The Democratic primary for the State College Borough Council general elections is being held on May 16. There are six candidates competing against each other, although only three can receive nominations. They include incumbent councilors Theresa Lafer and Evan Myers, along with Penn State freshman Rylie Cooper, graduate student Marina Cotarelo, State College resident Steve Mower, and Penn State administrator Dan Murphy.
We recently sat down for an interview with Rylie Cooper to provide insight into her background, the reasons she decided to initially run for Borough Council, the response she has received, the lessons she has learned thus far, and the initiatives she would push for if elected. Riley Cooper is a freshman at Penn State currently studying for a degree in International Politics, although she is looking to potentially switch into Community and Urban Forest Management and Sustainability. Last week, we released a profile of candidate Dan Murphy, which can be found here.
Ms. Cooper, can you start off by telling us a little bit about your background, and how those experiences have helped to inform the person you are today?
RC: “So, I grew up in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, one of the most Republican areas of Pennsylvania… in a small town called Thompson town [an hour south of State College]. State College and Juniata County actually share the same state-level Senator [Jake Corman]. It’s one of those towns that you could blink and actually miss it… you drive through and it’s a two minute drive straight through it, and then you’re back on the highway. In elementary school, I would’ve considered myself a moderate on my way to becoming a Democrat because my dad was always a pretty strong Democrat, and my mom was just kind of wishy-washy in her political beliefs.”
You were already politically oriented and active in elementary school?
RC: “Yeah, so in kindergarten actually, I took part in a mock election to elect George W. Bush, and he won by a landslide, if that tells you anything. So I actually voted for George W. Bush, and I’m ashamed of that. I didn’t know [too much about the election], and that was the only voice I’d heard around me, so of course that’s who I picked. Then, in second-grade, I decided I was going to be President like George W. Bush, but I was going to be better than him. [We were asked to fill out cards about our career aspirations], and I wrote ‘President’, and my teacher actually made me change it because she told me that a woman couldn’t be president.
“So every since that day, I’ve aspired to be some form of strong politician and help people because that teacher didn’t help me [try to] become a better person. So politics is a way not to just help myself, [but] also to help the people around me, and to inspire young girls to see that they are welcome in this political world, and that they can have roles of power. Just because someone tells them that they can’t do it doesn’t mean they actually can’t do it. So that was the first instance in my life where I knew that I wanted to be in some part of politics.”
How did your political views change prior to your enrollment at Penn State?
RC: “My senior year of high school, I finally got comfortable with being a Democrat and being more progressive than most Democrats, especially in my community where everyone was either voting for Ted Cruz or Donald Trump in the primaries. It was hard to be confident with myself and my identity. And once I saw Bernie Sanders speak for the first time… it inspired me to become more confident with my political beliefs and I started walking around school talking about Bernie Sanders [and] free college. I started to just become more confident with myself, and started to take more of a stand and started to question what I had always found to be the social norm in my community.”
How did the political environment on-campus compare to that experience?
RC: “When I came to Penn State, I started to find this welcoming [environment], not necessarily [based around] leftist ideals, but this welcoming community where you could have ideals that weren’t necessarily the same as someone else, and they might question you a little bit, but they were really receptive to what you have to say. Coming to Penn State was definitely a relief for me.”
How did you initially make that decision to come to Penn State?
RC: “My mom actually… works at Penn State. My grandfather went to Penn State. His brother went to Penn State. My cousins all went to Penn State. So [I have] just a kind-of Penn State background. A lot of times, we would come over to State College to go shopping, to eat, just for a change of scenery. Compared to where I’m from, this is definitely a more urban area. So I spent a lot of time over here as a kid and as a teenager, especially when I could drive and escape Juanita County. So that definitely had a lot of influence on me wanting to come to Penn State, because I saw how welcoming the State College community as a whole was. It was named ‘the little blue island’… and as a Democrat, I needed somewhere that I could that I wasn’t constantly surrounded by this Republican pressure.
“So that was part of my motivation for coming to Penn State. And just the whole community aspect of Penn State itself. Everyone here is sort of like one big family. You have one of the best alumni networks in the country. [That] really motivated me to come here. And then when I got here, I dove head first into campaigning. The Clinton campaign picked up, I [also] worked on a lot of local level campaigns. [PA State House Candidate] Melody Fleck was one that I personally went door to door with… I got to do some work for [U.S. House Candidate] Kerith Strano Taylor.
“[Campaigning] was something that really helped me see State College’s political views and how State College functions, because you’re going door-to-door, you’re getting to meet all of these people around the neighborhood, you’re establishing connections with… local-level politicians, state-level politicians, and national-level politicians. Getting to meet all of these different people… and them helping me shape my own political views… was probably one of the best experiences of my life.”
So, in your short time here, you’ve been pretty politically engaged with the community. What did you learn through those experiences that led you to run for Borough Council?
RC: “While I’ve been here, I’ve noticed this… lack of communication that happens between most of the students and a lot of the community members, and how it has created a lot of [division]. You’ll see prominent figures in the Penn State community who brigade Borough Council meetings and make demands and try to get things done, without [first] taking the time to sit down and listen to the Borough’s side of the story. You’ll hear demands for street lights, and different things like that… but they never take the time to sit down and listen [to the Borough Council saying] ‘Hey, we don’t have the money for this.’
“Because if you sit down and read the budget, they did allocate $250,000 for street lamps… but that’s not something they can always afford. And right now, State College isn’t really the wealthiest Borough. They don’t have the tax revenue they could have if they were chartered differently [such as like a city]… there’s just not the revenue. But you still see these prominent figures in the Penn State community painting the Borough as this anti-student place and they don’t necessarily represent the Penn State community as a whole. I felt that there were a lot of people that were marginalized by this… and after seeing [Bernie Sanders] speak and seeing how he could stand up for all of these marginalized groups, I figured that it was time for me to do something like that.
“I thought that it was time for the Borough to see students differently, and for students to see the Borough differently, so I was really hoping that this would be the time to bridge the gap, and form a nice line of communication between the two. If you sit down with community members… you start to realize that they care a lot about the same issues as you do. It’s just that you never take the time to sit down with them, so you don’t understand that.”
Besides bridging the gap between the Borough and Penn State, what are your other overarching goals?
RC: “My campaign is about more than just this “town-and-gown” gap, it’s also about trying to get younger generations involved in politics, and trying to show young people that it’s never too early to run. It’s not just about career politicians… it’s more about having your voice heard, and making sure that all of these marginalized groups are represented. I [also] want people to feel welcomed here, and I want them to feel like they can stay and start a family, and help State College out, because I think that State College really benefits from all of the diversity that Penn State brings in.”
How has your experience campaigning thus far been? What has the response of both students and residents been?
RC: “So we’ve been doing a lot of absentee ballot applications down by [the] Allen Street Gates… and a lot of people look shocked. They didn’t realize that there was an election that happens after they leave. Some responses have been ‘Oh, didn’t we just vote?’ And it’s like, yeah, but elections don’t stop. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s more than just a presidential election that happens. And that the Borough level has an impact on their everyday life… things that the Borough puts in place affect how you’re going to live.
“When the immigration ban was put into place for a while, State College Borough released a resolution, saying that they weren’t going to do anything that they weren’t legally obligated to do, unless ICE presented them with a warrant. So they took a stance of protecting the immigrants who had come into their community, and help make the community better as a whole. I really felt that that was a good thing to do, and you see people who don’t realize that this affects their everyday life. This election is going to affect them more directly than President Trump’s budget will, [at least] not as much as the Borough budget will affect them.”
Do you feel that students trust you more because you’re also a student?
RC: “When I talk to the students… a lot of times, the word ‘BugPAC” is thrown around, and I hear ‘Oh! Are you one of the BugPAC candidates?’ And then when I say ‘No’ they kind-of look at me, because I’m a student but I’m not endorsed by a pro-student PAC. But once I talk to them and explain what my platform is they always seem really on board, because they do feel like there’s sort of a disconnect, and they want to feel connected to the community. So that’s been great.
“They look at me and they see me as an equal. As someone who could represent them. A lot of the undergrads feel underrepresented in the State College Borough because they’re not graduate students, they’re not young professionals, so they don’t have a professional-level status. But they’re also not high school students. Their voices deserve to be heard. We’ve given them the right to vote. If you’re a college student, you’re voting and [considering] these decisions, but there’s no one there representing you. So I feel like that’s something we all really relate to.”
How have community members responded? Have any residents expressed reluctance regarding your age?
RC: “Community members have all been really receptive of my campaign. I’ve been working closely with Janet Engeman, who’s running for Mayor, [as well as current-Mayor Elizabeth Goreham]. The average community member has [also] been really receptive… I’ve had people want to sit down with me and talk about my opinions on affordable housing, how to expand the shrinking tax base in State College. I’ve had people just want to sit down and have coffee, and talk about random things… and sort of get to know me as a person.
“I’ve [also] been to Highland Civic Associations meetings, I’ve been to Planning Commission meetings, Borough Council meetings. I’ve been looked upon as an equal, I haven’t been looked upon as an undergrad. People look at me as someone who’s a serious candidate and [who] wants to better State College. I think that really speaks volumes… they’re taking the undergraduate candidate seriously.
“I haven’t actually had anyone be reluctant to me… about my campaign because I’m a freshman. A lot of people will listen to me before they ask… once they listen to what I have to say, they realize that I really do have ideas and really good intentions and want to make State College a better community. They don’t really brush me off… because they take the time to listen to me. They sort of just view me as a concerned citizen. That doesn’t mean I won’t face reluctance.”
If elected, how would you govern and differentiate yourself from other Council members?
RC: “I definitely want to be the on-the-ground Council member. I want to be the one going to the different neighborhood associations and listening to what they have to say. Talking to the off-campus student union, CGE [the Coalition of Graduate Employees], and talking to all of these different groups and getting all of their input. I really just want to get that well-rounded perspective to make sure I’m accurately representing who my constituents are, and making sure those marginalized voices are actually heard on Council.”
What specific problems have you heard residents bring up? If elected, what initiatives would you hope to see implemented?
RC: “When I think about initiatives that students [and neighborhoods] have already brought up, one of the biggest concerns is neighborhood safety. There’s been this big push for more street lights downtown, but if you think about it street lights are more of a safety net. Street lights give someone the feeling of walking home at night, where it’s well-lit and they can see their surroundings. But, wouldn’t a blue light be more effective? We have these blue lights on-campus, these call boxes that if something goes wrong you can automatically call. People keep demanding street lights, but they aren’t looking for more alternatives that could be more effective.
“We [Riley and the State College Chief of Police] also talked about expanding the auxiliary police force, and having it coordinate more with the auxiliary police force on-campus to focus more on residential safety. To be able to expand the State College auxiliary police force and add call boxes… would be a great safety initiative to take on, rather than just putting in street lights. Because street lights [also] keep people awake at night… and there’s studies that show that light pollution decreases quality of life. Safety is probably the most important issue that we need to focus on: we don’t want more tragedies like Beta Theta Pi, like the student who was beat up in an alleyway for being gay.”
“To be able to even afford those, we have to look at new, creative sources of revenue, which is where I get into my concept of a “pour” tax, which is a tax on poured-alcohol specifically. So six-packs and stuff would not be taxed the same way. But you look at Philadelphia and you look at Pittsburgh, and they a five cent tax on poured alcohol [and they’ve been successful]. If you look at weekends where we have a lot of tourists coming in… any money you see… coming in from tourism doesn’t got to State College itself. That money goes to the Tourism Borough, which is then distributed all among the County, and Penn State and State College don’t see their fair share of that. The pour tax… would be distributed within State College, and could be put into these initiatives. [We also] need to look at affordable housing [and comprehensive zoning reform] if we want to retain these Penn State students and create a more diverse community.”
Photo Credit: Riley Cooper for State College Borough