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What you need to know about Anthony Phillips, the 33-year-old Ph.D. student in line for a City Council seat

Raised by his mother and grandmother in Nicetown and later East Mount Airy, Anthony Phillips was an academic wunderkind now pursuing a doctorate on the Black church in Philadelphia.

Anthony Phillips, who volunteers as a bus driver for senior citizens at Salem Baptist Church in Abington, is poised to win a Nov. 8 special election for a Philadelphia City Council seat.
Anthony Phillips, who volunteers as a bus driver for senior citizens at Salem Baptist Church in Abington, is poised to win a Nov. 8 special election for a Philadelphia City Council seat.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker has long talked about the need for Philadelphia to prioritize its “middle neighborhoods,” sounding the alarm about a national trend of declining populations in economically stable Black neighborhoods where children can go to good schools, start careers, and raise families in the same area.

So when Parker last month stepped down from Council to run in next year’s mayoral race, she championed as her likely replacement someone who embodies much of that vision.

» READ MORE: Philly Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker has resigned and will run for mayor

Anthony Phillips, a 33-year-old Ph.D. student who cofounded a successful nonprofit, Youth Action, when he was 14 years old, is the Democratic nominee to replace Parker in the Nov. 8 special election for the 9th District.

The district stretches along the northern boundary of the city from Stenton in Northwest Philadelphia to Lawndale in the Lower Northeast, and includes many of Parker’s “middle neighborhoods,” such as West Oak Lane. The seat is the base of the storied Northwest Coalition political organization and was previously held by legendary Black politicians Marian Tasco and John White Jr.

Thanks to the district’s heavily Democratic electorate, Phillips is all but guaranteed to prevail over Republican Roslyn Ross and Libertarian Yusuf Jackson in the special election. He would then serve out the final year and change of Parker’s term while running for a full four-year term in the May 2023 Democratic primary.

“Anthony Phillips is not a Cosby kid. He’s not a silver-spoon person,” Parker said in an interview. “But I think his humble but very strong spiritual, familial, and community foundation is what makes him have such a passion for service, particularly when it comes to young people.”

» READ MORE: Who is running for Philadelphia mayor in 2023?

Raised by his mother and grandmother in Nicetown and later East Mount Airy, where he still lives, Phillips was an academic wunderkind, with an undergraduate degree from Bates College in Maine and a master’s from Yale University. He is now finishing up a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a subject that is close to home — and relevant to the task of preserving stable Black communities.

“Essentially [my research] looks at the Black church in Philadelphia and whether or not it is still a viable institution that is meeting the needs of people of African descent from a social, economic, and political standpoint,” he said.

Phillips attends and is a volunteer bus driver at Salem Baptist Church in Abington. Starting at 7:40 a.m. every Sunday, he picks up senior citizens who need rides to church.

“I grew up in the Black church,” he said. “The Black church is basically where I learned service.”

Phillips talks a lot about “excellence.”

The students selected for rigorous college and career coaching courses by one of the nonprofits he works at? “I ensure that they have this level of excellence in everything that they do, from communication to project planning.”

And what will he work on as a Council member? “We have to have excellent commercial corridors. We have to have excellent schools. And we must have excellent quality of life.”

The 9th District, which is about two-thirds Black, declined by almost 1,000 people in the last census — not a huge decline, but not a good sign in a city that gained population overall.

“People will leave because people want top-notch commercial corridors, they want top-notch schools, and they want their quality of life and peace,” he said.

Phillips first met Parker when she spoke at a Youth Action event while he was still in high school. He later interned in her office when she was a state representative, and became a Democratic commiteeperson in the 50th Ward, which she leads.

Like Parker, Phillips is a political centrist — a “pragmatic Democrat,” as he puts it — who is unlikely to align with the progressive wing of Council.

“There’s some things I like about Bernie [Sanders], but I guess I’m much more pragmatic,” Phillips said.

After Parker asked him to consider replacing her, Phillips said he wasn’t sure about putting himself in the spotlight and about whether he would have the patience to deal with the slow pace of change in government.

“Things don’t move in politics as it moves when you work with young people,” he said.

His students at Youth Action changed his mind, he said.

“They said, ‘You’ve been talking to us about civic engagement all these years and now you’re about to hide away,’” he recounted. “I reflected, I prayed, and I said, ‘Let’s do this.’”