With the fall election season underway seven City Council At-Large candidates came together recently at the WHYY studio for a political debate that, considering the stakes of the upcoming election, was a testament to measured, thoughtful politics. With seven participants in attendance – five Republicans and two Democrats – the debate covered everything from Occupy Philadelphia to the transparency of government to specific questionable activities of each candidate.
Three of the candidates – Dennis O’Brien, Al Taubenberger and Joe McColgan – have certain characteristics in common: they’re all Republicans and they all come from the Northeast. They all have a specific plan that stems from their experience in their home districts, whether it be education reforms or plans for rejuvenating local businesses.
Dennis O’Brien, a state legislator and former Speaker of the House for Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, is a longtime resident of Millbrook. At the debate, he said he was proud of his 35 years of service in elected office, though moderator Dave Davies raised the topic of partisanship.
“I became Speaker of the House in a bipartisan fashion. There was a crisis in Harrisburg. …I’m not going to walk away from that,” O’Brien said. “I’ve never been accused of being partisan in all of my years in Harrisburg.”
O’Brien, however, stood his ground.
“I’m about taking issues and developing those issues–whether they’re [about] health care, whether they’re [about] criminal justice issues, [or about] my kids with disabilities. …And I want to bring a new conversation for education to the city of Philadelphia.”
While walking around the Sgt. Patrick McDonald Memorial Gym days before the debate, he and his team spoke of the newly built gym for kids to come after school. The pride O’Brien and his team had for the facility was evident.
“It took over 20 years for this gym to be completed,” said Dave Kralle, O’Brien’s longtime assistant.
Working with the Liberty Bell Youth Organization board, for whom the gym was built, securing funding and gaining property rights were only a fraction of the hurdles the team had to deal with in building the structure.
“I’m proud of the community for their consistent efforts and their determination to get what they truly deserved,” O’Brien said.
The gym symbolizes one of O’Brien’s major platforms for his campaign: providing the community’s youth with the tools to empower and encourage healthy growth. This not only applies to recreational centers, it heavily relies on education.
“Schools are a mere reflection of what the community is,” O’Brien said. “So these kinds of changes will not only affect the children at the earliest point, but they’ll also affect everyone on the pathway.”
To do this, O’Brien is zeroing in on education down to the most basic components: the classrooms. Advocating new ways to educate frustrated students who must overcome ailments such as ADD and dyslexia, O’Brien is confident that if we change how children are educated, they are more likely to stay in the classroom and off the streets.
“The conversation has got to be about educating those kids better in the classroom and not focusing on whether we are going to have a school reform commission or an appointed school board, because the same two people are going to appoint the members,” he said in his parting statement at the WHYY debate.
Al Taubenberger argues a different approach, one that focuses primarily on strengthening local businesses to promote a healthy community. As the president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and longtime resident of Burholme, he is no stranger to the impact businesses have on the community.
“The opportunity for employment helped many neighborhoods [in the past] and will continue to help many neighborhoods if those opportunities persist,” Taubenberger said at the WHYY debate. “For that to happen, though, you have to have an atmosphere where business is welcome, where business understands and most importantly, where business has the confidence to be in this city.”
“Good business climate equals jobs…and is something I want to bring to city council and this city as a whole.”
While shifting through interviews and preparing for the debate days prior, Taubenberger expressed similar ideals.
“The primary goal…is to continue to develop and build confidence in our neighborhoods so people will continue to live here,” he said.
Taubenberger has already put his ideology into use through his work at the Chamber of Commerce, helping small and large businesses network and come together to improve not only their individual companies, but also the economic climate as a whole in the Northeast.
But this can only get Philadelphians so far. Taubenberger said the current legislation, specifically the city’s tax structure, hinders economic development.
“The taxes are onerous and complicated and there is not a degree of confidence for businesses to stay in Philadelphia,” Taubenberger said. “There are a number of companies that have quietly fallen out of the city and they’ve been doing that, really, since the 1950s. It needs to be stopped [because] once they move out, it no longer helps the city financially.”
He has continuously been a vocal advocate for reducing taxes, specifically the city’s Wage Tax, in order to encourage more businesses to stay.
Enter Joe McColgan, whose experience in banking and financial management and emphasis on reforming the education takes a double-headed approach to tackling Philadelphia’s problems. At the WHYY debate, he brought up a unique solution to the former argument: Comcast creating a large movie studio in the city.
“With [Comcast] being here and with them purchasing NBC Universal, I see no reason why they couldn’t use some of the cash they have on the books to build a large movie studio here in the city of Philadelphia,” McColgan said. “It [would be] a huge revenue generator not only for the city, but the surrounding area.”
While walking the streets of Center City days later, however, he strongly addressed both concerns for the city.
“One third of the city is below the poverty line. You got to ask yourself, ‘Where are we going to be five, 10, 15 years from now?’ The way we fix that issue I think is through education and jobs,” he said.
Born and bred in West Torresdale – “I live about ten minutes from where I grew up, around Academy and Comly roads,” he said – McColgan is actively involved in making sure the city’s children are ensured a better future. He works with the nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania. His wife, a child abuse pediatrician at St. Christopher’s, started it.
“What this nonprofit does is cover the educational aspect of child abuse. When you grow up in an abusive family, sometimes it’s all you know. So there’s an education component, telling people how to behave and how to raise their kids. We become big advocates for kids, especially kids who have been physically or sexually abused,” he said.
For McColgan, education must be improved through the school system as well.
“Education in Philadelphia, safe to say, has failed,” he said. “We’ve all heard the line ‘too big to fail’ but Philadelphia’s school system is too big to succeed. And I intend to break it up into smaller pieces.”
For the Republicans, the debate marked a crucial night in their campaigns to get elected to council. With the majority party in the city’s government being Democrats, only two seats are ensured for non-majority parties, which could also include independent candidates.
City Council’s At-Large members are representatives not for a certain district, but for the entire city as a whole, meaning they deal with widespread and deep-rooted issues within Philadelphia. And come Nov. 8, the seven newly elected members will have the next four years to put their plans into action.
Kirsten Stamn and Pamela Seaton are students reporting for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, the publication of Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.
Photos of Al Taubenberger by Elliott Curson and Elizabeth Hess.