Tuesday, June 22, 2021

On track to lead SC: A conversation with Ezra Nanes

STATE COLLEGE — As things stand, Ezra Nanes is poised to become the next mayor of State College. Nanes declared victory in the May 18 Democratic primary, holding a nearly two-to-one majority over Jim Leous the following day (election results will not be official until they are certified, which must happen before June 7); there were no Republicans on the ballot. Nanes is director of business development at AccuWeather. In 2018, he became involved in the local political scene when he challenged longtime incumbent Republican state Sen. Jake Corman in the 34th District election. While his bid was unsuccessful, Nanes won 52.8 percent of the vote in Centre County. Nanes lives in State College with his wife, Mieka Haeck, and their two children, Mila, 11, and Raffa, 8.

A week after the election, Nanes took time to reflect with The Centre County Gazette on his campaign and what the victory will mean moving forward.

CCG: Congratulations on your victory in the primary. What made you want to run for mayor?

Nanes: You know, my wife and I love State College. We’re raising our children here, we’re building our careers here. We care a great deal about the present and future of this place. We want to make sure we’re contributing to that future and having it be one that is welcoming and inclusive for everybody. We see tremendous potential in this community, and we want to be a part of realizing that potential.

CCG: When you realized you won the primary, what was going through your mind?

Nanes: Well, the first thing was, “Wow.” It was elation, feeling the emotion of just pure joy and elation, and just thinking, “Wow, OK, we did it, you know, we won the election.” … Until we saw the votes come in … we did not know if we were going to win or lose.

It was a great campaign; Jim ran a good campaign. We talked about the issues. A lot of people loved Jim and we didn’t take anything for granted.

Actually, having a campaign like that really allowed us the opportunity to think about what we brought to the table. But, in that moment, it was excitement and thinking about while we have a chance to really do what we want to do here and really be a part of shaping the future so, it’s just incredible excitement.

CCG: I know you have a lot of support from your family. What did your kids think, knowing that their dad is now likely to become mayor?

Nanes: You know, my wife and children and I have been through this journey of campaigning one other time on a big scale with the Senate run. That night was a different kind of night for us. So, this time around, everybody’s emotions were really high. They were intense. The children were coming up to me every five, 10 minutes. “Daddy, what happened? Did you win? Daddy, did you win? Daddy, what does that mean? What does this mean?” So, they were like right there with me.

I made every effort to keep my emotions calm and in check. Then all of a sudden you hear this cheer go up, and my heart started pounding. I knew something good had happened. When I saw those first numbers, we knew we were getting there. The kids are incredibly excited and proud. They care a lot about the things we care about. They’re so smart and sensitive and they’re really tuned into inclusivity — the idea that all people deserve to have a voice, deserve to be appreciated, loved and found.

You know, Mieka and I are partners in everything, so she and I are together in this. Her emotions, her life, her passions are deeply invested in what we’re doing. So I think there was definitely also a sense of relief, like, OK, it happened, we did it, and now we can move on from here.

CCG: You are raising your family here and you have your career here. What in your opinion makes State College a special place?

Nanes: Number one, the people. I think any place that’s really special has to do with the people. We’ve just made so many incredible friends through different parts of our lives here.

Also through Mieka’s work as a physical therapist, starting a practice now and actually launching her own business within the last year, through my work at Accu-Weather, through our political involvement, through volunteering and through the outdoor scene, we’ve come to know so many people and our neighbors and we just love the people here.

There is a great mix in State College. You have people who have been born and raised and lived here for their entire lives. You have people who have come here from the other side of the world. So, we get a great mix of perspectives and backgrounds, and it just makes for a very wonderful place to live.

Also, we love the outdoors. If you live here, you know that we have access to some of the most wonderful nature. Very easily you can get into the mountains in 15 minutes from almost anywhere. We spent a lot of time in the mountains, out in nature. That’s really one of our greatest sources of joy and health and happiness and togetherness. So those are two of the things.

There’s also just really amazing culture. There are things like The State Theater and Three Dots and Arts Fest and all these wonderful parts of the community that we just really enjoy.

Also, we’re in the middle of farm country, so we have access to really great produce. We’re able to have direct relationships with farmers who grow the food that we consume. That is really, really special.

I have a long list there and I could keep going. I think another thing about State College, and more broadly central Pennsylvania as a whole, is a very dynamic political environment. I think we find a lot of opportunity to do good, to make real progress by getting to know people here and working in the political and civic arena. That’s something we really take great satisfaction in.

CCG: What do you think are the biggest issues facing State College right now?

Nanes: Well, obviously, one of them is racial justice and also gender justice, gender equity and inclusivity. You know, State College is a part of a broader context of America, and although we don’t have all the same dynamics as a major city, we do have issues of racial bias and injustice here. I know this because I have made an effort to reach out to a lot of people and learn from them and hear their experiences while running for mayor and even before that.

This is not something I’m just saying because I’m saying it. It is something I’ve really made an effort to understand. Not just the shooting and killing of Osaze Osagie, which is an open wound in the community, and something we must address, but also, stories of college students who happen to be black who were followed in stores because of the color of their skin … things like that. Things like the defacing of the Martin Luther King mural and the pride wall in Bellefonte. These issues are here.

I believe in the goodness of the people here. I know that even people who may not see the importance of something like a community oversight board or making inclusively, justice and equity the center of what I stand for, I know that they are good people and they care, so some of it is just centering these voices.

This is the opportunity, bringing voices of underrepresented minorities, whether those be racial, religious, ethnic, national, gender, transgender, bringing those voices to the center of our conversation and learning about what it’s like to be somebody different from us.

That is one of the most enriching things about being involved in this and one of the biggest opportunities I see. When we hear all those voices, when we include them in our decision-making, we make better decisions. We end up making decisions that benefit the whole populace. I think that is one of the biggest things that we need to focus on.

Our election results, in my opinion, are a huge validation of the community’s intention, not just interest, but intention, to pursue a course of inclusivity for all people, to make sure that all voices are heard and represented.

The victory that we had was not just a two-to-one vote margin, but it was in every precinct in the borough. We saw these big vote counts and what is really important is it was the whole borough and it’s not generational. Foxdale Retirement Community came out overwhelmingly for us. I think that really speaks to the power of this message.

Early in the campaign, too, we had a campaign logo that we adapted from my 2018 logo. I had this idea and I went to Maddie King, who is a high school student and an incredible graphic designer. I said, “Maddie, can you help us bring the idea of inclusivity into this logo?”

She designed what we call the inclusive logo that we use. It has the rainbow, it has got shades of brown in it. With it, in everything we put out there, we were just saying this is what we stand for and you are part of the work that we’re doing. You are part of our coalition that we’re building. I think that really resonated.

Another thing is enfranchisement, the power of the vote and the ability to be represented is so critical and relating to what we’re talking about with inclusivity. That is the foundation for our work and the other big thing that we have to deal with, which is sustainability. Sustainability is climate and it is also economic growth. We need to be able to grow for the long-term sustainability. If we don’t address climate change aggressively, we’re going to continue to see even more problems than we have already seen with things like floods that caused mold in schools, washed out roads, lost crops, things like that.

So, building on this foundation of having all voices heard, I think we are going to have a broader perspective on doing things like investing in going 100-percent solar. You know, we can get all of our energy municipally from solar power very quickly if we want to.

Another thing that I care a lot about, which relates to sustainability, is viability, walkability and multi-modal transportation … being able to get around in ways other than by driving our cars. We love cars. We drive cars and they’re necessary. But, if we can walk, bike and take the bus places, it reduces pressure on our roads. It reduces the need for parking spaces. It opens up opportunities for green space and health, to make things quieter and with less emissions.

We spend lots and lots of money on road and parking infrastructure, and will have to continue to do that, but I think if we can shift some of that investment to bike infrastructure, we’ll see great benefits. Businesses are attracted by places that have a high bike-ability score and have a high inclusivity score. All these things also attract our businesses and we want our businesses downtown to thrive. So that’s another great opportunity we have is to support them.

CCG: If things go as expected and you are serving as mayor next year, what kind of impact do you hope to make?

Nanes: The dream is to have a thriving downtown with even more green space, more bike lanes, walkability, solar on the roofs, where our community can come and be together and enjoy the company of our neighbors and we see our local businesses thriving. I’d like to see solar on every roof. You know, I’d like to see us being a leader in the state on things like inclusivity and on climate change.

And we are leaders. There is incredible leadership here. Everything I say is to build on the foundations that have been laid by many amazing public servants and community members before us. These are not new ideas, but what I’m doing is clarifying this vision.

These are things that we are going after aggressively because we can be a leader across the state and be a beacon of hope for people.

We want to make sure we have access to housing and food for everybody. Affordable housing, working with our new incoming council members and our continuing council members to adjust our zoning so that we can really promote affordable housing and green space and things that will add to quality of life for everybody.