West continues to be politically active. He remains well-read on Philadelphia politics. He attends the Mt. Airy meetings of Drinking Liberally, a left-leaning social organization.

West also likes to point out one aspect of Philadelphia politics that many people often overlook.

“Philadelphia is not that liberal,” he says.

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