Bass, Anderson-Oberman square off in lively debate

by Tom Beck
Posted 5/3/23

Last Wednesday evening’s debate for May 16th’s 8th District Councilmanic primary election featured three-term incumbent Cindy Bass and her challenger, Seth Anderson-Oberman.

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Bass, Anderson-Oberman square off in lively debate


Last Wednesday evening’s debate for May 16th’s 8th District Councilmanic primary election, which featured three-term incumbent Cindy Bass and her challenger, Seth Anderson-Oberman, had all the makings of an exhilarating political debate: a packed house, an enthusiastic crowd, and a highlight reel for the ages that featured both candidates landing punches. 

For Anderson-Oberman, it was his best chance of the campaign so far to introduce himself to hundreds of new voters. It was also his very first political debate. For Bass, it was a chance to defend her record. The result was a high-energy exchange that reflected the high-stakes nature of the race. 

The event, which according to host organizers drew an audience of about 375 people, was at the Germantown Jewish Centre in Mt. Airy. The Local rounded up six of the night’s most memorable highlights and themes.

A question of experience

Anderson-Oberman, who is running for office for the first time, has drawn criticism from Bass for being a relative unknown who wasn’t active in his own community prior to entering the race. In her opening statement, she contrasted that with the experience she had already garnered when she first ran for council. She highlighted her pre-city council experience working as president of East Mt. Airy Neighbors and a board member for the Pleasant Playground Advisory Council. In the process, she coined a new name for her opponent: “Seth Where-Have-You-Been.”

“Where have you been when we’ve been out marching?” she said. “Where have you been when we’ve been out talking? Where have you been?”

It’s a message Bass closed with too.

“It's easy to stand up, to criticize, to say you shoulda woulda coulda done this that, the other thing, but where have you been?” she said in her closing statement. “Most of the people who have come to me have said ‘Who is this?’ And these are civic leaders.”

Anderson-Oberman countered that he may not have experience on city council and would “have a lot to learn,” but he does have many years of experience as a union organizer – which gives him specific strengths. 

“In that capacity, what I've done is I've brought people together to identify our common points of interest and fight for what we need,” he said. 

A question of responsibility

The question of experience, however, gave Anderson-Oberman an opportunity to go on the offensive against Bass, whose 12-year-track record on City Council includes some mistakes. 

Answering a question about revitalizing the district’s business corridors, Anderson-Oberman took a swipe at Bass for the Germantown Special Services District scandal – in which Ingrid Shepard, one of Bass’ appointees to the Germantown Special Services District’s board, stole $125,000 from the organization. 

“The Germantown Special Services District, with a board that was appointed by you, Cindy…collected a tax from the business owners and then didn't clean up and then that money was embezzled up to $125,000,” Anderson-Oberman, who added that he’d make transparency in government a priority. said. “This is not the kind of thing that we need.”

Bass, however, refused responsibility for that incident, saying that “there is only one person to blame … and that's Ingrid Shepard.”

“So when you mention that I did the appointments for the GSSD,” she continued, “I want to make it clear that I have over my time in council probably appointed, supported the appointments or voted on appointments for probably 100 different positions.”

Shepard was the only one of those appointments, Bass said, that was “off.”

Where exactly does Bass stand on open wards?

During the lightning round portion of the debate, in which candidates were asked to raise a green or red piece of paper to indicate “yes” or “no,” the audience jeered when Bass joined Anderson-Oberman to answer in the affirmative about whether she supported an open ward system, in which ward committee members get a chance to vote on candidate endorsements. In closed wards, only the ward leader decides who that ward will support. 

Bass, who in addition to being a city council member serves as the leader of Mt. Airy’s 22nd Democratic Ward, fought to keep that ward closed when a group of committee members campaigned to turn it into an open ward. 

That resulted in a lawsuit, in which members of that group sued Bass after she allegedly retaliated by excluding them from ward meetings and denying them access to street money - something party leaders hand out to committeepeople on election day for get-out-the-vote efforts. The caucus even ran their own candidate, Carla Cain, against Bass in last year’s ward leader elections to try and unseat her, but narrowly lost, and the ward remains closed. 

Which is why so many in the audience were taken aback by her answer.

“I support an opportunity for the committeepeople to weigh in, absolutely,” Bass said when asked to clarify. “And we have several people here tonight who can vouch for that.”

Anderson-Oberman embraces his Communist Youth past

In his early 20s, Anderson-Oberman joined the Communist Youth League and was active within the Community Party USA. He was eager to address those ties when asked. 

“I grew up in Germantown during the [Philadelphia Mayor Frank] Rizzo era,” he said. “I had seen my friends and their older brothers harassed and beaten by the police…And the Young Communist League was out in the community and was organizing for the first civilian police review board in the city.”

Anderson-Oberman was also inspired, he said, by many people associated with the communist movement, including Angela Davis, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. 

“I haven't been to a party meeting in more than 15 years,” he said, “but I'm very proud of that history.”

Communists, Anderson-Oberman said, “led the fight” for issues like unemployment insurance and social security.

“There's a proud history of that in this country,” he said, “and I don't shy away from that.”

The morning after the debate, the Anderson-Oberman campaign tweeted out a clip of his response to this question. 

Bass displays her knowledge

At various points throughout the night, Bass took advantage of her opponent’s answers to show off her knowledge about various issues. During a question about how low literacy rates and drugs can lead to violence on the streets, for instance, Anderson-Oberman mentioned the “dilapidated” state of Barrett Playground’s rec center, and highlighted it as an example of how the city isn’t properly funding its public spaces. But the rec center at Barrett Playground is, in fact, getting a new facility, Bass pointed out.

“It's been under construction for about I would say within the last six months,” retorted Bass. “So I don't know if you missed that when you went out on your tour in that area, but that's something that's happening right now.”

In another question about whether the city can turn unoccupied, city-owned houses into low-income housing, Anderson-Oberman, who supports rent control, said that as a district councilmember he’d have “powers when it comes to zoning” to create a district much like that in West Philadelphia, where developers are required to include affordable units in their new housing projects.

Bass, however, suggested that he didn’t really understand how zoning works. 

“Let me help Seth out a little bit here because we don't need zoning,” Bass said in response. “If you don't understand zoning, you might not know, but if a house is already zoned to be a house, then you don't have to use the power of being a district councilperson to rezone it. It's already zoned to be a single-family domicile, and it can stay as it is.”

In a third example during a question about the potential creation of an ombudsman position to be a voice for prisoners incarcerated in the city’s jails, Anderson-Oberman admitted it was a subject he knew little about.

“I don't know a lot about the conditions of the city jails, I'm going to be honest,” he said. “So I would work with groups to understand that question more.”

Bass used her opponent’s answer as fodder.

“Well if you watch the news, read the papers, then you know that our city jails are in trouble,” she said. “They're in turmoil.”

Homicides in city jails, Bass said, have spiked in recent years. In some cases, prisoners have been locked in their cell for more than 24 hours, something Bass called “inhumane.”

Bass argued that with a new mayor, council president and a potential majority of new city council members on the horizon, now was not the time for a newbie.

“This is not the time to elect someone who doesn't have any basis of knowledge and is not connected in any way,” she said. “How many neighborhood groups have you been a part of? How many marches have you been on? How many homes have you sat in? And I'm not talking about since you started running. I'm talking about before you were a candidate.”

Anderson-Oberman: “I was born on a picket line”

Anderson-Oberman used that question to respond with what would become the most memorable line of the night.

“I was born on a picket line,” he said to cheers. “I've been doing this my whole life. I've been out, on the struggle on picket lines, on marches, rallies, organizing them my entire life.”

“You were born on a picket line -- I respect that,” Bass responded in her closing statement. “But at the same time, where have you been?

The evening ended with both candidates, and their supporters, saying they felt they’d had a fair chance to make their points and be heard. And the audience seemed to agree. 

“That was fantastic,” said one man as he left the room. “I feel like we really got a chance to see who each of these candidates are, just as people.”

The debate was presented by The Chestnut Hill Local, West Mt. Airy Neighbors and East Mt. Airy Neighbors in partnership with Pleasant Advisory Council, Chestnut Hill Community Association, Germantown United CDC, and Face to Face Germantown.