Jim Foster sat down at a table on the back patio of the Trolley Car Diner & Cafe in East Falls late Friday morning and ordered eggs benedict.
Then, he explained why he’s tackling a seemingly impossible challenge: beating U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and Republican challenger Robert Mansfield in next month’s election.
“Yes, it’s a reach and this and that,” conceded Foster, who is on the ballot as an independent after legal drama left him mulling potential conspiracies to keep him off. “But, if I rouse enough energy [among voters] through what I’m doing, who knows what’ll happen.
“I’m a longshot at best, but maybe it’ll be an ‘Anyone but Fattah’ thing. I’ve been getting good feedback.”
The 69-year-old newspaper publisher from Germantown touched on the “economic and social failures” he says are evident throughout the Northwest and North Philadelphia portions of the Second Congressional District.
Foster made note of the difficulties inherent in running a race after a major portion of your campaign war chest — some $9,000 — disappears to cover legal fees from a ballot battle. He also questioned why a reporter for a daily newspaper asked him nothing about the issues, only what he was paying for one-minute spots on WURD-AM.
“Do you think the Koch brothers are funding me?” he asked sarcastically, alluding to the billionaire conservative-cause backers.
His platform mainstays are the same as they were in previous campaigns for Eighth District City Council — the need for transparency and compliance when it comes to the use of public funds.
Foster said that Fattah “whistles past the graveyard of economic failure.”
Foster cited a failed public-education system and a crime condition that sees Philadelphia atop the per-capita murder rates among major American cities, and called Fattah an enabler.
How the race impacts Germantown
Foster’s resume includes stops at Cardinal Dougherty High School, La Salle College, the U.S. Marines Corps, First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust, and the West Johnson Classics car business ran until 2010.
A slew of community groups are listed as well; they include the West Mt. Airy Neighbors group, Central Germantown Council and president of the Germantown YMCA board.
It’s the resume of someone who is engaged in the community, with the latest entry — publisher and editor of the Germantown Chronicle and Northwest Independent — promoting that title to someone loudly engaged.
He said he left the car business because he figured being a newsman was the best way to ease into what are widely considered retirement years.
That shift led him to stories like malfeasance at Germantown Settlement and a personal care home on West Johnson Street. Those stories created an attentiveness to how public dollars are spent in Northwest Philadelphia and beyond.
Money not well-spent
Take, for instance, a Fattah press release from Monday in which the congressman “Announces $21.7 Million Grant For [the University of Pennsylvania] for Cutting Edge Research.”
Foster blasted it out to his email list with this comment: “A major slush fund if I ever saw one. Could it be any more vague and I wonder if anyone can trace the $21 million?”
To Foster, it’s a matter of too many dollars being steered toward University City academic institutions already flush with cash, at the expense of too few dollars getting into the hands of those who need it direly.
“It’s like ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ with areas walled off,” he said, alluding to wastelands outside grantlands where people must fend for themselves. “They don’t want to leave. They want the city to get better again.
“Penn should be able to do it on their own. This money does not go to the mom-and-pop bagel shop that wants to open up nearby and become successful thanks to what the Penns of the world offer. That’s what I think should happen. I’m not opposed to spending public money, but it has to be spent in the right places.”
Mt. Airy vs. Germantown
He then segued into a recent announcement that the city Commerce Department would financially support an effort to rehabilitate four properties. Mayor Michael Nutter was there. It was a big deal.
Foster was also there. He said the project is “another example of Chelten Plaza, something ushered though without residents knowing about it, or having any say.”
“I don’t object at all to dollars going to a community which needs it, but Mt. Airy is not an economic wasteland. It’s strong enough now,” he declared. “Where do I think that money should have gone? Germantown Avenue, Wayne Junction to Coulter Street or Wayne Avenue. That’s where the money should have gone. Those areas need it.”
That fund-shifting opinion contradicts those who have painted Foster as having a Tea Party mindset, even though he’s spoken to four of the five Tea Party groups in Philadelphia, with members of the Roxborough group helping get his campaign launched.
Why he ran
Foster has finished some organge juice and moved on to coffee. The eggs are gone, but the English uuffins upon which they were served and salted sit untouched.
He’s been talking for roughly an hour, reiterating things he’s stated in minute-long radio spots and to voters he wooed in places like the Roxborough ShopRite parking lot and throughout Montgomery County, where redistricting offered him what he considers a fertile ground for picking up votes from suburbanites wary of “Philly political machine” based representation.
The remaining days and weeks leading to Nov. 6 will see a “heavy push” into those areas with mailers and knocks on doors.
A heart-wrenching loss
The son of Roosevelt Democrats is then asked to shift from political to personal.
When Foster entered the race in January, Christina Warfield — his wife of 30 years and “part of the team for everything I did” — was healthy enough to work and play tennis twice a week. This, despite having battled ovarian cancer.
That changed in May when a doctor told the couple that the cancer had spread to her liver, a terminal diagnosis that ended up taking her life on July 21.
Foster said that he would not have entered the race if that diagnosis came in January. He walked away from the campaign to care for his dying wife.
What he didn’t know was that a core group of supporters carried on, getting petitions signed without the candidate at their side.
“Jim, we have 4,000 signatures,” he recalled being told of news that convinced him to pick himself up. “I’m glad they did that, because I wouldn’t have known what to do. I know I didn’t want to end up with a scotch in hand, watching TV every day. With my 30-year life companion gone, this has had a therapeutic effect.”
That isn’t to say he brazenly predicts victory, or brings that loss up without prodding. Foster readily conceded it’s an uphill battle. He gets a kick out of playing “Happy Days are Here Again” in campaign ads, hearkening back to the days of candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though.
Rather than numbing himself with scotch, Foster figures a loss would send him back to expanding his newspapers, just as he did before.
Heck, if he wins, the papers would continue on. The difference is that he will have planted a flag in political history like that left by a candidate who ended 67 years of established-party control in Philadelphia politics.
“I’d love to win,” he said, “and be the Richardson Dilworth of 2012.”
This is the first in a series of stories on the second Congressional district race. Forthcoming stories will focus on incumbent U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and Republican challenger Robert Allen Mansfield.
Editor’s note: Mansfield was added to the text of this story after publication, as opposed to being mentioned solely in the upcoming-stories tagline initially.