Campaign season in the 8th Councilmanic District will end Tuesday when voters decide whether to retain incumbent Councilmember Cindy Bass or elect her challenger, Seth Anderson-Oberman.
Campaign season in the 8th Councilmanic District will end Tuesday when voters decide whether to retain incumbent Councilmember Cindy Bass or elect her challenger, Seth Anderson-Oberman, a longtime union organizer who grew up in Germantown.
Either outcome will have a significant impact on the Northwest neighborhoods in the district. An Anderson-Oberman victory would bring new leadership to the district since Bass’ election in 2011 and boost the city’s growing progressive movement. If Bass wins, she’ll enter her fourth term and be tied for the third-longest serving member of city council behind Councilmembers Curtis Jones, Jr and Brian O’Neill. She and Jones, along with Councilmembers Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson, would likely compete to replace Darrell Clarke, who is retiring, as council president.
This competitive 8th District campaign, the most hotly-contested in 12 years, brought serious issues to the surface as residents of various neighborhoods raised specific concerns about crime, the impact of recent high-density development and a growing need for affordable housing, and a lack of resources for public schools.
“Competition is healthy,” said David Thornburgh, chair of Open Primaries PA, senior advisor to the Committee of Seventy and a Chestnut Hill resident. “It pressure-tests the candidates. It also gets voters thinking more deeply about things like values, issues and leadership style.”
The wide range of these issues, and how they affect the 11 different neighborhoods of the 8th District were on full display at a debate that the Local co-sponsored with both East Mt. Airy Neighbors and West Mt. Airy Neighbors, along with Pleasant Advisory Council, Chestnut Hill Community Association, Germantown United CDC, and Face to Face Germantown.
Steve Kendall, president of WMAN, said their group was “thrilled” to see how interested so many residents were in this year’s campaign.
“Seeing so many citizens actively involved with the democratic process is something we hope to continuously support,” Kendall said. “It has been particularly rewarding to have facilitated such a substantive debate… especially in this pivotal race, and inflection point for our neighborhood.”
The biggest concern, measured by the number of questions asked about the issue, is public safety.
“We can’t go out without being scared of what may happen,” wrote one person who attended and submitted a question for the debate.
Both Anderson-Oberman and Bass agree that gun violence is a serious issue. Both say they’d increase funding for mental health services and support violence intervention programs.
Housing and development
Another important issue voters focused on was the impact of development and a growing need for affordable housing.
For some, the big issue is the lack of parking that comes with higher-density housing projects that follow a new city zoning code designed to eventually trade cars in for public transit. Others care deeply about preserving the historic fabric of the Northwest’s turn-of-the-century neighborhoods.
And for very many of the long-time residents of neighborhoods like Mt. Airy and Germantown, where real estate prices have skyrocketed, the real issue is affordable housing – and the need to help lower-income residents remain in their homes.
Anderson-Oberman, who supports rent-stabilization measures, made a point not to accept donations from “big developers” and said that’s why he decided to run.
“We love our neighborhood, but the community that we know and love may not exist in five years,” said Anderson-Oberman, who lives in Germantown with his wife and two children. “We're going up against incredibly powerful and wealthy interests who have a real stake in the kinds of development that threaten the future of our communities.”
Bass, who has accepted donations from developers, said she thinks the city should do more to provide affordable housing, and not ask private landlords – like her mother was – to bear the burden.
“My mother collected $300 each from those properties and that was our total household income for myself, my mother and my sister,” Bass said. If tenants couldn’t pay for some reason, “it was a complete and total disaster in our household.”
Voters also raised the issue of government accountability and transparency – with voters in Germantown particularly interested in why the Germantown YWCA building has been mired in controversy and remains undeveloped since Bass’ preferred developer got the contract to redevelop in 2016. They question her use of councilmanic prerogative in preventing another developer from taking over.
Bass defended the practice, saying it gives elected representatives more power to implement the will of the neighborhood. Anderson-Oberman said it can easily be abused, and lead to corrupt “pay to play” politics.
Voters also mentioned a recent scandal in which Ingrid Shepard, one of Bass’ appointees to the Germantown Special Services District’s board, stole $125,000 from the organization. Bass said she was not responsible for Shepard’s actions.
Anderson-Oberman’s decision not to take developers’ money may have left him with less access to high-value checks, but it did little to hinder his overall ability to fundraise. In the first cycle of campaign reports, made public on April 4, Anderson-Oberman outraised Bass – and also every candidate running for a competitive council district in the city’s entire Democratic primary.
Bass surpassed Anderson-Oberman in donations in the following finance cycle, which ended May 1. Although she had fewer individual donations, Bass raised more money and a significant number of large checks that were written by developers.
And that’s not the only source of her financial support. In the last couple of weeks, 8th district residents have begun seeing a television ad for Bass. It was funded by Philly for Growth, a Super PAC funded in part by major developers like Ori Feibush’s OCF Realty and Mo Rushdy’s MAVEN Developments. Notably, the Super PAC has also taken money from the Commonwealth Children's Choice Fund, another Super PAC associated with Republican mega-donor Jeffrey Yass. Yass also donated money to pro-school choice Democrats in Philadelphia.
A number of Northwest Philadelphia residents are also running in the city’s council at-large race as well, including Chestnut Hill resident Eryn Santamoor, Germantown resident Erika Almiron and Mt. Airy residents Nina Ahmad, Christopher Gladstone Booth, Abu Edwards.
The polls will be open on Tuesday, May 16 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. To find your polling location visit vote.pa.gov.