Cindy Bass walks across Thelma Gorham’s East Germantown living room wearing two hats – City Council candidate and congressional staffer.
Bass, 43, is one of seven Democratic hopefuls running for an open Eighth District City Council seat. She’s here on the 5800 block of Crittenden Street for an informal candidate interview.
As the television rumbles in the background, a small group from the neighborhood’s ACTION United chapter gathers around Gorham’s dining room table. They ask Bass a candidate question: As a Councilwoman, does she plan on addressing blight in the district, and will she open an office there if elected?
She says she does and she will.
The group members then toss Bass a question in her role as a senior adviser on urban and domestic policy for U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.). It recalls a much larger ACTION United meeting Bass attended as a Fattah staffer the week before. There, Crittenden Street resident Jocelyn Davis shared video footage she’d shot of flood waters gushing from the street’s sewer system and into her home after a rainstorm.
Though off the congressman’s clock, Bass obliges with an update, delivered in a soft voice: “We’ll work to get the Army Corps of Engineers out. … This is what they do. I think they will be able to be helpful.”
While this Friday night meeting in late March didn’t make headlines, it did offer a glimpse at Bass’ balancing act in her second run at City Council.
On one hand, Bass’ campaign seeks to benefit from her association with Fattah, as well as with Allyson Schwartz, a state senator turned U.S. representative for whom Bass also served on staff.
On the other hand, in a district where many voters are suspicious of business as usual, the Mount Airy resident knows she has to separate herself from her mentors’ long shadows.
While working for Fattah and Schwartz, Bass says, she made a number of strong connections in the community. She sees these roots as a big advantage in the 2011 race.
Bass has long been active in party politics at the committee level, inspiring enough of a following in the 22nd Ward last spring to nearly unseat Ron Couser for the ward leader position. That challenge generated a physical tussle among the competing committee people.
She narrowly lost to Eighth District incumbent Donna Reed Miller in the 2007 Democratic primary. Miller’s retirement has set up this spring’s crowded primary.
Surveying her opponents, Bass says, “You have some folks who have been around, who have worked hard, who people know. And then you have a number of folks who are running, all good people, but who are not well connected to the community and haven’t necessarily been engaged to the level that I have been.”
Pamela Rich-Wheeler agrees with Bass’ assessment. The Mount Airy resident has known Bass for more than a decade. She worked directly with her in her role as the executive director of the Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise on the campus of New Covenant Church.
Rich-Wheeler describes a City Council seat as a logical extension of the work Bass has already done in the district. She specifically points to Bass’ experiences with Fattah and as the first employee of what is now called Mt. Airy USA, a community development corporation. Bass has also been a community lender for Chestnut Hill Bank and was the president of East Mount Airy Neighbors, a civic association.
“I think that she is prepared,” says Rich-Wheeler. “And anything that she feels she might not be prepared for, she’ll bring in the right person to be part of her team.”
As a legislative staffer, Rich-Wheeler says, Bass became familiar with local laws and local issues, and with the ins and outs of constituent service. Rich-Wheeler thinks this all prepared Bass to get results as a Council person.
“You don’t want to be led by someone who [is] going to refer [you] to this person and refer you to that person. You want to make sure the job gets done and that person knows what they are talking about,” says Rich-Wheeler.
While Bass doesn’t wish to discount her connections, she doesn’t want to appear as solely a product of them either. She needs to appeal to voters, like many who showed up for NewsWorks voter forums this spring, who express impatience with the political status quo in Northwest Philadelphia, which they see as rife with insider deals.
“I work hard to let people know that I’m an independent person and I’m not directed by any individual or any other elected official,” says Bass.
That careful dance was on full display during a late-afternoon stint of canvassing in West Oak Lane. With a handful of campaign volunteers in tow, Bass bounces energetically from one house to the next, never letting her high-heeled boots slow her down.
“Cindy,” shouts someone from across the street, and she’s off to greet him. Bass says she gets a charge out of the activity.
“I’m a nerd like that,” she says.
When talking to residents on the 6400 block of 16th Street, a tree-lined stretch of twin homes perched high above the sidewalk, Bass is polite, but quick to get to the point of her campaign pitch.
Marquay Dausvel is pleased that Bass showed up in the neighborhood at all. None of the other six candidates running for the position had at that point, she said.
“That gives her a big up,” says Dausvel after a brief meeting with Bass. “I have no idea who the other people are that are running.”
Bass says meeting face to face with potential voters is an important first step, helping to re-establish the Council office as a fair and just community partner, she explains.
But with so much of the district feeling neglected at times during Miller’s 16-year tenure, it will be hard for the next Council person to make each neighborhood feel its getting the attention it deserves.
Every nook has its need, she says.
“In North Philadelphia it’s much more an issue of economics, versus if you’re in Chestnut Hill, it’s more of a service issue, like a tree fell down on my block or a stoplight isn’t working,” says Bass.
Leaning against a faded red pickup truck parked just up the street from Dausvel’s home, Chris Baker shares his skepticism of city government. Using snow removal as an example, Baker says city services simply aren’t equally distributed.
“You ride down Broad [Street] and all their snow is plowed. Ain’t none of our snow plowed,” says Baker.
“We could do better,” says Bass.
“We could do a lot better,” says Baker.
Ask John O’Connell about Cindy Bass, and he might as well quote Chris Baker. He thinks the Eighth District can indeed do better.
O’Connell is the city’s Ninth Ward leader and an adviser to Eighth District opponent Verna Tyner, and he doesn’t think Bass is the right person to bring true change to the district.
O’Connell’s biggest objection could be boiled down to one name: Steven A. Vaughn.
Vaughn, now a member of Bass’ campaign, is notable on two fronts.
He is a former board member of the now defunct Germantown Settlement, a social service and housing agency to which Councilwoman Miller had close ties. That organization recently went bankrupt, and in December was ordered by the federal court to dissolve. Settlement mismanaged vast real estate holdings with millions of taxpayer dollars on the line.
Vaughn is also an ex-con, imprisoned for governmental corruption. While serving as chief of staff in Miller’s office, Vaughn was part of a large-scale tax fraud scheme that netted him and his associates a $60,000-plus payout from the city’s Law Department.
O’Connell says he’s deeply troubled that Bass would bring someone with such a sordid resume into her campaign. He says the decision shows poor judgment and sends the wrong message to voters looking for a clean-break from Miller’s often troubled tenure on City Council.
“I just don’t think you should be compromising on your values to get yourself elected,” says O’Connell. “If it means that you’re not going to hire a consultant who’s had ties to the former councilperson and has ties to Germantown Settlement and was involved in some things that were probably not good for the district, I think you say, you know what, thanks, but no thanks and try and do it differently.”
Some of O’Connell’s concerns about Vaughn’s presence have surfaced elsewhere in the race. Robin Tasco, another Eighth District candidate, told G-Town Radio in early April that she had been “threatened” by Vaughn.
According to Tasco, Vaughn told her to drop out of the race or she could face a lawsuit in an unrelated matter, but added she could be compensated with money or a job if she complied. Bass has stated that she has no knowledge of that conversation.
According to Tasco, Vaughn called her shortly before an Eighth District voter named Brandon A. Vaughn, another worker for Bass, filed a challenge to Tasco’s nominating petitions.
Similar challenges were filed against candidates Fay Dawson, Jordan Dillard, Bill Durham and Andrew Lofton by some voters who are also associated with the Bass campaign. Each challenge was argued by the same team of attorneys. It’s fair to say Bass was responsible for thinning the field of Eighth District candidates by two when Fay Dawson and Jordan Dillard lost their cases.
Such challenges have become common in city politics; Bass has used the tactic before. In the 2007 race for City Council she challenged fellow Eighth District candidate Greg Paulmier on the basis of his reported earnings statement. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which found in Paulmier’s favor nearly two weeks after the primary election was held.
Even now, as the two face off in debates for this race, Paulmier has referred the incident as a below-the-belt blow (though he, too, has used similar tactics.)
Asked about Steven Vaughn following the alleged incident with Tasco, Bass told NewsWorks she took him on in the name of second chances.
“We have 300,000 convicted felons living among us, working among us, and we’ve got to get those people engaged,” said Bass. “I know that a lot of people are not particularly comfortable with Mr. Vaughn, but part of my campaign is finding ways to write people back in. I can’t be hypocritical about it.”
Bass added that Vaughn’s duties – which focus on get-out-the-vote efforts – have no ties to the more controversial parts of his past.
After a few hours of crisscrossing the 17th Ward, Bass and her band of volunteers decide to call it a day.
On the ride back to her campaign headquarters on the 5500 block of Germantown Avenue, Bass says she plans on spending the rest of the evening on the phone fundraising, her least favorite part of campaigning.
“It’s not something that you relish doing because you know so many people need money for different things just to basically get by,” she says.
Bass may have less trouble in that department after recently receiving Mayor Michael Nutter’s endorsement. During a Saturday event in early April where Nutter made his announcement, Bass also got pledges of assistance from her long-time boss Congressman Fattah, as well as State Sen. Vincent Hughes and State Rep. Dwight Evans.
Some say Bass may have her eye on higher office Bass has neither confirmed nor denied that rumor. But once, when asked if she would support term limits for City Council members Bass said no one would need to worry about such things with her.
For now though, Bass’ focus is on winning the seat she narrowly lost four years ago. She says she hasn’t stopped campaigning since that day.
“I have a record and history that I believe speaks for itself,” says Bass.
This is the first 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
On April 27 at 7 p.m, 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 Dialog, Chris Satullo, will moderate the event at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, 35 West Chelten Avenue, 19144. (Doors open at 6 p.m.)