On a recent, cold, rainy Saturday morning, volunteers from the Wister Neighborhood Advisory Council are out in full force to clean up Gilbert Stuart Park in Lower Germantown. Howard Treatman, 49, Democratic candidate for the Eighth District City Council seat that will open up next year, is among them.
One of seven candidates vying for the position long occupied by Donna Reed Miller, Treatman is trying to get as much face time as possible before the May 17 primary.
“Put me to work. What can I do?” he asks as soon as he walks through the park gates. He is handed a shovel and guided to a section of the park that needs some loving attention.
Head down, Treatman works amongst the other 15 volunteers turning soil, sweeping, clearing weeds, planting flowers and mowing the lawn of the quaint pocket park on the corner of Germantown Avenue and Ashmead Street. Though picturesque once cleaned, the place faces two obviously vacant buildings on Germantown Avenue and sits practically in the shadow of an empty stone giant on Ashmead that has loomed over the neighborhood for years.
Treatman pauses occasionally to speak with people or pose for a photo; some of them talk to him about real estate and development.
Anita Hamilton, a board member of Wister NAC, appreciates the attention Treatman and other candidates are giving to the neighborhood that day. Hamilton, who was an early Eighth District hopeful herself, before bowing out of the race, says Germantown has been ignored for too long.
She hopes the next councilperson will be someone who understands the diversity of the Eighth District, will be a strong presence in the community and won’t be a repeat of the old neighborhood relationships. Just last week she decided, for her, that person is Howard Treatman.
Treatman has lived in Germantown for nearly 20 years, so in a way his work in Gilbert Stuart Park that day was perfectly within his element. In other ways, it was a million miles off.
A lawyer by trade, a real estate developer by profession, Treatman is someone you might call if you had money to invest in real estate – a lot of money. Some projects he’s worked on in Philadelphia include the redevelopment of the John Wanamaker building on Broad Street, the 23-acre St. Ives Apartments in Northeast Philadelphia, and the rescue and redevelopment of the the Rittenhouse Hotel and Condominium building on Rittenhouse Square, where some single bedroom units sell for $900,000 a pop.
The firm he now runs with one partner, Harvest Equities, boasts $400 million in investments all over the country.
It’s a far cry from, say, the unit block of East Collom Street only feet from Gilbert Stuart Park, where at least nine row homes sit vacant and decaying and the most significant real estate activity in recent years was the 2009 fight by Hamilton and others to get a collapsing industrial building and roofless house demolished.
Hamilton thinks Treatman’s real-estate know-how could be just what her community needs. More important than that, she thinks his independence from rote politics in the Eighth means he could bring things to the district that other candidates won’t.
“Most of the others have been in politics for a minute. … it’s some of that mentality that I think we need to get rid of,” she says of Treatman’s opponents. “I’m looking for someone who is not connected to any of these existing political machines and I don’t think he is.”
At candidate forums in the Eighth, Treatman has described himself as beholden to no one. And a peek at his campaign finance reports can show you why. His is easily the best funded campaign in the Eighth race. More than $100,000 in his campaign coffers came in the form of checks from himself.
The only other candidate who comes close is Cindy Bass, who wrote a single $50,000 check to her own campaign. But Bass has other influential contributors, such as her boss, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), whose political action committee gave her $5,000.
Treatman says he wants to be free of any entangling alliances with donors so he can run for City Council with only one thing in mind – doing the job well.
A past president of the Germantown Jewish Center and a former board member of the community development group Mt. Airy USA, Treatman says he got into the City Council race for the same reason he does those things, because he sees it as a good way to have a positive impact in his own community.
He thinks Council would be helped by having a member who understands from the developer’s side how big city projects happen. And his career, he says, is at a perfect place for him to be of service to the city. Each of his Philadelphia projects has sold to other owners, and he vows to steer clear of Philadelphia as an investor should he be elected to Council, limiting the possible conflicts of interest.
But money and good timing alone won’t win Treatman this race. Fattah all but advised as much earlier this month when he said, “this is not a seat that’s going to be purchased,” during Mayor Michael Nutter’s endorsement of Bass.
Former Eighth District City Council candidate Donna Gentile O’Donnell of Chestnut Hill began the race with roughly the same level of funds as Treatman, plus a collection of political ties that could have rivaled or even surpassed those of Cindy Bass.
Like Treatman, she drew a weak spot on the ballot in March (she was 10, Treatman is 5) and her conclusion then was, for her, the race was unwinable. Besides ballot position, the second major factor that calculated into O’Donnell’s decision to withdraw was the potential difficulty of winning black votes as a white candidate.
O’Donnell said the job is definitely doable, because she doesn’t believe African Americans vote only according to race, but it would have been possible only with more time to win a “hearts and minds campaign.”
Hamilton, too, thinks there are voting habits Treatman has to overcome, though not primarily emanating from race. There are other forms of voter blocs, she said. Even with incumbent Donna Reed Miller retiring, Hamilton thinks the political machine of the Eighth will try to direct people in other pre-approved directions.
“Oh yeah, it will be a challenge,” she says. “People are so set in their ways.”
Then there is the idea of name recognition. Howard Treatman is stepping into politics for the first time against candidates like Cindy Bass and Greg Paulmier, who have spent years positioning themselves for this seat.
And Treatman does face a steep climb to name recognition. At the three NewsWorks voter forums leading up to this week’s candidate debate (see information below) the most frequent ideas voters associated with Treatman’s name were the dreaded concepts: “unknown,” or “don’t know.”
By now in the race, Treatman thinks he’s knocked on thousands of doors. He’ll keep knocking, he says, and getting his name and face and message out there. And he expects, he’ll keep finding evidence, as he has already, that Donna Gentile O’Donnell is wrong about the effects of race on Eighth District voting.
“My experience really belies a philosophy that there is a racial voting pattern and that that’s going to affect everything in this race,” he says. “I’ve seen actually the opposite.”
Whenever he talks with people, Treatman tries to get his philosphy across. He says the role of a City Council person is to be an “agent of change.” And he finds that when he talks to people about how he could partner with them as a City Council person the conversation comes alive.
“What I’ve been finding is that there are so many people who are working, who are committed, who are smart and who haven’t had a partner,” he says.
He tells them he wants to be that partner.
As for name recognition, this week Treatman will get a little help with that when his new television commercial airs featuring Anita Hamilton and others who’ve gotten behind him.
Back in the park, volunteer Julie Baranauskas walked up to Treatman like she was on a mission. Baranauskas works with community groups interested in maintaining the historical homes in Germantown. She is trying to “drum up as much support” as she can to save these properties, including one neighboring her own home, which has long gone ignored. After her conversation with Treatman, she seemed satisfied with his response.
“(He) sees city resources as not only the people but the real estate,” Baranauskas said.
To that end, some of Treatman’s development priorities for the Eighth include improving the commercial districts like Germantown Avenue; envisioning industrial development that sews the Wayne Junction area together with Hunting Park West; and tourism development of the area’s historic resources.
Treatman thinks he’s a natural first choice to champion these ideas.
And for those who are tired of back-room deals and politics as usual, he thinks he should be number one on that list, too. He says he’s not interested in making a career out of politics.
“The project isn’t getting involved with public office,” Treatman says. “The project is impacting my community.”
This is the sixth 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, 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.)
(An earlier version incorrectly stated the candidate’s current status with Mt. Airy USA)