Saturday, December 09, 2006

At-Large City Council Forum

As promised, here are my notes from Thursday night's event (sponsored by Neighborhood Networks and held at the Itailian Bistro on Broad Street downtown); I didn't check any names for those who weren't known in advance, and I also should make the disclaimer that my notes were abbreviated and thus may omit some points made or other impressions. But I did fill up both sides of the two sheets of notepad paper shared with me by another audience member, so perhaps there's enough to find of use...

There were a dozen candidates present, and probably 100+ people in the audience -- enough that a number had to stand throughout the event. The candidates were seated in a ring on a raised platform, and the rest of the space had tables with 4 chairs each---a higher ratio of chairs would have helped, but the restaurant staff were busy elsewhere and probably couldn't get through the crowd anyway.

Before the event got underway, there was quite a hob-knobbish scene as people flowed in, some in suits, some more casual; some apparently supporters of some candidate, most there to figure it out; a few reporters (though they may have represented only the Public Record). Among those glimpsed here and there working the crowd for their own ends: [mayoral candidate] Tom Knox, [recent and probably future State Rep. candidate] Larry Farnese, [likely District Council candidate] Vern Anastasio, and [likely District Council candidate] Irv Ackelsburg. Aside from those and some NN Steering Committee folks, however, most of the crowd was new to me. The crowd, like the candidates, were quite diverse in age and race (maybe 60/40 white/black, with a smattering of others). They were quite interactive, applauding some points made by the speakers, giving talk-back to various issues and discussions ("you preach it!" or "don't we know" and so forth), and generally creating a lively atmosphere very attuned to what was being discussed.

Gloria Gilman (NN Chair) gave a brief introduction to the organization and the event, and then John Hogan took over as MC of the forum itself. [It was announced that Jim Kenney was unable to make it due to a prior commitment, but hoped to attend any future such event.] First the candidates would each have 3 minutes to introduce themselves and their aims (going in alphabetical order), and then each would be given a "lightning round" question chosen randomly from a batch of prepared questions (going in seating order). (All of these were, I think, gleaned from the extensive questionnaire that the NN elections committee has prepared for citywide candidates seeking our endorsement; see here.) I'm going to present these two phases as two lists, for simplicity (I hope). First, the introductions -- just some out-takes:
Rev. Jesse Brown (around 50, black, N. Philly)
Touched on the importance of healthcare issues, anti-casino activism, eminent domain, environmentalism, city home rule. Had a good populist cant -- call and response with the crowd, quite dynamic, motivated/-ing.
Maceo Cummings (around 50, black, W. Philly)
A quieter presence than Brown (lost a bit by the contrast), he talked about having spent his life in community service. He spent most of this time telling his resume, which seemed largely financial -- comunity development.
Derek Green (around 40, black, not yet formally declared)
He gave his background, which appeared to be financial and legal. His motivation for entering the race would be to "end the culture of violence" and that's basically all he talked about here -- Blueprint for a Safer Philadelhpia may have been something he was involved with.
Bill Greenlee (50+, white, Fairmont)
Talked about his work in Fairmont, as Councilman David Cohen's chief of staff, as 15th Ward Leader, and his interest in working with all groups who want to make the city better. Talked about the speed entry he's had into Council in the last month, becoming chair of the Law and Government Committee, etc. Said that the challenge of the future would be how to keep government services running in the face of seeming zeal for tax cuts (and said he'd come down on the side of services, if a conflict arose). All good thus far, but then he brought up the issue of having been criticized for how he was s/elected -- this elicited grumbles from the crowd and made him sound defensive -- saying he's as progressive as anybody that the critics would like to see in office. Running long, wrapped up by quick mentions of housing, crime, and transit as top issues.
Elmer Money (45, white, NE Philly)
Not sure who this guy was, but he appeared to feel out of his depth (inexperienced? Republican?). He had a written speech prepared, then filed it away, then kind of went with "there has to be a better way" and "I want to make a difference" and sat down.
David Oh (40-50, Asian, SW Philly)
Background in D.A.'s office, army, legal services center; has served on many impressive Boards and Commissions. He was well-spoken and earnest, talked about the need to build on the city's strengths -- mentioned the Delaware River dredging issue and how it could increase port jobs by 10-fold, the need for improved education, etc.
Blondell Reynolds-Brown (40+, black, incumbent)
Mentioned that she worked her way up from committeewoman, had been a teacher. Said that she was interested in business and the arts, but decided to focus most of her efforst on children. Gave the example of the stadium dispute of a few years back, and how she wrangled a tie-in to benefit kids via a 30-year agreement that the teams would chip into a children's fund that could be given to various nonprofit organizations and programs. She has also sponsored childcare bills, and vows to continue making that issue her focus.
Ben Ramos (50+, Hispanic, N. Philly?)
He gave his educational history (M.S. in Community/Economic Development), worked with the Housing and Development Agency, various other boards. In politics, he was chief of staff for Councilman Angel Ortiz, Deputy Mayor under Rendell, and a State Rep. (!), working on Health and Human Services committee and Urban Affairs. He mentioned that the city is facing some complex issues in coming years, including increasing benefits costs, need for ethical reform, neighborhood development, and tax reduction. He was softspoken and earnest.
Matt Rubin (around 40, white, Northern Liberties)
He was the head of the Northern Liberties Civic Association, and has been an activist on issues including abortion access, HIV, and fair housing. Said his two top issues were education and jobs, but also mentioned overhauling the zoning code, ethics, economic fairness (specifically that we must have growth with justice), and maintaining community diversity (rather than letting gentrification push people out), bridging the ethnic divides that have been used to turn us against each other. Cleary a kindred spirit to NN folks. He had a good exhortative style that got the crowd behind him -- great quote near the end (from some philosopher): "A society of sheep begets a government of wolves."
Marc Stier (around 50, white, Mt.Airy)
Worked with West Mount Airy neighbors, saw "how the system worked," which is that it *doesn't* -- favors the connected. His theme is that "politics in Philadelphia is broken" and that we need to replace the "politics of fear with the politics of hope." Speficially, he talked about overcoming the discriminatory structure of local government (need to know somebody to get anything done), to let ourselves try some policies and programs used successfully in other large cities, etc. Mentioned working on our economic corridors, inclusionary housing, violence, and letting people stay in their homes "during the good times, after they stayed through the bad times." He also has a good style while hitting his high points, got the crowd excited. [Also one of NN's founders, so by definition sympatico.] Ended with a short (anticlimactic) note thanking the other candidates for being willing to "come to my house" (an NN forum) for this event, saying he "looked forward to visiting yours."
Sharif Street (35, black, N. Philly?, dreadlocked)
Talked about his background as a lawyer, involved with affordable housing, drug addiction efforts, the Broad Street empowerment zone. Tried to distance himself from charges of nepotism by talking about parents who were "a hot-dog vendor and a substitute teacher," and that although they've done well, he's making his own way. Emphasis on remembering where you come from...
Andy Toy (35+, Asian, not yet declared)
Working on economic and community development (CDC). Mentioned the importance of the community coming together behind common goals, mentioning the battle to keep a new stadium out of Chinatown a few years back. Also spoke on the need for Philadelphia to promote our assets better, as well as to improve fairness and protect diversity in the city. He was quiet but well-spoken, and it was unenviable to go last after a long line-up.
On the whole, this was a more impressive showing than I had expected. No loons or losers, although clearly some had made more of an impression than others. From there we went pretty directly into the question round (although a portion of the crowd took off). I was happy that some of the people whose introduction had been more resume than policy got into some chewier material in response to their questions -- perhaps all the issues and crowd responses were getting some cross-pollination going.
  • Q: What steps do you think the city can take to increase the amount of material we recycle?
    A: (Stier) There's a great pilot program, Recycle Bank, that has been working like crazy (ties recycling to an economic growth stimulus, saves city money) -- we just need to care enough to put it into practice.

  • Q: Would you repeal, modify, or retain the current system of property tax abatements for new construction?
    A: (Toy) Interesting question. It might be that some parts of the city no longer need that incentive, others perhaps need more. We also need to give some thought to what we'll do with the additional revenue stream as past abatements end -- perhaps an affordable housing fund could be established.

  • Q: There is a shortage of 60,000 housing units for poor people in Philadelphia, and rents are skyrocketing. What do you propose to deal with this situation?
    A: (Rubin) tax abatement $$ could be used to subsidize affordable housing. One neighborhood was able to get such an agreement from a local developer, and the city's leverage is much greater...

  • Q: What changes would you make in how the city and related agencies contract for services? [Actually, I'm not sure whether he was asked that question or "What standards of behavior or operation do you think the city should require from businesses that receive contracts or benefits, such as tax abatements or subsidies, from the city?" Notes too minimal.]
    A: (Green) Talked about a program in Baltimore (CitiStat?) that helps oversee the effectiveness of city services...

  • Q: What steps can the city take to reduce handgun homicides?
    A: (Cummings) Before we can make any policy work, we need people to feel like the government cares, and also need people to feel good about where they live. [Lots of crowd agreement here. He warmed up a lot from the first time.]

  • Q: What role, if any, do you think casino gambling should play in Philadelphia's economic development?
    A: (Greenlee) We have to accept that they're a done deal and make the best of it. Glad Harrisburg left the city in charge of things after all. Need to watch carefully that comunity benefits agreements are honored...

  • Q: How would you exercise the city's leverage over SEPTA to improve its service and performance?
    A: (Street) We should ask that levels of city service match those in the suburbs -- we especially need to improve cleanliness and safety, so people will use more. Should also help SEPTA pressure the state for funding. Made an interesting note that gas tax money goes for highway improvements but not to help with city streets; if we could change that, we'd free up money for doing more with transit locally.

  • Q: What role should local communities have in determining whether and how casinos and other developments are built and operated?
    A: (Money) Neighborhood input is key to any large addition to the region...

  • Q: What measures would you support to protect low-income homeowners from rising property taxes in the wake of gentrification?
    A: (Brown) Don't want to tax people out, may need financial help not only with taxes but with upkeep of their properties.

  • Q: How would you regulate campaign finance in Philadelphia?
    A: (Ramos) The current bill is in the right direction but not enough. Ideally, we need public financing, but at the least we need better disclosure and clarification of how enforcement will proceed.

  • Q: What municipal services in Philadelphia do you think are most in need of improvement?
    A: (Reynolds-Brown) The big problem is that departments and agencies don't talk to one another, so they aren't working as efficiently in delivering services as they should (example of parallel programs for children run in 3-4 different departments with no coordination)...

  • Q: How would you deal with the financial difficulties of the Philadelphia Gas Works?
    A: (Oh) Need a clear way to look at different groups of users... Need more budget overall to help PGW among others -- off onto economic growth ideas, talking about the zoo as a city asset (but that the train doesn't stop there!), leveraging the tech/pharma health sector, bringing more people in by investing in infrastructure, tech. transfer... The crowd got restless over the change of subject, but he did what he could with an issue he clearly didn't know much about. Finally, Hogan ended things with a joke about how it's always the Republicans who run long.
Anyway, a range of chewy chat; I think everybody in the room was pleased and revved. I was happy to see that the majority of this group was intelligent, well-informed, and well-spoken. With a couple of exceptions, I could see any of them doing the job decently. Sharif Street, who gets the most flak, was better than I expected, although hardly wowing. But the folks who made the best overall impression on me were Brown, Oh, Reynolds-Brown, Ramos, Rubin, and Stier; Cummings and Greenlee also seemed reasonble. These are pretty early days, so you can expect all of these people to become better informed and polished, and we can hope that we'll hear more about all of their policy positions and priorities in the next few months. It's also likely that more candidates will emerge from the woodwork, and I'd still like to hear from incumbents Kenney and (Juan) Ramos. But at least we've kick-started the process, and gotten the candidates thinking about issues and voters before they get too wrapped into the political gamesmanship part of the process. The candidates appear to have enjoyed the experience as well, and at least one said he'd be doing some research about the issues raised by the questions. All in all, a great start!

oh, for those who want to know, there are seven total At-Large seats, of which two are reserved for the minority party (Republicans). Thus, presumably Democratic primary voters will be picking their top five from the final pile...

Update 2: for another perspective on the event, see this report at the Philadelphia Independent Media Center.

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Anonymous phillydem said...

The citywide new construction tax abatement program could be the sleeper issue of 2007. It clearly is not working well up here in the upper/far NE with developers just throwing up as many new houses as they can and gobbling up open/green space. Targeted
new construction tax abatement and credits for home improvement, especially in the lower NE, River Wards and gentrifying areas, would improve the situation, IMO.

5:22 AM  
Blogger SJS said...

Great summary, ACM. You got the atmosphere, the personalities, the highlights of the political talk. You are one amazing note-taker and synthesizer.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Peggy Banaszek said...

Those were some amazing notes. As another attendee I would like to add a thanks to NN for organizing the event. As far as I know, it is the first that any group has held with 5 months to go. When organizations wait to see how the field narrows down, good candidates are lost in the fundraising race. Giving candidates early opportunities to state their case is important.

Personally, I was wowed by David Rubin and disappointed by Bill Greenlee. Greenlee is a dedicated public servant but he appeared to be picking a fight by mentioning the election process. I have seen David Oh speak in the past and he is much improved. While I don't vote Republican, I encourage my neighbors who do to please look at David versus current R-at-Large Jack Kelly. After all, the R-at-Large has as many votes in Council as any D-at-Large.

Also, I was surprised at the lack of women in the field. With the 12 represented plus Kenney, Goode, and Juan Ramos there is 1 female candidate. No wonder every time I see Blondel she speaks about family issues such as children's programs and quality day care - none of the other candidates brought those issues up.

10:13 AM  
Blogger AboveAvgJane said...


Thanks for this great post! I really appreciate the opportunity to read over your notes. It's one of those events that probably won't get much coverage in the msm so yours may be one of the few (only?) reports. Please keep it up!

10:37 AM  
Blogger larry farnese said...

Terrific summary ACM. You had a great seat to see and hear all the candiates speak. This was an impressive turnout and I think it proves how important the upcoming city elections are to the progressive movement in Philadelphia. We need to grow upon the successes that we had in November which means the people need to be informormed about the city wide candidates. NN kick started the process and we can look forward more groups sponsoring similar forums. Further, as a member of NN, I am looking forward to hearing more from the candidates before the endorsement process concludes and I know the committee is working very hard in that regard. I am looking forward to hearing more on the candiates' positions regarding greening and open spaces, specifically in light of GreenPlan Philadelphia and funding for more parks, such as the Hawthorne Park Project on 12th and Catherine. It is certainly shaping up to be a very exciting election season with some very impressive candiates.

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Elisia said...

Thanks for this summary, its great that we get to see it from the inside


1:41 PM  
Anonymous Matt Ruben said...

Peggy, thank you for your kind words (I'm assuming you were referring to me!). The NN forum was my first time on the prospective-candidate end of such an event, and I was energized by the spirit of the crowd and the other candidates.

I also felt NN did a great job of keeping the event well-organized and on-schedule while preserving an informal atmosphere (which ACM indeed captures very well).

Matt Ruben

5:23 PM  

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