Temple trustee Nelson Diaz has made it his mission to fix the school system – or die trying.
Diaz, a Democrat and former aide to Vice President Walter Mondale, cited improving workforce development and fixing problems with the School District of Philadelphia as his main goals when he announced his candidacy for Mayor of Philadelphia on Jan. 15.
“The school system is in shambles,” Diaz said in an interview Friday at his Dilworth Paxson office. “And I think I can fix it, even if I have to die doing it.”
A late addition to the race, Diaz faces State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, former Mayor Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Multiple outlets reported that Councilman James Kenney would also announce his candidacy this week.
Diaz, when explaining his views, criticized the attempts of the School Reform Commission, including its failed move to renege the contract with the teacher’s union.
“The SRC has been in reform mode for 13 years,” Diaz said. “And I’m not sure they’ve reformed anything.”
Diaz also noted the lack of funding to the district, and the discrepancy between funding of students in Philadelphia and that of nearby Lower Merion.
“Lower Merion gets $23,000 per child, the students in the Philadelphia school system get $6,300 per child,” Diaz said. “Who has greater need?”
Diaz added that cutting programs and low per-pupil spending hindered progress.
“[Education] is the equalizer for everyone,” he said. “If you’ve got an education, [no one] can take it away from you.”
Diaz also said he would focus on workforce development and attracting small-business development to Philadelphia.
“[Philadelphia is], next to Detroit, the lowest in attraction of small businesses,” Diaz said. “There’s something wrong, somebody’s not marketing [Philadelphia] correctly.”
Diaz also talked about the importance of unions.
“Unions are not the enemy,” Diaz said. “Unions provide an opportunity for a person to lift themselves from working-class to middle-class.”
Diaz said he thinks that the race for mayor is only heating up, though.
“I don’t think the field is complete until the filing date [March 10],” Diaz said. “And you won’t know all of the candidates.”
“I always told everybody, the filing date is the date we become candidates,” he added. “But between now and March 10 I plan to do as much listening as possible from the voters.”
Diaz, then a 28-year-old Harlem native, first came to Temple on an invite from Dean Peter Liacouras and became the first Puerto Rican student to be admitted to the Beasley School of Law.
“When I entered the law program at Temple in 1971, only 78 African Americans had ever been admitted to the practice of law in Pennsylvania, and no Puerto Rican had ever passed the Bar,” Diaz said. “I don’t even know if a Puerto Rican had ever even taken it.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree at St. John’s University in 1969, Diaz said he originally chose Temple’s law school because he thought it would be more accepting of minorities than the schools he was accepted to in New York.
“I figured I’ll go to Temple, Temple will be more progressive,” Diaz said. “When I came to Temple, I realized it was worse than it was in New York. It was a hostile environment.”
Diaz recalled the difficulties he had at the law school during his time there, commuting from Camden, New Jersey – “It was all I could afford,” he said. During his time as a student, he was a founding member of the Black Law Student Association, and led a picket of the Law School due to the rough relationship between former Dean Ralph Norvell and the students.
“Two-thirds of my class flunked out,” Diaz said. “There was a doctor who flunked out of the law school. It was a rough time.”
Amid the turmoil, then Vice-President of Academic Affairs Marvin Wachman – later the university president – proceeded to smooth relations with the students and named Liacouras new dean of the law school in 1972. In 1973, Diaz remembers leading a successful picket of the undergraduate school. That same year, Diaz would become the first Puerto Rican to be certified to practice law in Pennsylvania.
Diaz continued on in a large capacity with Temple after his graduation. From 1981 to 1988, he taught trial advocacy at the law school. He has served as a Temple trustee since his election in 1992.
“My first love is Temple, everybody knows it,” Diaz said.
Christian Matozzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org