As primary elections approach, NEast Philly will interview council-at-large candidates so readers can get to know the names they’ll see on the ballot.
Steve Odabashian has lived in a lot of places. Born in Southwest Philadelphia the City Council-at-large candidate has lived in Havertown, Wynwood, Tokyo and New York. But he’s been back in Philadelphia for a decade and now lives in Northern Liberties.
Odabashian has degrees in economics and law from the University of Virginia and Villanova, but you might recognize him as Andy Reid. The piano player and comedian is a Reid impersonator.
Though active in his neighborhood, Odabashian is a newcomer to politics, and it’s a label he doesn’t shy away from. He says voters often say he’s got their vote simply because he’s new and won’t stand for “politics as usual.”
NEast Philly: Why council-at-large and not a specific district?
Steve Odabashian: Philadelphia is a huge city — not just in terms of population, but in terms of its actual physical size. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, which makes it so special. Our leaders often forget that the city does not start and end in Center City, which comprises part of my district.
Also, a lot of the issues which I feel strongly about (elimination of the city wage tax, lower business taxes) really affect people on the county borders more closely than other city residents. Residents and workers in the Northeast can often look across the street and see their neighbors living in similar homes and working similar jobs, yet hanging on to 5 percent more of their paychecks. How is that fair? We are going to lose our greatest asset — our people — if they are being given a better deal simply for crossing the street!
NEP: You made headlines for your “greatest Republican of all time” video, but what do you plan to focus on if elected?
SO: I hope you liked the video. I hope people get that it was just a joke and that I am by no means the greatest anything of all time (Plus Abe Lincoln would probably own me in a wrestling match, from what I have heard). The video was designed to generate name recognition and get people to my website or to Google me and find out what my candidacy represents.
I think I was near the bottom of the polls at the time I released the video, and my neverending “desire to win” knew that it was no time to play it safe. Since that video aired, I think I have clawed my way to the middle of the pack and picked up two major newspaper endorsements (Inquirer, Daily News).
My main message is Philadelphia needs to shake its complacent attitude regarding its financial crisis. There is a real air of nonchalance regarding the fiscal mismanagement that is going to burden this city for decades to come if we don’t get our financial house in order.
If I ran my household the way the city runs its checkbook, I’d be living on the streets. If I ran a business the way the city runs its checkbook, my business would be bankrupt. Every issue flows directly from the city’s economics. Schools need more money, the police need more money, basic services need more money. There is over a billion dollars in uncollected bail. Instead of deeming it “uncollectable” as the city has done, it needs to strenuously go after its account receivables. Even if 1 percent of that staggering figure is recovered, that will go a long way.
NEP: Are there other areas you think need addressing, or you think Council as a whole should address?
SO: Council needs to address itself! Why does City Council shut down for over one-third of the year, when the city doesn’t? Why do councilpeople have private cars and office budgets of $1 million? Why do some City Council members have full-time jobs in addition to the full-time job of running the city? These are some of the reasons why I have said “enough is enough.”
City council members are elected to serve Philadelphia. Instead, too many are focused on serving themselves. DROP is a prime example. A program that was working and close to cost-neutral was ruined by the greed of our so-called leaders. When they got caught, many dropped — pun intended — out of the race and took their huge lump sum payments at our expense. Those that remain in the races would like us to believe that they thought the program was cost-neutral. If they thought a program that pays a full salary, and a pension for four years, at an interest rate that is nowhere near market rates is cost-neutral, then I don’t want any such flawed mathematics near City Hall. DROP epitomizes what is wrong with the city.
NEP: Why now? Why run for council in 2011?
SO: I am getting married this summer, and I felt I had a few spare minutes. Actually, four years from now is an eternity away. The time is ripe now. I have thought about it for several years, and with Councilman Kelly stepping down and with Councilman Rizzo very vulnerable on the DROP issue, this is my best chance of winning.
NEP: Paint us two pictures of the future: One in which you’re elected, one in which you’re not.
SO: If I am elected, I will not be a doormat for the Democrat majority to step on in getting more anti-business legislation passed. I will work closely with members of both parties to try to save this city from its current financial crisis. Before that, I will knock some sense into my 16 counterparts in sounding the alarm that this is a crisis, and it needs to be addressed now. The days of setting our goal as mediocrity will be no more if I am elected.
If I am not elected, I will continue to sound the alarm. I have already accomplished a great deal in letting voters know about some staggering numbers regarding this city’s finances. Perhaps, four years from now, Odabashian will be a better known name, and I might win the 2015 election. Although, let me make it clear. I am trying to win this year.
NEP: Is there anyone in Council right now you think is doing a particularly good job at addressing a key issue?
SO: No, I really don’t. On the contrary, I feel more and more legislation is being passed that is further hampering businesses. Ban-the-box legislation and mandatory sick days are just two more examples of businesses being told how to operate, which translates into “being told to stay far away from Philadelphia.”
I feel our current Council is so focused on little issues — ribbon-cutting type small town politics. This isn’t Narberth. This isn’t Bristol. This is Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city in the US. The birthplace of our nation, and too many council people are consumed with addressing little things like fixing potholes, getting cats down from trees. We need to think big if we want to compete with the suburbs, NY and DC.
NEP: What should people expect from their council and council-at-large members?
SO: They should expect innovation, a sense of reality and real service. They should demand more than the status quo — especially when the status quo has us on the road to financial ruin. They should expect leaders with a passion for putting Philadelphia on the map, and leaders that will not be so consumed with lining their own pockets at the expense of a fiscally strapped city.
They should expect “one of us,” and not a career politican that has lost touch with the common working Philadelphian. From at-large members, they should expect service that goes far beyond the Center City grid. People living on the city’s borders need incentives to stay in Philadelphia and not move across the street to Bala Cynwyd, or Cheltenham, or Upper Darby.
NEP: What’s your take on DROP?
SO: By DROP, do you mean the Despicable Robbery Of Philadelphians? It is the number one reason why I am in this race. It should be abolished and a new cost-neutral program should be explored solely for police and fire fighters. Politicians got caught trying to serve themselves once again, and the continued delays in holding hearings on it are a series of slaps to the faces of struggling Philadelphians. I am embarrassed for the current council and for Mayor Nutter in how out-of-touch they are with the everyday Philadelphian.
NEP: What’s the next big event coming up in your campaign?
SO: There is a Committee of Seventy/League of Women voters-sponsored debate at WHYY’s headquarters on Thursday, May 12. The primary is on May 17. In between those two events, I hope to reach several thousand voters through phone calls and handshakes.
NEP: Council-at-large can be a tough sell. How do you plan to market yourself as a citywide candidate?
SO: We are as grassroots as a campaign can be down here at team ODB. I am relying heavily on social media. We are not very well funded, and we are not beholden to any sort of machine politics or big union campaign contributions. I also let people know that I am the Andy Reid impersonator. That gets their attention initially, and I work hard at keeping their attention with my knowledge of the issues facing this city.