Mayor Tom Riel is in his third term as Mayor of Bradford, Pennsylvania. In 2015, Tom won his third consecutive election for the mayor’s office, having first been elected in 2007 after serving 2 years on the Bradford City Council, earning re-election by a five to one margin. As Mayor, Tom led an economic turnaround in his hometown, highlighted by a revitalization of Bradford central business district. Tom also serves on the executive board of the Pennsylvania State Mayors’ association, and for the Pennsylvania Municipal League Legislative Committee.
Craig: I am very pleased to have with me today, Tom Riel, who’s in his third term as Mayor of Bradford, Pennsylvania. In 2015, Tom won his third consecutive election for the mayor’s office, having first been elected in 2007 after serving 2 years on the Bradford City Council. It's evident that he knows how to get things done once in office, Mayor Riel was re-elected last year by a five to one margin. That's five-to-one margin. As Mayor, Tom led an economic turn around in his hometown, highlighted by a revitalization of Bradford central business district. Tom also serves on the executive board of the Pennsylvania State Mayors’ association, and for the Pennsylvania Municipal League Legislative Committee. Mayor, welcome. Thanks for being here with us. I really, really appreciate it.
Tom Riel: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Craig: Tom, I'm really glad to be talking to you after having a couple minutes to chat with you the other day. I'm looking forward to digging into your story. When you and I talked by phone the other day, you described yourself as an unconventional politician, which I love and I can't wait to get into that. Before we do though, just do me a favor, and just fill in between the lines of the intro that I just gave. Tell us a little bit more about yourself, and your experience in government and politics.
Tom Riel: Alright. I never thought I would get into politics. When I first moved back to Bradford in 1996, I started to buy a couple buildings in downtown Bradford and the city was kind of all over me about what my plans for the building, kind of dictating what I might do with them. I got kind of annoyed, so I joking said that I was going to open an adult establishment, a new club in a one of the buildings right in the heart of downtown. I was just joking but the city reacted and started enacting ordinances, and tripped over themselves and tried to stop me from something that was never actually going to happen.
To make a long story short, they ended up paying me double what we paid for the building just three months after we purchased it to make the whole problem go away, because they broke the law and were subject to a lawsuit. It kind of opened my eyes to politics. The people that run this town are really that silly and really that stupid. Maybe I should start paying attention to politics. So, I did, and I didn't like what I saw. I pressed more and more, and uncovered what I saw as nepotism and vindictiveness by our government. It was mean. They pushed back and it was some tough years there, but eventually I ran for city council and was elected, and then was elected mayor. To try to do away with some of the bad things I thought I saw in local government.
Craig: How did you launch? You've got your inspiration, you've got your motive for running. How did you dig in, in the first place?
Tom Riel: I was a bit of an activist, or a thorn in the local government’s side. I became well known. I bought this old building and put signs up on the building and questioned the local government. Each of the signs was kind of a riddle and I ended up in federal court, and they did a national news story about it. I was very well known already even though I had never been elected, the public at large knew who I was. In general most people understood what I was doing was a hell of an argument. I wasn't just some crazy person out there trying to be a pain in the butt for the local government. I just announced that I was going to run. Actually I had run a one time before. Before I was actually on the council, I ran for mayor.
Everybody just kind of looked at me like I had three eyeballs or what not because the mayor was always elected from somebody who was actually already in city council and had proven themselves to the public. Everybody was against me. The local fire department, police department went to door-to-door against me. The so-called establishment was against me. I ran and I only lost by 42 votes, so I actually lost the first time I ran. Then two years later is when I actually ran for city council. I was pretty well known, between having run once, which was a failed attempt from there, and then all my local rabble-rousing, I suppose you’d call it.
Craig: What was the ticket the second time. What really pushed you over the top to actually win that town council election?
Tom Riel: I think I was running against somebody who was already on council – an incumbent that wasn't real active. They didn't put much of a fight or campaign up at all. No yard signs, no radio ads, no nothing. They just took for granted because they were already on there, that they were going to stay on there. I think it was just, obviously a mistake on that person.
Craig: Contrast for me the campaign that you ran at the beginning versus now having been in office and having a record and being able to influence things in Bradford. Talk about the different approaches you had for that first campaign and this last campaign.
Tom Riel: It's easy when you've never been elected, to sort of say, “I want to run for public office because I want to change this, this and this. I want to save the taxpayers money doing this, this, and this.” That's very often pie in the sky. But once you've actually been elected and you have a proven track record you can actually say look what I have accomplished, not what I might accomplish. This is what we've accomplished. You're able to run on your record once you've been in office for a period of time. It's proven results, not just somebody saying, well I think I can get in and I can change all these things. I think the general public knows usually that's a lot of hot air.
Craig: As you got into the campaign, even up until today, what surprised you when you were running for office?
Tom Riel: Early on what surprised me was the boldness of the city employees in trying to influence the outcome of an election. Early on, I guess, the first time I ran for Mayor and didn't get elected, and when I actually ran for council and did get elected, there were employees engaged. It was improper and probably illegal, but when I went from city council to actually running for the Mayor’s position, they were involved that time also. So it was for three different elections the city employees were involved. One of the local unions was donating money to my opponent. I was kind of surprised that they were really trying to dictate who was going to be their boss in a way, I suppose. A member of the council.
The last election that happened was, when I ran to be re-elected mayor the second time, I didn't even have an opponent. I ran unopposed. Then this third time here I had a guy running, you couldn't ask for a better candidate, in that he should have never been elected. The public saw that and it was quick, very easy to see it.
Craig: One of the things that we talk about a lot running, and you kind of enunciated it in the beginning, why you ran. Running for a purpose, having a specific reason, then you can tell voters and voters can buy in to. You've done a lot in Bradford since you've had the opportunity to serve as mayor. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the things that you've been able to accomplish once you're in office?
Tom Riel: When I ran, I was very critical of many different aspects of city government. I was very critical of code enforcement. It had been a decade long failure, but continuing down a failing road was only speeding up the demise of our housing stock in Bradford. Once I was elected I didn't let up, and I kept on that. Eventually it was that the code enforcement that was negotiated out of the fire department. We formed a new property maintenance office and brought them to consult from the outside, and really restructured the whole program. Gave them little devices so that they're out in the field with technology, they don't have to wait and write things down on paper. We took code enforcement and turned it from property maintenance out of the dark ages and brought it into the modern world. That's an accomplishment the city council and many other people worked together on to make happen.
When I ran and was elected mayor the first time, the police department needed a change of leadership, a kind of overhaul. We've really done that. We've had two police chiefs since I became mayor. We've gotten the general public involved and solicited a lot of private funds to really bring the department up to a technological level that's not even seen by any other department in this whole region of northern Pennsylvania. We did all that with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and pretty much all with private money. I think people believe in what I'm doing. They believe in what the police department is doing. They would all come forward and donate money so we can, for example, we put the entire downtown business district under video surveillance with these cameras. We would never have done it with tax payers dollars. We brought the level of training of our police offers have to a much higher standard. We have in-car computers that we didn't have before. Our officers were some of the first ones in Pennsylvania to actually wear body cameras. We raised that money privately as well. As mayor I directly oversee the police department. I think it's really brought the police department a long way.
Craig: Running a campaign to get people to support you for office is one animal, but campaigning to get private dollars for an initiative like that is something else. How were you able to accomplish that?
Tom Riel: A lot of the time we've had to reach out, mail out letters and do stories in the newspaper that we're trying to raise money. We've had, luckily, we've done quite a few fundraisers. We go back to some of the same people and they're willing to give us money, and there are some people willing to give five thousand dollars every time we ask for it. And some people willing to give ten thousand dollars. I had somebody call up one time, and they said they wanted to give the city a hundred thousand dollars and this is what I want you to do with it. They wanted to help out the police department, so we had the police chief put together a list of everything the police department could possibly want, putting in a new roof, new heating, new air conditioning, new furniture. It was an extensive list and it came out to much more than a hundred thousand dollars. When we pitched all these improvements to the police department, to this person, they actually wrote a check for more than a hundred thousand dollars – covered everything on the list and gave us extra.
Sometimes it's not always soliciting. People see that we're doing a good job and they want to help out.
Craig: That's really fantastic, you're going to have a lot of mayors listening to this, jealous of that kind of involvement in the community. So you're fairly soon into your third term now. What's the biggest challenge you're facing now. What are you trying to accomplish in this term?
Tom Riel: We want to make the tax base our number one priority for the City of Bradford. The City of Bradford's population has been declining since 1940. So for 75 years it's been declining and it's something that we need to address much more aggressively. Which we're doing several ways. We're doing it through the new property maintenance office program. It's not the deterioration of existing dwellings. We have several different entities and programs in Bradford that are actually building new homes in the city of Bradford, which raises the tax base. In some cases, it raises it three hundred percent higher than what the old buildings that were before the built the new homes. We're really aggressively trying deal with that.
Craig: That's great, that's great.
Tom Riel: We have some major economic development projects in the downtown that should generate many more times the cash dollars than the old structures that were there previously.
Tom Riel: We've even convinced some private developers to get on board. It's not just a city job. We have private developers building houses and raising some significant areas in the downtown for new commercial development. There's a buy in by people from the general public as well.
Craig: It's fantastic when you can build momentum and then people see some good things happening and start to invest, themselves. Let me go to the campaign. I'm going to ask you two questions as those who are listening are largely candidates who are thinking of running for the first time, or are already committed to running for the first time. I'm going to ask you two questions, one is along the way, in any of your campaigns from your first one to the most recent, is there a mistake that you've made that, if you could go back and fix it you would, and what you learned from it? The second question, which I'll get to after that is some advice – advice for somebody who is thinking of running for office.
Tom Riel: I've made a couple of mistakes. Sometimes you trust the wrong people, with the trick being a small town, or a small city, you got to watch what you say. When you're campaigning, you say one wrong thing to the wrong person it's going to come back around and get you. The main thing, I've had people come in and ask for advice how to run a campaign. Anybody that wants to run, they need to have a platform. Particularly somebody who has never been elected before.
Earlier when I talked to you about people saying there's a pie-in-the-sky wanting to change this, this, and this. That's all great and wonderful but if you're wanting to have a good solid platform to run on you want to explain how you're going to accomplish those goals, how you're going to achieve those changes, you're not just saying I'm going to change this stuff. You have to have a roadmap on how you're going to accomplish what's in your platform. Running for political office is a sales job, is what it is. You have to sell yourself to the general public why you're better than whoever is running against you. So it's about selling yourself. I've seen some great people running for public office but they didn't have the ability to publicly sell themselves at all. They were just too timid and meek.
Craig: We talk about that a lot, the sales piece of it and how folks who come out of the private sector, these small business people who don't have a problem picking up the phone and calling somebody to get a client. That's a transition they can make because they're used to doing it. You're touching on something that you've said at a couple times that I want to go back to. You mentioned about a small town, a small city and how the politics, there's a specific way to approach politics there. You are on the executive board on the Pennsylvania Mayors’ Association and Pennsylvania has some very large cities, and you're interacting with those folks. Can you shed some light on what you see in the differences in how they approach not only their jobs, but ultimately their campaigns as opposed to how you do in a smaller city.
Tom Riel: I know that some mayors of larger cities use social media to aid them in their campaigning. There are some mayors that are on social media everyday, they're on Facebook posting updates and what-not. That's fine if you have privacy settings where people can't come on there and attack you. I've heard horror stories about social media and those who campaign out there, where people can go out and just form a phony account under made up make believe name really and say pretty much anything they want about a candidate. I think social media is a pretty dangerous thing for an elected official. Keep it strictly to the city business with privacy settings.
Craig: What about door-to-door canvasing and those kind of those things. Obviously in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. It's TV buys and things like that, that are going to ultimately make the difference.
Tom Riel: I think door-to-door if you have a street list made for the primary. You have a street list of active Republican voters, you only knock on the doors of the houses where you know, and keep a log. I think if someone had the time to do that, it's great. It's a great way to touch base with people. But it can also be very time consuming. I've done it and people pull me in to their house. Pry yourself out of there because they don't want to let you go. Also just reach out to people, I've been known to do this a lot, if you reach out to people that don't normally vote that you might know, or be a neighbor or a friend or somebody and you give them a reason to vote, and kind of coach them a long and follow up with them with a call a week before the election – ask them if they feel like they fall in to your campaign. There's a lot people just looking for a reason to vote. They’re tired of the same old, same old issue, the center of the jury so to speak.
There's also, there's a lot of people that you might know personally, who might be registered to another party. Not the party you're running in, and very often be around those people, even if you just went to school with them, really not that close to them, and you approached them politely enough, right now. They're willing to switch over to your party to help get you in the primary. I've done that, switched over hundreds of people.
Craig: That's pretty impressive. You talked about follow up. That's just such a key. You see a lot of candidates will knock on somebody's door, say hi to them in May, and then that's the last you hear from them until they get a mail piece a week before the election. The follow up is so key to make people understand that you are actually there for them. You're running to be their representative.
Tom Riel: Yeah. Just follow up and coach them, not just register to vote, and say, “Hey, vote.” But reach back out to them. Get a chance to stop by. Put a yard sign in their yard. Give them a phone call. In the election between Obama and Romney that Romney spent 4.5 million on social media and Obama spent 45 million. There is some truth to that, that it does work, but I think in a small town, it more so could be dangerous.
Craig: I really like, you keep using the word “coaching.” Coaching of voters. That's a great principal that makes an awful lot of sense. Let's talk about your own inspirations. Is there a book that you've read that's impacted your political career or your interactions in your community.
Tom Riel: One of my favorite books is a book called On Leadership by Rudy Giuliani. It's a great book, it's a must read for anyone who is an elected official. There's another book called The Great Mayor. It's worth a read. There's one that was written by a former mayor in New Jersey called The Mayor's Chronicles. That's a really interesting book to read. It shows what happens when you get elected but you get on the wrong side of the political machine.
Craig: What do you read on a daily basis? How do you stay in-the-know on issues and on your community?
Tom Riel: I'm a news junkie. I read the local newspaper everyday. I read a lot of news on the internet. I particularly try to read the municipal news of Pennsylvania. They're updated daily. I try to keep abreast of what's going on across the state as far as municipal news. I'm active with, as you mentioned before, some of the state organizations, I get updates on that and a lot of news from those organizations as well.
Craig: You've had some success in the political arena that's led to being able to accomplish things in the governmental arena. Again, to someone who is thinking of running for office or is engaged in their first campaign already, what's been the key to your success? What approach of yours, or what asset of yours, has paved the way for you?
Tom Riel: When you want to try to change things in government, the wheels turn very slowly. When you first get elected you really want to change those things but it takes time. You’ve got to get the rest of your elected body on board, there's very often laws that prohibit you to work, contractual obligations with your union employees that don't line up with changes. Everything seems to take twice as long as you'd like. I think it's hard for anybody here in one term to really change a whole lot. For a couple of terms. The key is, is you have to be on board with the rest of your elective body. You want to get elected and the rest of your elected body whether it's your council, city council. If they’re not on board with you, you're going to accomplish nothing. You have to work with the rest of the elected officials before accomplishing any goals.
Craig: So what's next for you? You're just starting out your third term as mayor.
Tom Riel: First mayor in the city's history to serve three terms. I wonder if they realized something I didn't. Maybe I made a mistake.
Tom Riel: It's been a challenge. It's been difficult. It's taken up a lot on me personally, even financially, with my marriage and my wife. We've persevered and we keep pushing through. My wife was very much against me being elected mayor the first few times, but this last time she started to really look back some of the things that we as a team have accomplished in the city of Bradford. I mean that sincerely, it's not just words, it's not just your locally elected official, it's all your department heads and employees that all worked together as a team to accomplish things. My wife looked back and saw the accomplishments and saw the person that was running against me. Would we survive if that person were to be elected? She approved me running a third time, that's never happened before. I don't know that I'll run for a fourth mayor, people keep asking. We'll see what the next couple of years bring up. I don't have an ambitions to seek any higher office outside of that.
Craig: Sure, sure. You’ve got time for that. You mentioned your wife's involvement in the decision making process. That comes up an awful lot in these interviews. As we're trying to get candidates to understand, there really is an impact on your family. It's not only yourself. It's your family and how important it is to have that support with you as you're getting in to this.
Tom Riel: We don't have any children but I've seen other elected officials, their families get dragged in this and ultimately, it's just brutal. My wife was very much against me running for mayor the first few times. I think I had to threaten her with divorce to even get her to vote for me. This past time I didn't have to do that.
Tom Riel: Anybody running for office should sit down with his or her family because it does take a lot of time. We have two public meetings a month, but we have many other meetings behind the scenes. The meetings that I have to attend are 10 or 20 times as much work as people actually think it is. It does take a big chunk of your private life if you're going to be an active and successful elected official. Really, family, you got to take them into consideration.
Craig: Right, right. Mayor where can people find out more about you and more about what's going on in Bradford?
Tom Riel: I can find out stuff that I didn't even know about myself if I were to Google it on the internet. There's a lot of nonsense out there. About the city of Bradford, you can go to the Mayor’s extension and leave a voicemail and it will immediately come in to my cell phone, no matter where I am. I try to get back. Anybody that wants to reach out, you're more than welcome.
Craig: That's great. Well Mayor, thank you so much.
Tom Riel: I'm on Facebook too. But I'm not political on Facebook. Send me a message.
Craig: Your personal page, which is always that delicate balance.
Tom Riel: Yes sir.
Craig: Well, thank you again for joining us today. I really appreciate it, really enjoyed talking to you. I wish you the best of luck with this third term and with all of your personal and professional endeavors. I definitely, definitely want to stay in touch with you.
Tom Riel: Okay, thank you sir.
Craig: Thank you very much.
Welcome to the Campaign Coach Podcast. Craig Turner is a nationally recognized political consultant who has managed campaigns for two decades. On the show, Craig interviews politicians and political experts to share how they get elected, stay elected, and make a difference… and you can too. For a free copy of Craig’s new candidate’s guide, “How to Avoid the 7 Biggest Mistakes That Can Keep You From Getting Funded, Getting Votes... And Getting Elected” or to http://www.TheCampaignCoach.com