A Deaf man is running to be Mayor of North Wales Borough — a small town/borough just outside of Philadelphia. His name is Neil McDevitt and he is a Democrat. I’ve reached to him for an interview about what his experience is like to run for mayor. Here it is!
Alex: Hello, can you introduce yourself?
Neil: My name is Neil McDevitt and I’m from North Wales, PA — it is close to Philadelphia. I’m one of the candidates to be the Mayor in the next elections: November 2017.
Alex: You’ve lived in North Wales for around 20 years. Can you tell us what it’s like there?
Neil: North Wales is one of the smallest towns in Montgomery County, PA. It’s close to Philadelphia. It has around 3,500, 3,400 residents. It is a very “American” small town with a main street with restaurants and businesses. I’ve lived in North Wales proper for 2 1/2 years, but I’ve lived in the area outside North Wales. A lot of people don’t realize this — North Wales has a nickname: “Deaf Wales.” It is because there are two big organizations that serve Deaf people here — the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and an organization that serves Deaf people of various needs — PAHrtners. Many of their staff live in the area.
I’m the executive director for Deaf-Hearing Communication Center in Swarthmore. I live north of Philadelphia while I work south of the city. So, DHCC has been here, we’re going to celebratie its 45th anniversary soon.
Alex: Wow, I didn't' ‘realize there are many Deaf people and Deaf services in the Philadelphia area.
Neil: I believe Philadelphia is underrated in many ways. We have a large percentage of Deaf people living in the area. We have many success stories and we have many challenges, too. But I think a lot of people tend to think of “certain cities” -- such as D.C., Austin, Rochester, or Fremont. People don’t realize Philadelphia is starting to come on its own — and we’re saying, “hey, we’re here.” I’m proud of that.
Alex: What is your campaign platform? What do you hope to do as mayor? I saw that you said you wanted to modernize the police department. Can you tell us more about that and your vision as mayor?
Neil: My vision of being the mayor — first you have to look at what the mayor’s role is. In a small town like this, it’s not like a big-city mayor or the President.
According to PA state law, the role of the mayor is this: Sign or Veto all of the Council’s passed proposals. Does the mayor have influence? Some, but the mayor doesn’t get involved in the proposal-making or debates process. Next is responsibility and oversight of the borough’s emergency management. This means if there’s a serious emergency — such as the blizzard yesterday — the mayor will establish emergency policies and tell people what to do. The mayor has oversight over the police department. So my strategy is to really emphasize my experience. Like I said earlier, I’m the executive director of a nonprofit organization for 2 1/2 years. It’s given me a lot of viewpoints on how to run an organization, work with others, and pick your battles. Where do you stand on your principles and where can you negotiate?
For many years I’ve worked in the emergency management field — worked for the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) for a year. Before that I worked for six years for a nonprofit organization in D.C. named TDI - Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. TDI got two federal grants from the Dept. of Homeland Security for training for emergency responders and for police officers — to educate them on how to respond to people of various disabilities, including Deaf/HoH. I’ve worked with police departments. I’m also a former volunteer firefighter for 7 years, I’ve interacted with the police and the fire department.
So I have an appreciation of police officers and their struggles, how they manage their jobs. I know people have issues and frustrations with the police department, but I don’t think people realize how committed the police are and how frustrated they are with various situations. So my role will be to carry over my experience with police and apply that to the police department here in North Wales. My strategy is to emphasize that, to show that I’m not simply someone who just pops up and “says hello!” I have experience, relevant experience that fits with the role of the mayor.
Alex: What is your campaign strategy? How do you get elected as mayor? What does that process look like?
Neil: Right now you caught me very early in the game. I just announced my candidacy. All of the paperwork was signed and sent a couple weeks ago, so it is still early in the game right now. We can talk in three, four months after the primary elections in May. When we are deep into the general election, my answer might be different. So right now it’s early to say. But at the same time, in a small borough, it’s really the same thing — which means to go to the people. Knock on doors, meet people, know what their concerns are. It means going to various events. For example, last night, I went to a fundraiser for a local fire department and I have to step outside of my comfort zone. Instead of saying, “Hello, my name is Neil,” — I have to say, “Hello, my name is Neil, and I’m running to be Mayor.” A lot of people don’t realize it’s tough to say that!
So, right now the strategy — I prefer to say schedule — when the weather gets warmer, I’ll go to doors, I’ll bring an interpreter with me, go to doors. I want people to get to know who I am, what my vision is, what my experience is — and go from there. Another challenge of being a Deaf candidate is that I have to raise more than hearing candidates would. So, that is a big issue, a big topic in my mind — how do I pay for an interpreter and all those things?
The battle for the election is “half the battle.” The other half is fighting for inclusion in the activities of the party. What I’m working on now is to advocate on the local level (they seem supportive), on the state level and the national level to put money where their mouth is. If they want to support inclusion, then they need to make funds and resources available to local parties, so Deaf/HoH people can ask for it. From what I know, I’m the first Deaf people to approach them and make the ask. What we need is for Deaf people, regardless if you’re a Democrat or Republican, to go to their parties — Democratic, Republican, Green Party, Libertarian — to tell them, “I need inclusion” — and go from there.
Alex: Thank you for your time. I’ll check with you in three or four months to see how you’re doing.
Neil: Thank you.
Alex: Thank you, Neil for your time. It is very interesting how small town politics works — and you can see that Neil / any Deaf person has an uphill challenge to become a political candidate — because you have to consider the cost of an interpreter. But nothing is impossible for us, right? I’ll update you all several months later on how he is doing.