For the first time in 16 years, voters from Philadelphia’s diverse Eighth District will send a fresh face to City Council. Democratic incumbent Donna Reed Miller is not seeking a fifth term in office. Seven candidates are competing to take her place. The district runs from Chestnut Hill to Nicetown. The unusually crowded field of candidates includes newcomers such as real estate developer Howard Treatman.
“I’m doing this because of what I’ve learned in my private business over the last 25 years,” said Treatman. I’ve been successful with that. I want to bring those skills and know-how and put it work here in the Eighth District.”
Others, like long-time Council staffer Verna Tyner, have worked in government before and are now ready to take center stage.
“This is a historical opportunity for us to make a difference, to have our voices matter – to stand up and do the right thing for our district,” Tyner said.
Fellow candidates William Durham, Andrew Lofton and Robin Tasco are also plunging into their first political campaigns. Cindy Bass, a senior staffer with U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah, finished a close second to Miller in 2007. She says the district is in a crisis and doesn’t have a moment to waste on lackluster leadership.
“I don’t think we have another four years,” said Bass. “We have to work and operate with a sense of urgency in this moment. We don’t have another four minutes.”
Greg Paulmier, is no big developer, but makes his money renovating and owning real estate. He has three Council races under his belt. Paulmier believes that makes him a stronger candidate.
“Had I won the first time I wouldn’t have had the sensitivity that I have now as a result of having lost three times,” Paulmier said.
In the past, candidates focused on how to knock Miller out of the seat. In her absence, they’re looking to distance themselves from the past. The veteran city representative has enjoyed some success over the years, but many constituents complain she paid too little attention to the needs of residents and too much on behind the scenes deals.
To allay concerns of transparency, for example, each hopeful has vowed to open a Council office in the District and hold regularly scheduled community meetings.To show some independence, many, like Andrew Lofton, have proudly declared their lack of endorsements.
“I am like you. I’m not beholden to any politicians. I’m not beholden to any special interests,” said Lofton. “Who I am beholden to is the general public and you the community of the Eighth District.”
William Durham has echoed Lofton’s intentions to only focus on voters. “There’s only one endorsement that I seek and it’s for people that want change from the way things have been going here in the last couple years. I could easily ask for support from elected officials and have them dancing around me,” Durham said.
Cindy Bass’ path of reform, however, has been bumpier than the rest of her opponents. In fact, there’s been one big bump in particular. Its name: Steven Vaughn. The campaign volunteer is most notable as a former chief of staff for Councilwoman Miller.
While serving in that role, Vaughn was part of a large-scale tax fraud scheme. That plan netted him and his associates a $50,000 payout from the city. But it also landed him in federal prison.
Vaughn was also a board member of the now defunct Germantown Settlement. The social service and housing agency mismanaged its vast real estate holding with millions of taxpayer dollars on the line. Miller had close ties to that organization before it went bankrupt and was shut down by court order.
Robin Tasco says she’s concerned that a wrong decision could mean a backwards slide into politics as usual in the Eighth.
“This district deserves someone else besides a puppet-master who’s going to continue the same thing that we’ve already had,” said Tasco.
Bass says she brought Vaughn into her campaign circle in the name of second chances. But her opponents also say that her string of endorsements, including one from Mayor Michael Nutter, further prove her lack of independence.
Bass disagrees: “I run with support now but that does not change who I am and that will not change who I am. I am same person who started out with absolutely no support and have worked my way here.”
To further separate themselves from Councilwoman Miller and politics as usual, the candidates are also all largely denouncing the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan. Public fervor over that program has prompted the retirement of a number of Council incumbents. Miller is set to receive a lump sum of close to two-hundred thousand dollars at the end of this term.
DROP could play a prominent role early on when the new Council is called to replace outgoing Council President Anna Verna. That coveted position is currently shaping up to be a stand-off between DROP opponent Councilman Daryl Clarke and Marian Tasco. Tasco is enrolled in DROP.
All except one of the Eighth District candidates have pledged NOT to vote for a Council President who has received a DROP payment. William Durham sums up DROP this way.”All they did was hustle us,” said Durham. “I believe that it was wrong and we need to move on.”
Only Cindy Bass did not make the pledge. She says it could potentially limit good choices.
The crowded ballot means a candidate without widespread support could walk away with the seat–and makes handicapping the race a real challenge.