Five Questions with Sen. Nikil Saval: From community organizing to the Capitol | Wednesday Coffee

‘You just walk around the building and people are like ‘Senator, how are you?’ It’s a ridiculous title. A Roman title,’ the first-term, Philadelphia Democrat said in a recent interview

October 20, 2021 7:20 am

State Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia (Facebook screen capture)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

People talk about bringing socialism to state government. State Sen. Nikil Saval walks the talk.

Along with Reps. Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, of Allegheny County, and Elizabeth Fiedler, of Philadelphia, Saval, of Philadelphia, is part of the small but forceful cadre of Democratic Socialists who have been elected to the General Assembly over the last few years. And he’s wasted little time making his presence felt.

former magazine editorSaval, who’s just 10 months into his first, four-year term, has used his perch to call attention to public transit issues by sharing his commute on social media. He’s been a vocal critic of the Republican-spearheaded sham investigation of Pennsylvania’s elections. And as a longtime housing advocate, he’s poured both intellectual and political energy into leveling the playing field for people seeking that most basic of human rights: a roof over their heads.

Saval spoke to the Capital-Star earlier this week about his legislative priorities, the ongoing fight for criminal justice reform, and his biggest surprises and disappointments since arriving in Harrisburg. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and content.

(Image via Flickr Commons)

Q: So I’ve been following you for a little while now since your election. But I mean, one of the things that really leapt out at me is that you did this thing on social … six or seven months ago where you actually detailed your commute one morning … Is that the way you do that on a regular basis? Is that the way you come into work every week? Or was that to prove a point?

A: That’s definitely my preference. I drove today … But, yeah, I have, like, a very well connected [system] … We have … substantial bus connections. I could take one of the two subway lines. I mean, it’s it’s like fairly easy and the train is like a much more efficient mode of travel.

Q: How long does that take you?

A: It’s like half-an-hour to get to 30th Street Station most [days] and then … it’s a little under two hours to get the train [to Harrisburg] … I mean, I don’t think people should take transit because it’s virtuous. I mean, if that’s where we are, then we’ve lost you basically … It should just be the normal way to travel. And the same thing is true of cycling and all the other kind of modes that are available besides driving.

Q: Because I think where I’m going here is that it’s obviously not that easy for some people, depending on where they live …  So can you talk about what you’re seeing as an advocate for mass transit? And can you speak to the need to make that easier for… a larger number of people?

A: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there’s ways that actually we have subsidized you know, that the the non-mass transit form of travel at the expense of transit in many different ways … Even in Philadelphia, which is a well connected area.

And just like the fact that we have made it so much easier for transportation network companies to, you know, essentially, [operate] without limits, to operate in the streets and [have to use] private cars and [that] has actually made it harder to run mass transit.

And, you know, they operate at a kind of [an] effective subsidy by not obeying a lot of the laws that a lot of taxi companies have to obey. They then have … venture capital funds. That’s as an example, in our transit rich area.

And then you translate  that kind of model … to a transit-poor area and it’s no surprise when people rely on private vehicles, like overwhelmingly, because … there’s been massive disinvestment in transit. And many people just don’t drive. And if people don’t have cars, it’s actually extremely inequitable. So you then end up relying on Uber or Lyft or taxis or what have you … It’s a huge expense for working class people overwhelmingly in our cities, and [for] brown people.

(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

Q: What are your top two or three priorities for the session? I mean, obviously, the [Senate Democratic] caucus has its own priorities. But personally?

A:  I would say, our largest kind of bucket of issues is is around housing and affordable housing, but also the intersection of housing with other issues that we care about. So one thing that we’re working on, long-term, that we hope to introduce this fall is a kind of whole home repairs program. The idea being that … one of the most affordable places you can have homes … is the place you already live or call home.

But many people have challenges to staying in those homes, whether those are especially in a place that has an aging housing [stock] like Pennsylvania. So [it’s] repairs [and] weatherization with increasing inclement weather, [and] utility burdens. For an aging population, the ability to age in place and make modifications. In fact, there are programs in some instances for all these things, but they’re difficult to coordinate, right?

And, in addition, there’s … a lack of a workforce frankly … we need more people doing the work. So it’s a jobs program. So we hope to create funding that would attack all these problems at once. Can we help coordinate the programs … for people to be able to do all of these things? To buy new energy efficient appliances, make adaptive modifications, make repairs so that they can then weatherize their homes, reduce emissions and utility burdens at the same time, and then [put] people to work doing it?

I think that’s that’s our biggest goal. And that’s, that’s something we’re working on very assiduously.

We also have legislation that we’re putting out around banning criminal background checks in housing, tenant screening … Rep. Donna Bullock [a Philadelphia Democrat] had introduced the … first version of that several years ago… and we’re glad to be working on it. There’s a very similar Senate version of that, and [we’re looking] to move that forward. And then finally, it’s not all housing we’ve been working on. My first actual, sole introduced piece of legislation was a bill around general contractor responsibility, basically holding general contractors responsible when their subcontractors steal wages from their workers or misclassify their workers. And so there’s been legislation around this that’s passed in other states, and we’re strongly supportive of efforts to do that … We’re trying to get money to people in people’s pockets when they deserve it.

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Q: So you’re now a full 10 months [into your first term]. What are the things you’ve been pleasantly surprised by? And what has left you just scratching your head?

A: The one thing is … that the job is, like, incredibly rewarding. I find it intellectually deeply stimulating … You can kind of go as deep as you want into certain issues and ideas and topics.

… There’s just an incredible amount to learn, both within the institution and the case of chamber obviously …  as well … the people you get to interact with. And thankfully … we have some ability to do that more than we did, say, in January, in person.

… I don’t know if this is a disappointment exactly but the thing … I still have trouble settling into, and this is just how politics works, is you get elected as, like, a person with a name and your name is everywhere.

… I came out of … an organizing tradition, … I was a magazine editor. And a lot of the pleasure I got from journalism was being a magazine editor … where your name is also not on stuff … And that’s great when a piece you edited that turns out really well the writer gets a lot of recognition that’s just the one of the best the greatest pleasures you have in life.

But then … as [an] elected official … you’re presumed to sort of know things and a lot is lodged in yourself as a person. But, in fact, that’s just not how it works … or that’s certainly not how I was led to think about things and how I think things fundamentally work. I have a staff [that] is incredibly capable. We’re connected to social movements that actually give license … to do the things that we’re able to do in office. And so again, it’s not exactly a disappointment, it’s just, how can I make that clear? It’s how can we create this structure of governance that reflects that?

You just walk around the building and people are like ‘Senator, how are you?’ It’s like a ridiculous title. A Roman title … It’s just a strange feeling. And I hope in a way, I hope it remains strange. I don’t want to settle into that and feel comfortable with it.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.

An annual emissions test currently conducted in 25 Pennsylvania counties could become temporarily irrelevant for drivers with a car less than five years old, Marley Parish reports.

Looking to honor a NEPA police officer who died in the line of duty, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-2 on Tuesday to approve a bill that would create a new offense for individuals who flee from police to evade arrest on foot, Marley Parish also reports.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 3,899 new cases of COVID-19 in the commonwealth on Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to more than 1.51 million cases since the start of the pandemic, I report.

Ahead of a show in Hershey next month, comedian/political satirist Bill Maher talked to Correspondent Frank Pizzoli about Pa.’s U.S. Senate race, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the need to teach civics in school — among other matters.

Philadelphia City Councilman at-large David Oh has a plan and a commitment to helping improve community relations with the Philadelphia Police Department: The use of minimum force training for all law enforcement. Our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune have the details.

The battle over abortion rights is gaining steam as the Wolf era nears its end. Our partners at City & State Pa. take stock of what’s at stake.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a recently approved House bill aiming to improve transparency in medical records has a hidden cost, a physician and LGBTQ activist explain. And if you think a mild case of COVID-19 is no big deal, you need to think again, columnist Trish Zornio, of our sibling site, Colorado Newsline, writes.

Photo by Getty Images


Philadelphia faces a severe school nurse shortage, the Inquirer reports.

Faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh have voted to join the United Steelworkers, the Tribune-Review reports.

It’s been 40 years since Harrisburg elected a Republican mayor. PennLive interviews the GOP hopeful trying to break that dry spell (paywall).

Lehigh Valley school districts are struggling to feed students because of supply chain problems, the Morning Call reports (paywall).

The Citizens’ Voice lays out the traffic diversions because of the presidential visit to Scranton today (paywall).

Wiretaps reveal that union boss John Dougherty allegedly used a member of Philadelphia City Council to punish the company that towed his carWHYY-FM reports.

Spotlight PA explains why $1 billion in rent relief isn’t enough to protect some Pennsylvania renters (via WITF-FM).

Some Republican lawmakers are questioning the legality of the regulations that have allowed the state to join a regional cap-and-trade compact, City & State Pa. reports.

The percentage of women joining state police forces has stalled for more than two decades, reports.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.has been indicted on federal charges of concealing information and lying to authorities, Roll Call reports.

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What Goes On
Senate session has been canceled for the day.<br<
9 a.m., Philadelphia: House State Government Committee
10 a.m., Scranton: House Democratic Policy Committee
10 a.m., Hearing Room 1, North Office Building: Senate Education Committee
10 a.m., East Wing Rotunda: Senate GOP event on protecting energy jobs
1 p.m., Main Rotunda: Report on the housing boom in rural Pa.

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to Stephanie Kanavy at LancasteroOnline, who celebrates today. Congratulations, and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation
Yes — a little late to the game. But here’s ‘Easy On Me,’ the return single from Adele that has broken every known streaming record in the mere days since its release. If you are among the roughly 12 people left on Earth who have not yet heard it,  it will break your heart and raise your spirit in the same moment. It is every bit as extraordinary as you’d expect from Adele.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Winnipeg dropped a toughie to Minnesota on Tuesday night. The Jets lost 6-5 to the Wild in OT.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.