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War of the roses? Let's see what York and Lancaster's lookalike leaders say about that

Written by Gordon Rago/The York Daily Record | Jan 31, 2018 1:46 PM
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"We have an emergency manager. Him and I were talking. He was bringing me up to speed about some of the things he's working on," said Philip Given, left, while talking about his transition into his new role as York Mayor Michael Helfrich's chief of staff. "And he was like, 'so in this particular scenario, let's imagine that Central Market exploded one day.' I was like, 'woah! Let's not do that.' But that's what he thinks about all the time. He's concerned about the safety of our citizens for the possibility of any eventual disaster. That's his job." To Given's right is Matt Johnson, the new chief of staff for the city of Lancaster. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record)

(Undated) -- It was just a couple days into their new jobs when Matt Johnson sent Philip Given a message.

"Did you figure out what we're supposed to be doing yet?" Johnson asked.

It was easy for the pair to find this immediate connection.

To get the painfully obvious out of the way, yes, Given and Johnson look alike. Like, a lot alike. You can't help but notice that the chiefs of staff for York and Lancaster are two redheads who wear glasses and have beards.

People were quick to let them know on social media.

But the pair of young politicos found in each other someone to commiserate with. They both started their new ventures on the same day for newly sworn-in mayors in the cities each has called home for the last decade or so. Given in YorkJohnson in Lancaster.

But until last week, the two hadn't met. The Daily Record changed that, inviting them to have an informal, open conversation about their new roles inside City Hall. Neither pushed back at the invitations although Johnson did allow that he tends to think people have "ginger blindness." 

They met at the John Wright Restaurant in Wrightsville, in a back room overlooking the Susquehanna River, the border-like barrier between their two small but tough Pennsylvania cities.

Given, 30, wearing a sports coat, a blue button-down, jeans and dress shoes, drank a Crystal Ball Brewing Co. beer as he talked. Johnson, 35, in a blue sweater and button-down underneath, drank water. He was adhering to his pledge to not drink during January.

The two could be mistaken for brothers. But not only do they look like each other, they have similar stories of how they got to where they are today.

Experts of their own cities, the two say they are in awe of the job, not only for the daily influx of information but by the people working around them.

"Right now, I'm just trying to keep my head on straight," Johnson said. "The last chief of staff is staying on as a consultant for a little bit. She said...'I'm not telling you what to do but it's going to be like drinking out of a fire hose and all these best-laid plans that you're going to spend all this time on are just going to go out the window.' And she was exactly right. I thought I would be able to structure my day. The major part of the job so far for me has just been adaptability. You come in, you want to push this agenda, you have this idea that you want to do and then someone calls and it throws your whole morning into disarray."

Given and Johnson agree on the fire hose analogy -- but Given wanted something to be clear: Drinking from the fire hose is awesome.

"It's great to have your day totally destroyed because you're doing good work," he said.

Setting their looks aside, it's hard to miss the similarities in each of their paths leading up to the new jobs. 

Years ago, as he was going to grad school at Temple University in Philadelphia, Johnson started his mornings at a now-shuttered Lancaster bakery where he baked bread and pastries. He taught philosophy at Millersville University and even for a semester at York College.

He was behind the founding of Capital Day in Lancaster, a celebration of the one day his city was the nation's capital in 1777. He organized a music festival and ran a tutoring company.

Given also has his hands in baked goods as a co-owner of York City Pretzel Company. He was an organizer behind a major food truck event in York and helped to create the popular hashtag here, #iloveyorkcity.

Johnson was a guitarist in a band. Given came to York as a professional photographer. 

Both worked on the campaigns for the mayors they work for. Michael Helfrich defeated a two-term incumbent. Danene Sorace won her Democratic campaign after the previous mayor didn't run for a third term.

"It's getting creepy now," Johnson said about 10 minutes into the conversation. "More than looking alike, I think the general spirit we have is similar."

From baker to City Hall

While he said his past lines up to where he is today, Given doesn't see himself working in City Hall for the next 18 years. As a Millennial, that shouldn't come as a surprise.

"We're of the generation that, A) doesn't like to be put in a box and, B) doesn't really have a box to be put in," Given said. "Almost none of us are doing the same thing for 30 years."

Given grew up in the South. He was born in Georgia and lived in South Carolina -- his father worked at FedEx so his family moved around a lot. His mom and brother now work at his pretzel company, where he frequently checks into aside from his City Hall job.

He started living in York when he was around 21. "At that point, the city looked very different," he said. "There were one-third of the restaurants and bars. It was just a smaller feel."

Johnson grew up near Holtwood in rural southwestern Lancaster County. His mother was a nurse and his father was an aluminum worker. His grandfather was a longtime Lancaster patrolman, working his way up to police chief.

He's found that his background in philosophy applies to politics. He knows how arguments are made, the messages behind them and how to split rhetoric from logic. 

"I kind of have a knack for that," he said. 

Time to shed that hipster look?

Johnson made a run for city council this past year. He didn't win. He remembers a reader comment about his council bid along the lines of: "Oh great, instead of doing nothing, now he'll just sit and think about doing nothing." Johnson wrote the person back to let him know that was a good one.

He's seen the comment that says: "For real bro, if you're entering politics, it's time to shed the hipster beard/look."

While he can laugh at that, Johnson admits there were challenges to what's behind the comment. How do I stay true to who I am and live within constraints of this new role?

As chief of staff, he feels like everything he does is a reflection of the city. He can't be out at a restaurant and say he's "citizen" Matt now, so the role comes with those responsibilities. 

Given continued Johnson's thought.

"I do keep in mind that obviously in York's case, a bearded white hipster isn't representative of the demographics of the city," Given said. "But my looks aside, Matt's looks aside, we are in our position to represent the city of York. And whatever it takes to make life better, build wealth for our residents, improve the safety for our children and our families, that's what we're going to do."

This is how Given and Johnson's first in-person conversation tended to go. They spoke lightly and openly about the quirks and challenges of a new job but also with a seriousness of a job that comes with serving the public.

"I hate to be Leslie Knope-ish about it," Johnson said with a smile, "I'm just blown away by not just the wealth of knowledge, but everybody's image of a bureaucrat is completely wrong. These are people that just know their area left and right."

He was referring, of course, to the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation" whose main character Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) leads a small-town parks department and is the truest believer that government should serve the people.

"The best type of bureaucrat is someone who can navigate the system in the best way possible," Johnson said.

Johnson and Given both see themselves as newbies in City Hall who can try their best to learn how things get done but also sometimes question why things are done the way they are.

Given gave one example: Under previous administrations, every permit to rent out a city park ultimately went to the mayor's desk for approval even though other department heads signed off beforehand.

Now, bigger events still go to the mayor but if someone wants to have a birthday party in the park, for example, final approval can happen through department heads.

"We trust that everybody else has done their job," Given said.

#ilovelancastercity

As the conversation ended, Given took a lapel pin out of his coat pocket. It was a white rose, York's symbol and nickname, the counterpart to Lancaster's red rose.

He gave it to Johnson who said he plans to mail Given the red version soon.

The two had joked that their baseball teams can compete but they appear to welcome the chance to open the conversation between the two cities.

After both left, Given posted on Facebook: "You guys, I just met Matt Johnson and it was everything I hoped it would be."

He included the hashtags, #burningbridge, #waroftheroses and #ilovelancastercity.

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record

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