Penn State History Lessons: Students Running For Borough Council

Although several Penn State undergraduate students have run for seats on the State College Borough Council, few have made it past the primary election. Two undergraduate students are currently on a mission to change that trend.

Tom Dougherty, who previously served as the University Park Undergraduate Association’s Borough liaison, announced his candidacy last month ahead of the upcoming Municipal Primary Elections on May 21.

Jackson Fitzgerald, former Interfraternity Council executive vice president and current senior, hasn’t made a formal campaign announcement but has filed his candidacy petition and participated in UPUA’s Democratic primary debate.

At least seven other undergraduates have attempted to land a seat on Borough Council, with one successful campaign and two others that made their way to the general municipal election.

Dean Phillips (1973)

If Dougherty’s campaign is successful, he’ll become the second undergraduate student to earn a seat on Council. Dean Phillips ran a successful campaign in 1973, becoming the youngest elected official in the state. He served one year on Borough Council as an undergraduate student, then two and a half years as a graduate student.

Phillips developed an interest in borough government in high school when he joined then-Mayor Chauncey Lang’s Youth Advisory Council. At Penn State, Philips majored in sociology before attending law school at Villanova.

Former student body president and current Alexandria, Virginia city manager Mark Jinks encouraged Phillips to run for a seat because of his involvement with the advisory council, a group Jinks also sat on while in high school. As a State College native, Phillips held extra credibility among voters, having attended Council meetings and developed a feel for the community.

“Mark [Jinks] asked me if I was interested in running for Borough Council,” Phillips said, “and since I was both a student and also somebody who had grown up in State College, Mark thought I would be a good candidate to represent both students and the community.”

Phillips’ knowledge, along with his status as a junior in college at the time, seemed to be beneficial by allowing him to have a perceived better understanding of community concerns than a freshman or sophomore candidate.

Phillips advocated for the addition of the CATA bus system and the downsizing of the State College Bypass Project while on Borough Council. He also created the Standing Committee for Human Relations, which sponsored one of the first human rights ordinances in the state.

With a lot to prove as a college student councilman, he used his position to lead legislation and build low-income senior housing off University Drive to convince council members that a college student could take on the task of representing the Borough.

Phillips was the sole student candidate of the cycle and finished third in the general election, where he earned about 500 votes.

Adam Bender (1993)

Adam Bender was a pre-law major and served as a town senator in the University Student Government (USG). He was influenced to run for Borough Council by former student body president Chris Saunders in 1993 due to a lack of representation in local government.

Bender campaigned for Borough Council, running as a Democratic party member, while concurrently campaigning to become USG president. He ran alongside Rich Haines and Ed Howard, two fellow student candidates.

Bender’s interest in local government originated in college. After his brother became involved in student government at a different school, he realized he wanted to make a difference in the community.

Bender campaigned to gain a better understanding of downtown and on-campus relations for students and State College citizens to build more of a community atmosphere and learn what issues were important to each side. He mainly advocated against the occupancy limit.

Students responded well to Bender’s candidacy, but one of his biggest challenges was getting students to vote in State College.

“A lot of the students were registered in their home districts,” Bender said. “We did have a campaign to get them to register to vote in Centre County, but I don’t think it was successful.”

Bender had some support from the State College community but garnered little support from the Democratic Party. He initially finished fourth in the primary with 255 votes and advanced to the general election, where he finished sixth with 1,308 popular votes after the third-place candidate dropped out.

Rich Haines (1993)

Rich Haines was a senior international politics major and ran for Borough Council as an independent write-in candidate in the 1993 general municipal election. He was supported by the ELMS Coalition, a student political group that aimed to increase student involvement in local government.

Haines’ campaign focused on improving relations between students and local residents, specifically on equal treatment for Borough ordinances. He also campaigned for Penn State and alumni to create a housing endowment that would provide housing for student organizations.

Despite earning a little over 100 votes, Haines still had plans to continue his involvement in government. His goal at the time was to become a nonvoting council member in State College.

Ed Howard (1993)

Ed Howard was a junior computer science major and also ran against Bender and Haines in the 1993 general municipal election. Howard was also an independent write-in candidate and was supported by the ELMS Coalition.

Like Haines, Howard advocated for equal punishment for both students and local residents through Borough ordinances. He was a strong proponent for student representation in local government.

Howard garnered about 100 votes. At the time, he also planned to stay involved in local government but was still deciding how.

Mike Burcik (1995)

Mike Burcik ran for Borough Council in the fall of 1995 during his senior year as a general science major. While running as a Democratic candidate, Burcik was endorsed by the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and ran in the same race as current State College Mayor Don Hahn.

Burcik had a long history as a leader among his peers. He was a senator for USG and his fraternity. He also interned with the late Mayor Bill Welsh for a year, which sparked his initial interest in running for Borough Council.

Burcik’s familiarity with the State College community stemmed from spending time while growing up with his grandparents, who lived in the area. Burcik also had the support of the local Democratic committee, of which his grandfather was a member.

“Because I did have that family history, I think people realized, ‘This isn’t just a student coming on who is worried about student issues’ but what they can do from both sides,'” Burcik said. “I think people took it a bit more seriously because it wasn’t just a student trying to come in and change everything because they were unhappy.”

Burcik’s prior involvement with local government and attending council meetings also solidified his campaign and gave him a better understanding of how the Borough operates.

During his candidacy, Burcik worked as a liaison between students and local residents, while also focusing on residency issues and decreasing vandalism in the Borough.

Although he made it through the primary, Burcik did not win a seat in the municipal election, where he earned 9.18 percent of the popular vote. Burcik said that if he had won a council seat, he would have stayed in State College and continued to be involved in politics due to the relationships he built in the area.

Jason Birdsell (1997)

Jason Birdsell was a member of USG, where he initially got involved in local politics by helping with voter registration before eventually becoming the Director of Town Affairs. Before that, Birdsell helped Burcik with his campaign, which inspired him to take more interest in student-related issues and run for a spot on the council.

Birdsell studied finance and international business and ran for Borough Council as a junior in 1997. He was endorsed by the Undergraduate Student Government Senate. Prior to his candidacy, Birdsell served as USG’s co-director of the Department of Town Affairs.

Birdsell advocated against the Borough’s occupancy limit, which stated that no more than three unrelated people could live together. Birdsell worked to be transparent with students and State College residents by openly campaigning to learn what issues were important to them, while also making sure the community knew who he was and his principles.

However, Birdsell’s attempts were unsuccessful. He ran as a Democratic candidate but failed to garner significant support from his party and lost in the primary, earning 11.36 percent of the vote.

Looking back, Birdsell said he believes a student who’s a State College native and becomes a Penn State student has a better chance of earning a Council seat because of their credibility as a local resident.

“I think the right [candidate] is someone who grew up in State College and becomes a Penn State student because they have the local history and connections that would help them through the process,” Birdsell said. “Someone like me, coming in from Pittsburgh as a transient was tough to get the residents to trust me.”

Rylie Cooper (2017)

Prior to Dougherty’s candidacy announcement, Cooper was the last Penn State undergraduate student to run for Borough Council. During her freshman year, she campaigned as a Democrat but didn’t make it past the primary.

An international politics major and member of the Penn State College Progressives, Cooper decided to run for one of the three available spots on Council because she felt that there was a disconnect between students and the State College government.

Cooper advocated for more street lamp lighting downtown so students would feel safer walking at night, and hoped to suppress ordinances that directly affected the student population.

The 2017 election also saw an insurgence of student enthusiasm for local politics, thanks in no small part to the BugPAC “campaign to reclaim State College.” The organization set out to endorse “student-friendly” candidates but did not endorse Cooper.

Two of the three BugPAC-endorsed candidates were elected. Cooper was eliminated in the primary after earning 11.15 percent of the vote. She did not respond to a request for further comment.

One of the largest hurdles to jump for student candidates is the fact that the municipal primary is typically held after the majority of students have already left town for summer break. Former student body president Terry Ford made this particular challenge — or opportunity — the subject of his 2017 State of State address.

Encouraging students to request and submit absentee ballots becomes half the battle in this election, and this battle could be uphill for Dougherty and Fitzgerald.

The primary election is Tuesday, May 21.

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About the Author

Mackenzie Cullen

Sadly, Mackenzie graduated from Penn State in 2022. She majored in English and served as one of Onward State's associate editors. You can keep up with her life and send compliments to @MackenzieC__ on Twitter.

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