The City Council race between incumbent Kenyatta Johnson and Ori Feibush delivered fireworks. But you wouldn't know that from the results of Philadelphia's May 19 Democratic primary. In the end, the freshman councilman outpaced Feibush by nearly 2-1.
The Inquirer sat down last week with Feibush, who made headlines long before his self-funded foray into politics as a brash businessman and a staunch critic of Johnson.
Feibush, 31, who owns a real estate business and a chain of coffee shops that bear his initials, OCF, is best known as a developer, having helped build hundreds of homes in the rapidly changing Second District, which includes Grays Ferry, Point Breeze, and part of South Philadelphia. He emptied his bank account on the campaign.
But Feibush said that doesn't mean he's done with developing - or politics.
Question: What have you been up to since the election?Answer: I'm opening up a new coffee shop at 29th and Chestnut, and another at Third and Market. And actively trying to grow my real estate business and give it the attention that it hasn't received in the last year.
Q: Did you take any time off after the election?
A: No, I was fine. . . . I jumped right back into this business, and I think that was healthy for me. There was a lot of work here that needed to be done. . . . It was awkward for me for a couple of weeks to figure out what my role was, because I had not been involved at all.
Q: You had said you were willing to spend everything you had on the race, and in the end, you did spend about half a million dollars, and even took out loans in that final push. Where does that leave you financially?
A: We're a real estate brokerage office here. It's very separated from the development world. As a developer, I don't have a lot of capital [remaining] to build things.
Q: Do you see yourself being able to continue doing the kind of development work you did before?
A: I hope so, but nothing in the immediate. I mean, you need to have capital to build projects. And I spent all of that while running for office. So down the road, if I'm able to recapitalize, if I'm able to do well in this business, sure, we'll start small again. I'll build a single-family home here, a single-family home there.
Q: Are there days when you regret spending what you spent on this election?
A: I mean, look, the election was not close. But there's no way you know that until after the election. So it's easy to Monday-morning quarterback and look back and say, oh, you should have spent less. But I would have been regretting much, much more if we lost by a couple of votes and we hadn't spent the money.
Q: You had tensions with certain community groups in the neighborhood. Do you think you couldn't overcome that?
A: When I'm knocking on your door, or somebody that's helping or working on my behalf is knocking on your door, and says, "Hey, this guy Ori is running for office, he's a good guy, he's got some great ideas for the city, you should give him a chance," you may or may not go out to vote. If somebody is knocking on your door saying, "If you vote for Ori, you're going to lose your home," it's a much more intense conversation, and it ensures that people will come out to vote in a much more active way. So in the Point Breeze neighborhood specifically, that was the rhetoric. And it's very difficult to overcome fearmongering.
Q: So for you it was more a matter of the negative perception?
A: The conversation of gentrification and taxes and displacement were palpable in Point Breeze. And they were very effective at moving the needle in that conversation.
Q: There was no hiding the tension between you and Johnson during this race. Assuming you continue to develop in the district, you will have to work with his office. Have you spoken with him since the election?
A: I reached out on election evening. Look, I was not running because I dislike him. . . . I was running because I see a lot of challenges in several neighborhoods that aren't being addressed. This was never about me being able to develop or not, and that's not going to change now. So if my development is a positive force for a certain community and he stands in the way, we'll be right back where we started.
On the other hand, if he has some "aha" moments that development, and business development especially, in the community is something that's important, then it will be different.
Q: What kind of development agenda would you like to see the next mayor's administration take?
A: It's centralizing the process of planning, of land use. It's empowering the mayor's office to truly handle zoning.
Q: As opposed to Council?
A: Yeah. And I don't expect a dramatic shift over there, but my hope is the needle moves just enough to make a real difference.
Q: What do you mean by make a real difference? . . . Do you think it's not fair?
A: It's not that it's not fair for developers. Developers live in a world of asymmetric information and a world where there's barriers to entry. . . . What's not fair is for the average Joe who wants to make a go at it. The average Joe who wants to open a business or build a home has no shot.
Q: Would you run for office again?
A: Sure. I had a great experience. Do I plan on running for office? No. But . . . very frankly, I believe I had a plan that could help a lot of these communities lift out of poverty and create jobs and do a lot of good things. If down the road there is a desire to see change, a desire to get things done, and it's not getting done, I'll never say never.
Questions and answers have been edited for space.