State Sen. Tim Kearney, 58, represents the 26th District, which covers 18 Delaware County communities as well as Easttown and Willistown in Chester County.
In 2018, he defeated Republican Tom McGarrigle in an upset to become state senator, the first Democrat to represent the 26th district since 1978.
PIVOT.Today recently spoke to Sen. Kearney about his life before becoming a Senator as an architect and about what he hopes to accomplish in office.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, one of four boys. My father was a Superior Court judge in Ocean County, where he handled juvenile and family court cases. My mother was a Catholic school teacher so, of course, I was a Catholic school kid.
What memories do you have of growing up in Tom’s River?
Toms River was a beautiful place to grow up. We were close to Barnegat Bay and Seaside, so I spent a lot of time sailing. It’s also a very Republican area, and I realized very quickly we were probably the only family in town with a framed photograph of FDR in our living room.
Where does your interest in architecture come from?
From an early age, my parents instilled in me a sense of responsibility to use my time in this world to make it a better place. I also had a deep interest in art and was pretty good in math. By the end of a dog walk with my father when I was 14, I made the decision to combine these interests by pursuing architecture.
Architecture has a direct impact on how people live their everyday lives and interact with their surroundings. For me, it is a concrete way of making our world a better place by creating safe, sustainable spaces that strengthen communities.
Who were major influencers in your life?
My uncle was a priest who ran a program for under served communities in Jersey City. Every Christmas we would bring gifts to a store he set up, where people in the city could come and pay what they could for Christmas presents. This helped me see how fortunate my life had been compared to so many people who, through no fault of their own, were living in poverty.
I was influenced by my family in other ways too. While they were very different from each other, both my grandmothers taught me that anything worth having is worth working for.
What music did you listen to in high school?
As a Catholic kid from New Jersey, I mostly listened to Bruce Springsteen in high school. But my tastes became much more eclectic in college.
What sports did you play in school?
I ran track and played basketball and soccer. I’m still a soccer nut and coached my daughter’s soccer team for 10 years.
What was your first job?
My first job was delivering the Philadelphia Bulletin. A 14-year-old kid had to get used to knocking on people’s doors. It was good experience, since I’ve had to knock on a few doors since then.
Where did you go to college?
I went to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. for my undergraduate degree. Washington was an exciting place, especially for an architecture student.
I then came to Philadelphia to get my Masters of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. I was a great admirer of Louis Kahn, an architect who used to teach there.
What did you do after college?
After grad school, my wife and I stayed in Philly and we joined Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. For about eight years, Disney was my main client. I was the lead architect on the Frank G. Wells Building, a studio production building on Disney’s Burbank studio lot; and the Reedy Creek Emergency Services Headquarters, which is the fire station for Disney World. I also worked on the Philadelphia Orchestra Hall, the National Gallery Extension in London, various academic buildings across the country, additions to the New Jersey State Aquarium, and Camden Children’s Garden.
What makes a successful building project?
The most important things about a building are how it is relevant, where and how it sits, and how it interacts with its surroundings. The process of designing almost always starts with this and the needs of the client, and of course is shaped by the budget.
Tell us about Cueto Kearney Architects in Swarthmore
My wife Claudia and I have had our firm in Swarthmore for 15 years. We work on a variety of projects, large and small, with an emphasis on higher education. We also enjoy local residential work, and all our projects are rooted in sustainability. The firm has designed Metropolitan Hall and the Widener Conference Center at Widener University, the New Science Center, the Marian Anderson Music Center, the Leslie Pickney Hill Library renovations at Cheyney University, a variety of projects at Swarthmore College including a new reading room at McCabe Library, and planning studies at Lincoln University, IUP, Shippensburg, and Thomas Jefferson University.
The firm’s pro bono work includes the new Swarthmore Central Park; Nether Providence High School Memorial Garden at the Strath Haven Middle School, the site of the former high school; a Tyler Arboretum treehouse; the Sparrow House, an outdoor classroom and meeting place at the Swarthmore Rutledge School; and renovations for the Swarthmore Co-Op.
What made you and your wife decide to move to Swarthmore?
We moved to Swarthmore because we liked the idea of raising a family in a college town. We loved Swarthmore’s walkability but also its great public transit system. Between local fixtures like the co-op and the farmer’s market, we felt a strong sense of community there.
Is it true you lead the Swarthmore Ukulele Orchestra?
It’s very true – I’m a proud ukulele impresario. The Swarthmore Ukulele Orchestra, or Swukestra, has been playing for about six years now. We started as an act for the Golden Gnomes, which was an adult talent show that used to be held in Swarthmore. We did it just for fun but, once we played, we realized we were actually good. We play monthly with anywhere up to 16 players, including bass, baritone, concert, soprano, and tenor ukuleles.
What made you decide to launch your political career in Swarthmore, first on the Planning Commission, then two terms as Swarthmore mayor?
I wanted to get involved in the community. I joined the planning commission in 2003 and served for about 11 years, including seven as chairman. We updated several of the zoning codes to be more specific to Swarthmore, and dealt with all the zoning issues around the inn that the college wanted to build.
In 2013 I ran for mayor because of changes that were happening in town, including the controversial roundabout project. I wasn’t a typical politician; I was simply a citizen who wanted to offer my service for the good of the borough and my neighbors.
What made you make the leap and run for state Senate?
It was a sense of moral outrage after the 2016 election. It wasn’t an outrage that a Republican had won. It was an outrage that Donald Trump won. Our children
should be able to watch our president with pride, but Trump was completely antithetical to the way I raised my children.
My wife and I spent a lot of time after the 2016 election going to rallies and protests. That’s when my state representative, Leanne Krueger, encouraged me to run for the state Senate. I was flattered because Leanne has worked hard to recruit quality candidates for many races. After taking a deeper look at the dysfunction in Harrisburg, I knew I had to do my part to ensure a quality public education for every child, a clean and sustainable environment, and fair budget that supports working families.
How has being an architect helped you in your political career?
Architects have to understand patterns and inter-connectivity. While some like to talk about things in black-and-white terms, architects deal with complexities. We need to know a little bit about a lot, but we also need to collaborate with others to get the project done. All this has helped me a great deal in Harrisburg, where I must navigate tough issues and build coalitions.
What have you learned by campaigning for state Senator in the 26th District?
The campaign trail introduced me to people and issues I never would have known otherwise. I got to hear first-hand about the challenges and the hopes that people had. I also got to better understand the diverse cultures in areas like Upper Darby, where students at the local high school speak 75 different languages.
It’s important that our office reflects the diversity of our district. Our staff includes women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and even some Republicans.
Talk about the differences you find across the 26th District
We have some glaring inequalities in our district, especially in terms of school funding. Per pupil spending differs greatly between our wealthiest and poorest school districts, from $23,000 in Great Valley to $14,000 in Upper Darby. That’s why I’m fighting to pass all state dollars through a fair funding formula to ensure every child can have a quality public education, regardless of their income or zip code.
Talk about some of the issues important to you
As I mentioned, one of my top fights is education. When it comes to equity in school funding, Pennsylvania has been called the worst in the nation. Underfunding our schools means robbing from our children. It also means higher property taxes, as local municipalities are forced to make up for the lack of state support. We need to close the shameful gap in funding between schools and give every child an equal start.
One of the most urgent issues of our time is the environment. For too long we’ve been sacrificing clean air and clean water for the oil and gas industry’s profits. Even before I became a legislator, I was practicing environmental sustainability as an architect. Architecture is one of the only professions that care for the planet is written into our code of ethics. We’re pushing for Pennsylvania to meet 30% renewable energy by 2030.
I’m also focused on helping victims of sexual assault. I went to Harrisburg to amplify the voices of those who have gone unheard, and survivors have had little to no recourse for far too long. I’ve introduced legislation to abolish the statue of limitations for sexual offenses, regardless of whether the victim was a child or adult when the abuse happened. I also co-sponsored a bill of rights for survivors, which has been signed into law. Among other things, this law requires rape kits to be kept for the full state of limitations and ensures survivors are notified of forensic exam results.
Writing legislation is only one part of the job. People often don’t know about all the programs and resources available to them, so we’re very focused on providing constituent services in the district. In our first seven months, we’ve handled over 650 constituent cases and hosted 13 community events. We also hold mobile office hours every month. We’re sending a clear message to our constituents: we’re here for you.