Associate Opinion Editor
As a young, clean-shaven blonde man of 20, sporting a trilby hat and a ponytail, Tony Dastra looks like he would easy be a laid-back gamer or even a surfer from California. But he’s not.
Tony Dastra is running to be mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The campaign was launched on March 7, 2017 through a Facebook livestream, the small grassroots nature of his mayoral bid.
He has three tentpole concerns, referred in his documents as S.E.T.: Sustainability, Equality, Transparency. These are interconnected to what he views as major issues holding back the city in which he grew up.
“This is where the revolution begins,” Dastra said about his campaign in an interview. “That’s something they don’t include a lot is this is a political revolution. And that’s why I’m running, to give everyone the power they deserve.”
Dastra is running as an independent. This sets him apart from the three Democrats vying for their party primary nomination as well as the single Republican candidate, Cindy Stewart, that are in the race.
In last year’s election, he registered as a Democrat strictly to vote for Bernie Sander’s primary campaign. Once Sanders lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, Dastra returned to his independent status, something he values.
“It is ultimately a core belief I’ve had since I was little to be honest,” Dastra said. “I don’t think that people who are in a party are necessarily unable to be leaders or unable to make decisions for all. But when we founded the country, when George Washington was our president, he was the only president to ever not have an affiliation. And that was arguably the most unified time for the country.”
He had not always planned to get involved with politics so early in life.
“The plan was to be like 40 and start dabbling in politics,” Dastra said. “But now I’m home, this is my hometown, I might as well start getting involved now.”
He originally attended Temple University as an Environmental Science major as well as Lebanon Valley College as a Music major. He dropped out of Temple in 2015 to take care of his great-grandmother.
Back in Lancaster now, Dastra works as the shift manager of a local Starbucks on Columbia Ave while attending Arizona State Online where he is set to finish with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He is currently set to graduate in December, “just in time for inauguration” as he put it. His work with Starbucks makes him eligible for their tuition reimbursement program.
During the 2016 primary, he was a campaign volunteer for Bernie Sanders during the primary. This marked the majority of his direct political involvement before his mayoral run, but he doesn’t see this as a detriment.
“You cannot be afraid what ‘qualifies’ you by the standards that have been set forth previously,” Dastra said. “One of the things that I think qualifies me is the law in general. If I think the literal qualification to run for office.”
Instead, Dastra has set his own barometer about what makes him ready for the position.
“The question is, do I think I’m ready to be a leader in the city,” he said. “And ultimately, I decided that I was ready because as an 18-year-old I made very difficult decisions that ultimately – people did not agree with the fact that I was dropping out of school – people did not think that it was wise, but I was very fearless in those decisions.”
He has also made a point since April 2016 to attend city council meetings. Since then, he has attended nearly every city council meeting, making numerous public comments about issues in his community. He also livestreamed the meeting on February 14, 2016, stating at the time he believed the council was not being transparent enough.
“Since [April 2016] I’ve been one of the most consistent attendees,” Dastra said. “And this year, at city council meetings I am pretty sure I have perfect attendance so far. Which is more than some of the council members including [Democratic candidate and councilwoman] Danene Sorace.”
Dastra’s grassroots efforts have been slowly amassing a following that is receptive to his message.
“He’s just an overall great guy,” said Gabriella Capp, who worked with Dastra at Starbucks before his management promotion. “He is always going above and beyond the needs of the customers and even makes his coworkers feel happy about work. He’s a strong person and I am truly moved by how he managed work, school, and helping out with his grandmother. He is an impressive young man and I would be honored to have him as our mayor.”
The campaign website still isn’t fleshed out with full the candidate’s stances on issues, which Dastra says is because of the limited resources available without outside funding. He believes the site will be complete by the end of May’s primary and hopes that over time more people will look into his message and become part of the campaign.
He is also not afraid to take stances on issues he views are important to the city, including public works.
The campaign appears to take a hard stance on bike lanes as a way of encouraging greener transportation like biking and walking. He views the reliance on cars as something ingrained in our society that we must ween ourselves off from. Projects like bike lanes and community parking areas can be one way to motivate this.
Dastra also wants to continue the city’s partnership with MAW communications for the city’s fiber internet project.
When it comes to the city council, Dastra would like to see a major change. Things includes changing it to a ward-based system, instead of the current system where all the members represent the whole city. He recognizes that this will not be the work of the mayor’s office. This change would require the city council to vote on it, which Dastra does not view as likely. The other way would be for residents to petition the city, something he encourages.
Dastra faces stiff competition in the now five-way mayoral race. The Democrats have three contenders in their May 16 primary: city councilwoman Danene Sorace, Lancaster businessman Norman Bristol Colon, and Meals on Wheels director Kevin Ressler. Sorace has received the endorsement of current Lancaster mayor Richard Grey. Former non-profit director Cindy Stewart is running uncontested for the Republican nomination.
A rough road is ahead for Dastra. Dr. Charles Greenawalt, associate professor of government & political affairs at Millersville University, is doubtful of his chances.
The professor believes that to succeed Dastra would need a significant following, money to campaign with, or experience working with the different non-profits and governmental organizations the mayor’s office would deal with. Without these Dr. Greenwalt says “he would have similar chances to other independent candidates in Pennsylvania, which is low.”
Dr. Greenwalt in part contributes this to PA’s level of partisanship. For example, the state remains one of only nine that allows for straight-party voting, meaning that a citizen can fill in a single box on a ballot to vote for all candidates in a single party. This puts independent candidates at a disadvantage.
Tony Dastra remains maintains an optimistic outlook on his candidacy.
“I’m really the only different candidate out here,” Dastra said. “Everyone else is doing everything in context of the two-party system which has been business as usual for the last century.”
Lancaster’s municipal election will be held on November 7, 2017.