Robin Tasco: Trying to rise above

Lunch hour has come and gone on a recent community cleanup day and some boys hang wearily against the TrueValue storefront on Germantown Avenue, near Wister Street. They’ve stuffed their work gloves into their sweatshirt pockets, hoping to signal an end to the day’s work.

But their leader, Eighth District City Council candidate Robin Tasco, is still sweeping. She uses the broom to pile up cigarette butts, candy wrappers and debris on the sidewalk, only stopping to introduce herself to voters – broom in hand – and to reprimand the boys, when needed.

“Fix your face,” she says to her youngest son, Lucky. He’s pouting. They’re all out of Skittles.

Then she softens. “Hey, listen,” she says. “I owe y’all.”

Her “troops,” as she calls them, are a mix of her sons and nephews and their friends. They’ve been up since 8 a.m. with Tasco, first cleaning up her block, then rooting through the fallen branches in Happy Hollow and finally, here, helping at the Wister Neighborhood Advisory Council’s side of the cleanup.

The day’s work wasn’t a campaign, stop though two of her most enthusiastic supporters, pastor Darien Thomas and Reverend Robert Johnson, came to Wister to help spread the word about Tasco. They worked the street, speaking to business owners and passersby, while Tasco focused on the cleanup.

Every weekend, she says, she tries to get out and give back to the community. The weekend  after the cleanup she, and her husband Will Tasco organized contractors who donate time to install lights at Vernon Park.

This is Tasco’s first run for the Eighth District seat, which will open up next year with the retirement of incumbent Donna Reed Miller, though she is not totally new to politics. She has served as both a block captain and a Democratic Committee person in Germantown and she’s also been a voice for women and minorities within the unions of Philadelphia.

Union

A longtime member of the International Brotherhood of Electricians Workers (IBEW) Local 98, she became the union’s first female business representative in 2001. Her appointment to this prominent position was a first for women in all of Philadelphia’s building trade unions.

In addition to her work in union business, she took on the role of the union’s community liaison, overseeing a territory that included the boundaries of the Eighth District. One of the projects she supervised was the union participation in the 2009 historic renovation of Germantown’s Dresher Morris House, or the Germantown White House, where George Washington stayed during the summer of 1793.

She became a business representative when members of Ushirika Fundi appealed to Business Manager John J. Dougherty, Jr. for more minority representation, as all the business representatives in the union at the time were white men. When asked if it was hard to be the only woman of the group, Tasco laughs.

“Of course it was hostile,” she says.

That hostility has not seemed to abate since she was laid off from Local 98 in 2009; signs of it have even surfaced in this Council race.

Despite her trade union connections, Local 98 is not officially supporting Tasco, and has not endorsed any of the other six candidates in the race. Tasco thinks the reason for that is a 2006 car accident that left her hurt and unable to perform her job and has resulted in a bitter worker’s compensation court battle with the union.

“John Dougherty and them have been fighting my worker’s comp since 2009,” says Tasco, referring to Local 98’s powerful business manager. Tasco claims she has had a difficult time finding lawyers to represent her because of union pressure.

Frank Keel, spokesperson for Local 98, had this response to that claim: “Local 98 won’t dignify her accusation with a comment.”

The race

Former Eighth District candidate John Churchville calls Tasco a fighter by nature. He’s joined her campaign, he says, because she swears off special interests and pledges an independently minded reform agenda for the Eighth.

The fighter in her was on clear display in March when she faced court challenges to her nomination petitions, which she alleged came accompanied by pressure and threats from the campaign of Cindy Bass.

According to Tasco, early in the course of the race, a Bass campaign worker named Steven A. Vaughn approached her and her husband, and threatened to bring insurance fraud claims against her relating to her workers compensation case, if she didn’t drop out of the race.

Vaughn later admitted to the meeting but not the threats.  George Gosset Jr., a lawyer for Tasco, says he had a somewhat similar discussion with attorney Robert Vance, who was representing another volunteer for Bass named Brandon A. Vaughn in a legal challenge to Tasco’s nomination petitions.

The crux of the discussion, according to Gosset, was that Vance had a problem with a 2011 filing by Tasco in relation to the worker’s compensation case, which listed a Rydal, Pa., home address. Rydal is in Abington Township, a suburban location outside of Philadelphia, where she claims to live in her nomination papers.

“I talked with Mr. Vance and said that if they would file any kind of action with regard to that lawsuit it would fall on its face,” says Gosset.

The reason, according to Gosset, Tasco simply listed on the forms this year the address she lived at in 2006, the year of the car accident. “So where’s the fraud in that?” Gosset asks.

Cindy Bass has said she was unaware of the actions of both Steven and Brandon Vaughn. She strongly condemned any activity that might have been interpreted as threatening. Vance did not respond to a request for comment.

Residency

Tasco prevailed in the nomination challenge and Bass may have taken the greater of the lumps in it all, due to her association with Steven Vaughn, who many in the Eighth remember primarily for his past guilty plea on federal corruption charges while working as a staffer for incumbent Donna Reed Miller.

But the rumors relating to Tasco’s residency have not stopped swirling. Tasco has not shied away from the subject, talking to several reporters over the last few weeks about how her family moved to Rydal years ago for the better schools, and how she returned to her girlhood home in Germantown in the summer of 2010 after her mother’s death.

Tasco’s explanation of her residency situation has not always been easy to follow.  Her children still attend the Abington schools, and her husband still lives with them in Rydal. Tasco says she lives with her sister at the home in Germantown, but insists thee marriage is not on the rocks. Will Tasco does work regularly on Robin’s campaign. She explains the move back to Germantown as a personal and spiritual need that her family has supported.

Tasco says she has moved to her mother’s home before for periods and that she never stopped voting in Germantown’s 59th Ward.

“We moved here [Rydal], my kids went to school here but I never stopped doing anything in the district,” she says one recent afternoon.

The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter requires a candidate for Council to live in the city one year prior to a run at the seat. Tasco admits that she moved back to Philadelphia less than a year prior to her candidacy. This would seem a clear violation of election law, but prominent election lawyer Gregory Harvey says it’s not that simple.

“The only way that that issue can be tried legally is if a challenge to the nomination petition of the person is filed within seven business days of the filing of nomination petitions.”

That nominations petition filing deadline was March 8.

Rumors concerning Tasco’s residency date back before that deadline but Harvey says these cases are especially hard to bring against a candidate, even if you get them in in time.

Harvey recalled the 1982 case of Candelario Lamboy who lived in Kensington for a long time before leaving with his family to settle in New Jersey – kids, wife and all. Harvey challenged the residency and put on a strong case, but because Lamboy still owned a residence in Kensington the Commonwealth Court allowed his candidacy to stand.

Campaign

Tasco’s platform centers on increasing the district’s competitiveness by investing in green infrastructure and promoting math and science education in public schools.

A certified electrician, she wants to turn the Germantown Town Hall into a LEED certified building, which would set standards for its design and energy efficiency. She hopes this will attract green businesses to the area and aid in transforming blue-collar jobs into green-collar jobs.

Her dissatisfaction with Philadelphia schools has inspired her, too. She wants to introduce yearly science fairs, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

These ideas mirror things her adviser John Churchville talked about early in his aborted bid for the Eighth District seat.

Wherever she goes during this campaign, Tasco stresses the importance of transparency in local government. She wants people to be involved in conversations about how their district is run. “I think the people have been left out of the picture for a while,” she says.

If elected, she intends to establish several channels of communication with constituents, from monthly town meetings throughout the district to weekly e-newsletters.

Tasco says she’s also tired of seeing desirable properties in the district go straight to developers, so she’d like to enact a land trust that would give community members a fair chance to purchase property.

Technical issues have tripped Tasco up early in the race. She forgot to file some simple, but legally required information to the city’s Ethics Board, as reported by NewsWorks writer Dave Davies, and at times Tasco has seemed reluctant to speak to the press.

She’s more of a person-to-person kind of candidate, she says. She likes to let her actions speak for her, when she can.

One ideal example came with that plan to light Vernon Park. After hearing about a Germantown man who was mugged there recently, she organized a group of contractors to donate materials and labor and she set to work over a weekend, installing a new set of lights near the Vernon House.

“I ain’t never been too pretty to get my hands dirty,” she says.

This is the fifth 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.)

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