With affordable housing and other development concerns emerging as a major issue in the current race for city council, many voters are considering what kind of relationship each candidate has with developers.
With affordable housing and other development concerns emerging as a major issue in the current race for city council, many voters in the 8th councilmanic are considering what kind of relationship each candidate has with developers, and what kind of impact those relationships might have on their concerns.
Some voters say they are looking for a candidate who refuses contributions from big developers. Others say that refusing developer money can be an unnecessarily divisive policy that leaves important stakeholders out of the process.
Incumbent Councilmember Cindy Bass, after 12 years in office, accepts donations from developers and has assembled a robust list of political donors – a fact that her supporters say suggests she’s performing well in office. Her ending cash balance now totals $98,871.29. In the most recent funding cycle, her average donation was about $594.
Meanwhile, when Seth Anderson-Oberman announced his candidacy in February, he pledged not to take money from corporations or “big developers.” While he has outraised Bass in the most recent report, his total cash on hand is $74,394.55, and his average donation was $177.
His position has attracted certain supporters, like Germantown resident Ann Doley, who has been campaigning for Anderson-Oberman.
“I saw that Councilwoman Bass had a much higher percentage of very large contributions,” Doley said in a phone call. “A lot of the contributions were from people who were involved in real estate, development, and parking downtown - these big corporate places. You wonder why are all these people supporting my councilwoman? They’re not connected to this district.”
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, developer Bart Blatstein of Tower Investments and Carl Dranoff, president and CEO of Dranoff Properties, are among the developers who contributed at least $1,000 to Bass’ campaign. Both live in Center City. Neither Blatstein, Dranoff nor Bass responded to the Local’s requests for comment before presstime on Tuesday.
Anderson-Oberman’s refusal to accept developer donations has rubbed others the wrong way.
West Powelton Development president Anthony Fullard, whose firm has a memorandum of understanding with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation to potentially redevelop the Germantown Town Hall, said he’s “a little offended” by the notion that his campaign donations wouldn’t be welcomed by a district council candidate – especially since he was born and raised in the district.
“We all should be involved in how to make the 8th District a better district,” said Fullard, who lives in Mt. Airy, grew up in Germantown, and donated $100 to the Bass campaign during the most recent fundraising cycle. “I think that it is extremely important that we support our candidates because they have to raise money in order to win. That is the American way of how one gets into office.”
Bowman Properties owner Richard Snowden, who also lives in the district and hosted a fundraiser for Bass at his Chestnut Hill home on Wednesday, agreed.
“While it makes a nice sound bite to say that contributions from real estate developers are off limits, is there a compelling reason for this stance any more than not taking contributions from unions, trial lawyers, bankers, manufacturers, car salesmen or dog groomers, jugglers and circus clowns?” he said. “Like most things, public life is more nuanced than that sort of scattershot approach and one would hope that someone who is going to do the people’s business would have the ability and maturity to discern whose heart is in the right place without discriminating against whole categories of professions.”
Philly Office Retail president Ken Weinstein, a developer who lives in the district but does not plan to contribute to either the Anderson-Oberman or Bass campaigns, said such political donations are complicated by the Philadelphia City Council’s practice of councilmanic prerogative, an unwritten rule which effectively gives district council representatives veto power over development projects.
“Whenever you have a rule that puts that power and decision-making in one person’s hands – in this case the district council member – you are opening up the possibility of impropriety in the process,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein, who is active in the city’s Democratic party and does make political donations, said he doesn’t personally seek favors, but he does see councilmanic prerogative as a system that invites abuse.
“Not only is it wrong because it opens up the system to bad actors, it’s also creating ten cities when we should be thinking as one city,” he said, referring to each of Philadelphia’s ten councilmanic districts. “We should not have different zoning overlays in each district and we shouldn’t have a different set of rules for each district. We should be coming together as one city.”
Fullard, meanwhile, said he thinks councilmanic prerogative is good for the city.
“The citizens of that district should have someone that they can go to and support their concerns,” he said. “It’s not about a prerogative, it’s about a representative who voters choose to make sure their voices are heard.”
Anderson-Oberman said Snowden, Fullard and Weinstein are all examples of developers who deserve a say in shaping the communities in which they do business. But he still wouldn’t take their money, he said, despite the fact that all three live within the 8th District.
“If they have a project that they want to build here, we’re open to having a discussion about what that looks like,” he said. “But I don’t want [a donation] to influence, or even give the appearance of influence, on the final outcome.”
Anderson-Oberman did accept $310 from Yvonne Haskins, a lawyer and community activist who lives in the 8th District and has also developed property there.
But he said he doesn’t think of Haskins, who has helped lead a long-running effort to redevelop the Germantown YWCA, as a “big” developer.
“I don’t know Yvonne’s holdings or what her projects are, but I think we have to make a distinction between a small-scale developer who cares about the community and has a stake in the outcome of that development, and corporate developers who don’t live here and don’t have to interact or engage with the community,” Anderson-Oberman said.
Haskins told the Local that she has developed about 20 units of affordable housing in the past, and is no longer engaged in development.
Committee of Seventy policy director Patrick Christmas said developers who make political contributions often expect “access” in return.
“These contributions are not evidence of quid pro quo,” he said, “but evidence of the power and interest that development firms feel they need to get.”
In a better system, Christmas argued, district council members would not exert unilateral power over land use, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, along with neighborhood residents, would have more influence.
“It’s a problem,” Christmas said. “The Planning Commission engages in a methodical approach to shape public input. That’s where most of our planning decisions should come from, not a project by project basis the councilmember determines.”
Labor unions are the only interest group associated with Anderson-Oberman’s campaign finance reports. He collected a $1,000 donation from SEIU’s Pennsylvania branch, a union for healthcare workers that Anderson-Oberman has been involved with in the past.