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Philly’s heroes and villains of 2020 | Editorial

The Inquirer Editorial Board lists those who have made us proud to be Philadelphians this year — and those who haven't.

Clockwise from left: Dr. Ala Stanford, Dr. Rachel Levine, City Commissioner Al Schmidt, Dr. Val Arkoosh, U.S. Attorney William McSwain, restaurateur Marc Vetri, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, and humanitarian Sonny Ho.
Clockwise from left: Dr. Ala Stanford, Dr. Rachel Levine, City Commissioner Al Schmidt, Dr. Val Arkoosh, U.S. Attorney William McSwain, restaurateur Marc Vetri, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, and humanitarian Sonny Ho.Read moreStaff (Custom credit)

These dark times have tested all of us. But there are those among us who have excelled at the tests 2020 threw at us — a pandemic ravaging lives and livelihoods, police shootings that prompted a profound racial reckoning, and a fraught election that challenged our core principles. There are many who have leaned in and stepped up with courage and strength, like the doctors, nurses, and medical staff on the front lines who have been inspiring us every single day since March. Our 2020 heroes include educators, challenged by shifting directives on how to teach as they struggle to leave no child behind. They include parents of school children, counterparts in this educational crisis who have had to balance work — or its loss — child care, and homeschooling against enormous odds.

In fact, almost everywhere we look, we see that the worst times have highlighted the best of us. There have surely been villains, but they are far outnumbered by the heroes of 2020 — those whose work moved Philadelphia and the region forward during trying times. Here are our nominations for both.


Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon, has been called the Harriet Tubman of the coronavirus. Stanford made a powerful and early link between the protests over police brutality and the coronavirus, and how both victimize Black lives. And she acted; weeks after the pandemic, she founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and began providing free COVID-19 tests in partnership with Black churches. Thousands have been tested because of her. In our eyes, she is hero of the year.

The pandemic has crystallized a war on science, proving an especially nightmarish scenario for public health officials. While we’ve been critical of some of Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley and State Secretary Rachel Levine’s choices, we have benefited from their consistent and steady medical expertise in the last nine months. And Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, and a physician with a public health degree, early on provided as much information as possible on the pandemic’s progress in her county.

In a challenging first year as Councilmember (winning her challenge to longtime incumbent Jannie Blackwell), Jamie Gauthier threw herself into the thick of the City’s work on gun violence, response to protests, and housing. In a short time, Gauthier has been able to get legislation passed, use the bully pulpit, rely on evidence and expertise, and be there with her constituents when it mattered most.

This May, tens of thousands took to the streets to demand racial justice and an end to police brutality following the death of George Floyd. The Black Lives Matter movement galvanized attention and support. It has toppled statues as well as complacency about police practices, and led to a racial reckoning in culture, media, and other institutions across the country as well as throughout the world.

Following on the heels of the first presidential debate that was a train wreck inside a dumpster fire, Philadelphia native Kristen Welker, NBC White House correspondent, not only moderated the second presidential debate but was declared its winner for bringing poise, calm, control, and gravitas to the proceedings.

During a fraught vote challenge and coming under fire by Trump as well as threats to him and his familyAl Schmidt, the wonkiest man in Philadelphia, was a no-nonsense voice of calm and reason.

Judge Stephanos Bibas bucked intense political pressure from the president and party who put him on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and held firm to the rule of law by authoring a clear-eyed, accessible judicial opinion dismantling the Trump campaign’s bid to undo Pennsylvania’s election results. He led the way for judges across the state to follow suit.

Four Seasons Landscaping bloomed from the fertilizer of an insane presidential news conference and came up smelling like roses.

Sonny Ho, who presides over 40-plus Dunkin’ franchises in the city, donated $100K to nutrition and fresh food programs in the Philly school district. An ethnic Chinese immigrant from Vietnam, he started as a porter at the Erie-Torresdale Dunkin’ as a teenager and is a product of Philadelphia public schools.


The actions of these people and groups impeded Philadelphia/the region from making progress.

As coronavirus cases increased, U.S. Attorney William McSwain supported a lawsuit against Philadelphia for implementing sound public health measures. As opioid overdose deaths rose, he filed a lawsuit against Safehouse and threatened enforcement if a supervised injection site were to open, even after a federal judge gave his blessing. His politicization of any tragedy in Philadelphia to score political points rendered his critiques partisan and spiteful.

Republican state lawmakers not only spent the months leading up to the election laying roadblocks to expedient handling of mail voting, but they went on to challenge the results of the vote, filing lawsuits that disrupted the count and supporting unfounded claims of voter fraud — despite the fact they reaped numerous victories across the state.

As Philadelphians took to the streets to demand change in violent police practices, FOP president John McNesby doubled down on his refusal to acknowledge the damage inflicted by some of his members, going so far as to embrace a police inspector who was caught on camera beating up protesters and suing Philadelphia for passing a law requiring a public hearing on the general framework of police contract negotiations.

Whether it was a crowd of racist white men with baseball bats and golf clubs “protecting” the Philadelphia Police in Fishtown or a crowd of racist white men with baseball bats and hammers “protecting” the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, June was a pretty humiliating month for our city. Forget throwing batteries at Santa Claus. These incidents will be remembered as some of the darkest, most shameful days of our city’s history.

The decimation of Philly’s vibrant restaurant scene has been heartbreaking. But amid this crisis Marc Vetri spent most of this year railing at public health officials on Twitter. While medical experts called for limited dining room capacity, Vetri took to social media with an aggressive and hard-line stance that all dining should be open at 100% capacity, potentially risking the safety of his staff and patrons.