One of my first “big assignments” for the Local was covering the Democratic primary for 8th District Council in 1999. There were five candidates for the office, including the ever-present Germantown activist Greg Paulmier and former councilman Al Stewart. In 1999, we invited each candidate to the Local offices and I wrote extensive profiles of each.
I recall Donna Reed Miller, running for her second term at the time, as a very warm and likable person. She was an easy interview. The only question that bothered her was when I asked her age.
“Now why do you need to know that?” she asked.
Even then, dissatisfaction with Miller was very strong, particularly in Chestnut Hill. In her primary victory, she received little support. I interviewed her after the election and she seemed genuinely hurt by the snub.
Perhaps the divide was inevitable. The 8th District is incredibly large and diverse. It extends from Philadelphia’s poorest communities to its most affluent. It spans race and class divides that are not terribly easy to bridge. The Germantown politics in which Miller rose to her position are very different than what more idealistic, educated voters in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy expect.
Miller certainly did her part to earn the suspicions of voters. In 2008, former aide Theresa Pinkett pleaded guilty to bribery. Her former chief of staff Steve Vaughn was convicted for his part in a $60,000 tax shakedown — the same that netted Mt. Airy Muslim cleric Ali Shamsud-din Ali. She was closely affiliated with Germantown Settlement, the neighborhood nonprofit that declared bankruptcy and has been ordered to shut down by court order after squandering millions in taxpayer dollars.
None of these scandals linked directly to Miller. She remained popular with her core constituents by focusing on concerns important to them – she was out front in the city on issues of gun control, domestic violence and police misconduct. As soft-spoken as she might seem, she was never afraid to tackle these issues head on.
Despite the scandals and discontent of many in her district, she never failed to win her seat in a primary election.
This year, voters in the district have a chance to replace Miller, who announced last week that she will not run again. I’m sure this news has been welcomed by those who have worked hard to replace her during the last 14 years.
The question of course, is who will her replace her? Will 8th District voters rally around a real political reformer? Or will politics- as-usual remain the rule? Many good candidates for the office have been dealt losses by the consistently crowded field pitting reform-conscious voters against each other.
There’s plenty of work ahead for whoever wants to take over for Miller. For every hardship faced by Chestnut Hill residents, there are five for residents in Germantown and North Philadelphia. It’s a diverse constituency that will demand real talent to work broadly – to make sure that all voters in the district believe they are being served by their representative.
It’s going to be an interesting year for Northwest Philadelphia politics.