On a brisk March morning, Eighth District City Council candidate Greg Paulmier boards a SEPTA Route 23 bus at Chelten and Germantown avenues and starts campaigning.
“How’s everybody? Greg Paulmier, running for City Council in this District,” he says with a wide smile after paying his fare.
As the bus rumbles up Germantown Avenue toward Mount Airy, Paulmier maneuvers his lean frame around passengers, as if he’s done this many times before. Which he has. He hands out campaign literature, offers up buttons and tells jokes to children along the way.
Most of the sleepy passengers ignore Paulmier’s pitch. Others glance upward just long enough to grab his palm card. A handful of riders take a minute to hear him out.
Paulmier, 52, is quite familiar with this mobile canvassing locale, and the Eighth District overall. The life-long Germantown resident and real-estate owner has run for the seat three times before, a fact he’s openly embracing in his latest attempt. He’s printed “Success Takes Persistence” on his campaign literature in case you forget.
“This is the fourth time I’m running for this office. What does that tell you about me?” Paulmier asks a group seated in a back corner. “I don’t give up. I’m persistent.”
In the 2011 race, Paulmier thinks his persistence will finally pay off.
He sees himself as the Little Engine That Could. Some others ask whether he’s more like The Guy Who Can’t Take a Hint.
To Paulmier, his experiences during his losing campaigns make him a stronger candidate than ever.
Most of all, Paulmier says he’s developed a more nuanced sensitivity to a larger segment of the diverse district, which includes voters from more affluent neighborhoods such as Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy and lower income ones such as Germantown and Nicetown.
Sure, he would have liked to win his first time out, but Paulmier says his struggle resonates with the community and he’s the better for them.
“What the community says to me, when they find out that I’ve run three times before, they immediately say to me, ‘Well, you’re going to win this time.’ because they can identify with it. A lot of people in our community have not done so well the first time or the second time or the third time.”
Whether Paulmier is better for his losses depends on whom you talk to.
Glendora Byrd, a longtime committeewoman in Germantown’s 12th Ward, has known Paulmier for nearly 30 years. She says his commitment to campaigning shows a grit and determination that’s been missing from the district seat.
“It means that he’s not going to give up,” says Byrd when asked about Paulmier’s multiple runs for office. “That shows me that he’s a dedicated person. Just because he didn’t win the first or second time, he didn’t give up.”
Byrd says she’s continually witnessed Paulmier’s commitment to community, with perhaps no example more notable than his effort to help a mentally disturbed man who attacked him one December evening.
On the way to a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 1994, Paulmier ran into a man who asked for a cigarette. Not a smoker, Paulmier couldn’t oblige. In the next instant, the man struck Paulmier in the head with a knife, a wound that required surgery and a long recovery period.
Afterwards, Byrd says she recalls Paulmier trying to get professional help for the man, who had recently been released from Norristown State Hospital, though to no avail.
“And I’ve known him to help other people in the area if they needed help in any way,” says Byrd. “If he couldn’t do it himself, he would find out who could help.”
Marilyn Lambert, a long-time committeewoman in Chestnut Hill’s Ninth Ward, says on at least one occasion, Paulmier’s fervor for building community has backfired. And she wonders if his multiple runs at the same office are evidence of stubbornness more than anything else.
Lambert says she supported Paulmier in his first bid for City Council, but stopped after watching him in action following LaSalle University’s push to make 20th Street one-way, a move to make room for a campus expansion.
In 2004, Paulmier, then a 12th Ward leader, lead a group of neighbors in a multi-day protest outside of LaSalle’s dormitories that included using a bull horn at four in the morning, recalls Lambert. Other news accounts of the demonstration described Paulmier blowing recklessly into a trumpet as he led neighbors in a nightmarish orchestra.
“At that point, I really had to question his judgment about the way he addressed an issue,” says Lambert, an employee at LaSalle at the time. “That was not a way for people to come together to discuss an issue.”
The 2007 race
There are some in the district that are still sour over Paulmier’s most recent run in 2007, thinking that his stubbornness actually paved the way for four more years of a councilwoman they don’t like, Donna Reed Miller.
That year, he appealed a challenge to his financial affidavit all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and won the right to remain on the ballot.
The challenge, filed on behalf of Cindy Bass’ campaign, claimed Paulmier should have been more detailed in his real-estate disclosures and listed a number of rental properties and tenants that paid him rent.
Jim Foster, who ran in that year’s General Election as an independent candidate, called Paulmier after the Supreme Court decision and told him his choice to fight the challenge wasn’t in the community’s best interest.
“He should have made the best of the situation and left the race alone,” says Foster. “There were already enough candidates in the race for people to have a choice. And I think the outcome probably would have been that Donna Miller would have been out of office four years back.”
Miller, who will retire at the end of this term, won the Democratic primary and a fourth term in office by a slim margin. She narrowly edged out Bass, who held a small lead over attorney Irv Ackelsberg. Paulmier took a lesser chunk of the votes, though it would have been enough to have propelled either Bass or Ackelsberg to victory had the votes gone to one of them instead.
Asked why he went through with the appeal, Paulmier says he felt obligated to uphold a candidate’s democratic right to run, calling the challenge from Bass a “below the belt” blow.
In response to Foster’s assessment, Paulmier says, “if my name on the ballot hurts another name on the ballot, that’s unfortunate that that other name feels that way. No other name on the ballot hurts my name on the ballot. I welcome other people to run.”
Yet in his first run at Council in 1999, he didn’t seem to. That year he successfully knocked Ernie Covington off the ballot after challenging his nominating petitions, the signatures of registered party voters in the district that any candidate must submit. He did this in much the same way that volunteers for Cindy Bass did in March of this year against five candidates in this race.
Bass has taken heat for the move, which met with only partial success.
Paulmier says his 1999 challenge against Covington was fundamentally different from Bass’ 2007 challenge against him because it was based on existing campaign law, while Bass’ sought to reach beyond it.
The judges of the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth Court apparently felt differently, both ruling with Bass and against Paulmier. The state Supreme Court had more sympathetic ears, after Paulmier amended his income filing.
But even Paulmier’s critics credit his sincerity and community spirit. While they may take issue with Paulmier the candidate, they mostly agree that Paulmier the community activist has done some good things.
Walking around the Pulaski section of Germantown, the evidence is clear: Paulmier’s work is everywhere.
For the past 30 years, Paulmier has rehabbed houses in the area with neighborhood men and women he’s hired. He’s averaged about one a year, but he’d like to expand and do the same kind of work all across the district. He has written that plan into most of his stump speeches.
He’s also worked on several other housing projects through Germantown’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate, which he helped start.
To Paulmier, renovating houses kicks off a virtuous cycle, creating jobs and building a broader tax base so there’s more money for district services like police.
But it’s also part of Paulmier’s on-going mission to promote a sense of neighborhood pride in people. That pride, he says, helps instill a sense of ownership of a place and can translate into people caring more about what happens there.
Walking along Germantown Avenue, it’s clear some residents have taken notice of Paulmier and his work. A few residents wave hello as they pass him on the sidewalk, some even say they plan on voting for him.
One of them is Felix Green, a long-time neighbor of Paulmier’s. “I always vote for him. He’s a community person. I see him everywhere. I ask Greg to do something, he’ll do it,” he says near the corner of Chelten and Pulaski avenues.
Other residents ignore him, or refuse to take his literature, which Paulmier mostly attributes to apathy toward elected officials.
Standing on the corner of Greene Street and Chelten Avenue, James Lyles takes a minute to size up Paulmier. He starts by telling him he thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction and questions what a City Councilman can do to make things any better.
He then takes another tack.
“Do you get the same kind of attitude from most black people [while campaigning]?” Lyles, a black man, politely asks of Paulmier, who is white.
Paulmier is seemingly thrown for a half-second, but responds with a diplomatic answer. “I get great feedback from all over the district whether they’re black or white,” he says.
Lyles, dubious of Paulmier’s response, asks the question again. This time, Paulmier uses the question as a springboard to talk about his campaign.
“There’s a lot of division in our community, I would agree with you. And that’s really what’s at the root of what the problem is and that excites me, that issue, because I like to bring people together,” says Paulmier.
Paulmier says true consensus-building has been missing from the district and that its neighborhoods have suffered as a result.
A Quaker by religious affiliation, he says he’s worked to unify people his entire life and thinks it’ll take someone from outside of government to do the same in the splintered Eighth.
Alluding to opponents Cindy Bass and Verna Tyner, Paulmier says, “We have several candidates running for this position; some of them would be considered insiders, candidates that work for government, candidates that come from a similar place that our last Councilperson came from. I’m not one of those candidates.”
Paulmier’s conviction that he’s the best man for the job is so strong that he’s talked to Bass, Tyner and the other Eighth District candidates to see if there’s any interest in some of them unifying around his candidacy. To date, there hasn’t been.
Paulmier sees value in this kind of effort nonetheless. So much value that each time he runs, he asks Donna Reed Miller for her endorsement, even though she has usually been his opponent. Last month that conversation resulted in a loud enough conversation with the incumbent that police at City Hall took notice.
Miller says they escorted Paulmier out of the building. Paulmier says they did not; instead they came because Miller had gotten unruly.
Despite years of conflict, Paulmier says he would welcome an endorsement from Miller. He says it would be wrong to ignore any voter, especially one who has had such a strong following in part of the district over the years.
“If Donna Miller is the quarterback of a constituency, and I believe that she is, then I think her endorsement is important,” says Paulmier.
Continually seeking her support, continually running against her – it’s all part of the same act to Paulmier. An act of hope, and of faith in a better future.
“Everybody is a part of this puzzle,” he says. “We can’t leave anybody out.”
This is the fourth 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
At 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 27 at, 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.)