In his black track suit, Andrew Lofton looks more like a coach than a candidate for City Council. And on one recent campaign day at the Belfield Community Center, coaching took precedence over campaigning.
Alicya Nero, 13, is just getting back into the shot put after a long time off. Things are not going well.
Her first shot is just over 18 feet. The disappointment shows on her face. Andrew Lofton’s voice is steady in response; he tells her it was a good first try.
Lofton studies her next attempt. It is better, at 18 feet, 10 inches, but Alicya isn’t content. Lofton tells her to try moving closer to the stop board for the final try. She crouches, steps and throws. Nero pitches the heavy ball 20 feet, 5 inches this time and walks away smiling.
“Good job,” Lofton tells her and the pair high-fives. “That’s further. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Elsewhere on the field ,10-year-old Kayla Mars, competing in the 400-meter run, starts to walk. Lofton runs to catch up and jogs backward beside her so they are facing. After a little cheering from the Council candidate and coach, Mars begins running again, all the way to the finish line.
Before the track practice, Lofton worked a table outside the Belfield Community Center’s auditorium for a fund raiser – not for him, but for the recreation center to expand its youth activities.
He handed people sheets from the neat stacks of paper laid out before him. Among the slips was information about his team’s involvement in the Hershey’s Track and Field Games. And, oh yes, a reminder that he is running for the Eighth District seat on City Council that Donna Reed Miller will vacate next year.
Hard as it is to make a Council run, Lofton refuses to let campaigning interrupt his regular day job as a supervisor for the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition or his after-hours work as a coach. He tries to squeeze campaigning in with everything else.
“I’m still doing basketball and track, overseeing youth choir,” Lofton, 45, says. “I just added campaigning to the other stuff I’ve been doing.”
In the evening, at a candidates forum sponsored by the Chew and Belfield Neighbors Association, Lofton speaks about why he’s in the race.
“Frankly, I’m tired,” Lofton says about the problems, such as the education system, that seem to go unfixed throughout the district and the city.
In the last four years, he thinks many things have only worsened because of entrenched incumbent interests, which he says needs to be changed. He says he’s different from most of the other candidates running in the Eighth because he is not tied into the political machine he sees many them as being a part of.
“What hope does it give that they will be any different?” he says of his opponents.
While he has only raised $1,500 for his run at Council (compare this to more than $100,000 for some other candidates in the Eighth) Lofton says he still expects to win.
“My assumption right now is I’ll be the next Council person,” he says. “Anything beyond that is not on my radar.”
He tells the children he coaches the same kinds of things. His message: The words “can’t” and “won’t” can stop you from trying, and that will certainly stop you from succeeding.
But to Donna Gentile O’Donnell, a politically connected Chestnut Hill resident who dropped out of this race with more than $100,000 in her cash coffers and $150,000 more in pledges, Lofton’s bid for Council isn’t realistic at all – and not just because of the money, but because of his campaign focus as well.
“The challenge for every candidate is to break out of their base,” she says. “And what’s required to break out of your base includes significant resources: money, people, time, creativity, knowledge of the issues and an ability to persuade people outside of that base.”
That means reaching people beyond your normal sphere of influence, she says, and, once you’ve got their attention, convincing them your ideas are goo.
She used the example of voter mailers, a critical tool, she said, for reaching voters before the election to plant some seeds. If a candidate does not have the money for something as simple as that, she thinks he’s got a big problem.
Add to that what she sees as Lofton’s lack of insight on the major issues in the Eighth District and she doubts he’d be able to get through voter cynicism even if he could reach them all before election day.
Still, Lofton has made some surprise moves already in this race. In March, when a series of voters, some associated with rival candidate Cindy Bass, filed nominating petittion challenges to five of the Eighth District candidates with intentions of knocking them out of the race, Lofton did pretty well by representing himself. The lead attorney for all of those cases refused to even respond to Lofton’s statements, indicating it wasn’t worth the effort. But Lofton survived those challenges.
A potentially more substantial surprise was a result of pure luck. Lofton drew the number three ballot position from the famed Horns and Hardart coffee can at City Hall earlier this year.
Conventional wisdom holds the top three spots on the ballot in a crowded race as easily the most favorable. O’Donnell herself subscribes to this logic; pulling ballot position number ten was enough to convince her to walk away from the race, even with that substantial war chest.
Lofton wants to be connected with the district if he becomes the next City Council person.
If elected, he plans to start a community council with the area’s organizations to identify the best ideas and help get them on the right track. He would also like to give Germantown more attention by cleaning the streets better and marketing its historic assets as a tourist attraction.
In Tioga, around 21st Street, he has noticed many abandoned properties, which he thinks would be the perfect site for an international sports complex. An Olympic level facility would bring immediate contracting jobs to the area and could help put the whole city on the map for numerous international events.
He has not offered a plan publicly for how to pay for such a project.
As a first-time candidate, Lofton is relatively unknown, and free-association responses to his name at the NewsWorks voter forums show it. Some of the recurring terms people used to describe him were: “Never met,” and “don’t know.”
Yet, he makes an effort to attend any event where he can voice his message.
On an early Saturday morning, Lofton participated in the a cleanup along the 5400 to 5600 blocks of Germantown Avenue. His son AJ Lofton, 13, helped out, too.
As AJ took breaks from cleaning, he would poke fun at his father, saying he specialized in telling unfunny jokes. Lofton’s campaign has changed the dynamic for his three children and wife.
“He’s not home as much,” AJ says. “But we’re happy he’s running.”
Also present at the cleanup was Ean Beasley, 13.
Before Beasley met Lofton, he was inactive, said his mother, Tawanda Beasley. Then Lofton convinced him to join his basketball team. When that season was over, he asked Beasley to try shot putting. Beasley eventually participated in the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics and placed sixth in that event.
Seeing the young people he works with succeed is a major goal in Lofton’s life. He wants the same kind of thing for the Eighth District, and he believes he can help that happen if people truly want a new way of doing things at City Hall.
“This isn’t about being a politician. It’s about making a change,” he says.
This is the third of seven NewsWorks profile stories for Eighth District Council candidates. NewsWorks will continue running one profile story each weekday, in alphabetical order, through April 26:
Monday, April 18 – Cindy Bass
Tuesday, April 19 – Bill Durham
Wednesday, April 20 – Andrew Lofton
Thursday, April 21 – Greg Paulmier
Friday, April 22 – Robin Tasco
Monday, April 25 – Howard Treatman
Tuesday, April 26 – Verna Tyner
On April 27 at 7 p.m, join us when all seven candidates will come together for a debate, fueled by the questions voter themselves have come up with. WHYY’s Executive Director of News and Civic Dialogue, Chris Satullo, will moderate the event at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, 35 West Chelten Avenue, 19144. (Doors open at 6 p.m.)