Verna Tyner: A Council staffer reaching to take the reins

Correction: This is a corrected version of the following story. The original version included incorrect information about Ms. Tyner’s past work relationships. She did not at any time work in Donna Reed Miller’s District Council office. NewsWorks regrets the error.

 

It’s 7 a.m. The sky is gray, the air is cool and Verna Tyner is smiling through the pain.

She is at Broad and Erie facing the oncoming foot traffic getting off subway trains and buses. She’s trying to get the travelers to read about her bid for the Eighth District City Council seat. Inside tight dress shoes, her big toe throbs from a freak accident at church the day before.

“Of all the days to have a swollen toe,” she complains. But the smile is wide as she asks the commuters to take a flyer. She hops just a little to get around.

“Broad and Erie is a really local spot. This is the district, this side.”

She is standing on the northwest corner with several helpers close by and about eight more spread over the other corners of the intersection.

It may not be perfect targeting, but Tyner says she knows people from a lot of the neighborhoods in the Eighth catch mass transit here. Her husband Joseph works for SEPTA.

“I want to touch the working class people; this is a great way to do that,” she says.

Some are too busy to take a flyer; most quietly accept and move quickly to their next connection, but others stop to greet her as if she came there just for them.

Stan Mininall of Tioga – Tyner’s home neighborhood – is one. He stops to shake her hand and give her a hug. He says he supports her, “because she supported us in the neighborhood for a  long time.”

Roots

Tyner was just 10 years old when her family moved to Tioga. She says she thought she’d, “died and went to heaven. The lawns were so well kept. The trees were trimmed and the houses were so beautiful.”

She became active as a junior block captain on Venango Street at age 11. Now, at age 51, she’s still living on the same block of Venango. That makes 40 years of involvement in the same community. 

Twenty-something Dwayne Lilley holds an impromptu strategy meeting with the candidate and a few of the workers. The flyers are running short; they’re may not be enough to hand out at Broad and Olney, the next scheduled campaign stop of the day.

The candidate decides to stick around and use up the rest of the 500 flyers at Broad and Erie. Then, as she makes her way across Broad Street for a coffee and glazed doughnut, she explains Lilley is a central figure in what she calls the grass roots support for her campaign.

Lilley’s grandfather, Alvin Stewart, took over as Eighth District City Councilman after Herbert DeBeary died in the job. It was Stewart who gave Tyner her first real taste for politics.

She left a private sector accounting job to go to work in Stewart’s Council office 16 years ago. Now, Stewart is still active at the ward level in Tioga, and his son, Dwayne Stewart (Dwayne Lilley’s father), is heading up the Tioga efforts for Tyner.

“I believe in getting names and faces that people relate to,” she says of her campaign workers.

Other key names that crop up in Tyner’s political resume include:

Councilman At-large Bill Greenlee, for whom she worked as chief of staff until December of last year, when she left to run this race.
The late Councilman At-large David Cohen, for whom she was chief of staff for years.
State Sen. Leanna Washington (D., Phila.), from whom she got an enthusiastic endorsement.                                                                                                          

Standing at Broad and Erie, Tyner highlights another endorser – a lean African American man who sells newspapers from a small cart outside the SEPTA turnstile to the  station. Tyner is a longtime customer. They hug after Tyner makes her way, with some difficulty, down the steps.

“Verna, of course is first class. I love her. Everybody loves her… We took to each other right away, and I’d do anything for her,” says Gary, who doesn’t want his last name used.

He went on: “You’d be surprised in the little 10, six, five seconds you have with people how close you can get to them.” 

Stewart looks at his watch: 7:51. Time to move on.

Tyner eyes the steps back up. “No pain, no gain,” she says.

Campaign

Inside the campaign office on Chew Avenue ward maps and hand drawn graphs hang on the walls. (Tyner has endorsements from the 11th, 12th an 17th Wards.) Plywood covers the floors, absent baseboards at the edges.

Dwayne Lilley and Otis Hightower work on laptop computers near the front window while Laura Frank and Misha Malone occupy the back half of the space, rushing around a painted plywood partition that separates Tyner’s desk from the rest of the office.

“Miss Verna,” they all call her, even though Hightower looks to be about her age or older.

Tyner goes over receipts one by one and calls out questions about the rest of her day that Misha and Laura mostly answer – more campaigning with 9th Ward Leader John O’Connell, a meeting with developer and political insider Ken Weinstein, a meeting with political strategist Joe Certain, and later a meeting with a potential volunteer, 92-year old Michelle Slack.

“They’re my babies,” Tyner says of senior citizens in general.

She talks about the work she’s done over the years to try to improve things for seniors and other residents in the district. One highlight was the Seniors’ Prom she helped organize for seniors in that neighborhood, through the group Tioga United.

“Some of them said they never had a prom,” she recalls.

It’s something she wants to do again.

The most important thing for City Council person to do, something she learned from David Cohen among others, “people need to know that you have their backs,” she says.

That means listening and outreach in the neighborhoods, and making sure to provide city services through the Council office, she says. But it also means responding to the needs of the district with innovative ideas.

One of those: She plans to ask every business in the district to hire one person who lives in the district, to improve the local jobs market.

Another: She will ask every household to contribute $10 into a neighborhood fund and then she will seek out matching grants to improve local services.

Another still: She plans on hiring a youth advocate in the Council office to try to engage and empower young people in the district.

And still another: She wants to hold regular education forums geared toward getting parents and other residents involved with the schools – especially to help improve afterschool and technical programs, and to hold up a higher standard for student achievement.

“We have to stop being so easy on our children and start expecting more of them,” she says.

The gamble

But some local residents have already rejected a few ideas associated with Tyner. Mostly these date to a bitter 2006 fight among neighborhood groups over Donald Trump’s and Pat Croce’s proposal to build a casino at the Budd building in the industrial area known as Hunting Park West.

The so called TrumpStreet Casino project resulted in a splintering of Tyner’s group, Tioga United and the Allegheny West Foundation, which supported the casino, from a larger coalition called the Multi-community Alliance, which was against it.

Tioga United signed a community agreement with representatives from the casino project, which provided certain benefits to the Tioga neighborhood, the closest to the proposed casino, but some members of the Multi-Community Alliance saw this as a problem.

“They had a whole team that flooded the area,” says Gina Snyder, Director East Falls Development Corporation, of the casino lobby. “They had a lot of money and promised a lot of things.”

Greg Brinkley, who represented the Abbotsford Homes in the process, was convinced the casino would be terrible for residents there, and even though he said his relationship with Tyner was always respectful, he thinks she and Tioga United got it wrong.

“Ms. Tyner, I really felt that in this instance… they were selling out. That’s how we felt,” he says.

When Tyner testified in front of the state gaming board about the TrumpStreet project in 2006, she started talking about her Tioga neighborhood in a familiar way.

“I thought I’d died and went to heaven,” her testimony begins. “When I arrived in Tioga for the first time, I was amazed to see the gorgeous homes of various sizes and shapes. The trees well trimmed, the lawns well manicured.”

She went on to say how the project would provide stable jobs for community residents, millions in local education dollars and other services and she noted that TrumpStreet had already become a community partner in Tioga in numerous ways including financially underwriting the Seniors’ Prom.

In a 2006 Inquirer article Tyner’s response to MCA’s casino opposition was: “Personally, I gamble. And I feel as though people have to get a little more control of themselves.” 

Looking back, Tyner says she feels torn over the casino fight.

“One of the things I have always prided myself on is representing the people,” she says in a quiet moment at her office. “After having about six or seven meetings and taking ballots, our residents decided to support the proposal because they needed jobs.”

“But I was very afraid for our senior citizens,” she continued. “If it was personal opinion I would not want it to be that close. And I had to stand up to a lot of different people not believing that it was a good thing.”

Buzz

Ninth Ward Democratic Leader John O’Connell picked Tyner up later in the morning for more walking on that sore toe at La Salle University. Tyner is a student there, set to graduate two days before the primary election with a degree in corporate communications.

They visited the food court at the Student Union and stopped at every table to hand out flyers. They didn’t bother to ask if the students were registered voters in the Eighth. Instead Tyner played up being a student herself and asked her classmates to “friend me,” and “tweet about me.”

When the job was finished, at least 30 sets of young eyes watched the campaigners through the large glass windows of the food court. Tyner didn’t seem to notice as she and O’Connell made their way across campus where Tyner would speak to a political science class and make the same requests.

“If you’re creative, you can do a lot of campaigning during the day,” O’Connell says.

A bit later, Tyner and O’Connell met supporter Ken Weinstein at the Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy for a late lunch.  Over her pastrami sandwich with Russian dressing, Tyner settled into a conversation about the philosophy of good council leadership.

“People have felt slighted,” Tyner says of the current leadership in the Eighth. “They didn’t feel they were included.”

Weinstein calls this year “the opportunity year.” A former City Council staffer himself, he has taken on the project of vetting candidates for a large network of friends and acquaintances. He thinks of it as a kind of service for people who don’t always have the ability to get to know candidates on their own.

He met with the candidates for the Eighth and considered several things about them, including quality of personality, ability to get things done and ability to win the race. Verna Tyner became his candidate of choice several months ago and he’s been holding fundraisers and meet-and-greets even since.

For him and many of those acquaintances, he says, there is a lot of anticipation for a much more hopeful climate in City Council after this year. He hopes for a time when, “a good idea could go somewhere; and I think we’re about to get that.”

After finishing her sandwich Tyner remarks that’s it’s been enough rest for her weary toe. She says her goodbye’s to O’Connell and Weinstein and makes a few new introductions on her way out the door to where Dwayne Lilley is waiting for her in a car.

Next stop: She’s off to meet 92-year old Michelle Slack. She limps a bit but she’s still smiling wide.

“Everyone has a role, there’s nothing too big or too small,” she says.

 

This is the last of seven NewsWorks profile stories for Eighth District Council candidates. NewsWorks ran one profile story each weekday, in alphabetical order, from April 18 through today.

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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