March 16-22, 2006
City Beat : Philly BluntHouse Parity
As the sun stubbornly tried to pierce the overcast skies, a white truck pulled up to the intersection of 8th and Butler streets. There, the driver threw a bottle bag out his window. When a slight gust of wind sent the brown paper drifting toward Rieger's place, a Miller Lite tallboy rolled toward the curb, joining the ever-present litter coating those pockets of the city most Philadelphians ignore.
The scene spoke to the long-standing desperation of life in the 179th district, where a corner-hanging local quickly avers that the politicians "don't care about us up here." But a harbinger of hope could be found. It came in the form of a Coldwell Banker for-sale sign. The three-story corner building housing Rieger's office was on the market. (Asking price for the type of property that'd fetch half a million in other parts of town? Fifty-five grand).
But why, you ask, is a potential real-estate transaction cause for celebration?
Because it means Rieger, the type of party-machine-motored politician who rarely showed up for work either here or in Harrisburg and aligned himself with people facing prison time for misdirecting $115,000 earmarked for neighborhood improvement, isn't seeking re-election after 39 years on the "job."
Just two days earlier, five people traveled to Harrisburg and stated their intentions to take over Rieger's cold seat. So, after the May 16 primary and November's general election, the residents of Hunting Park, Feltonville, Olney and Frankford will actually have state House representation.
The good news doesn't stop there.
Not only is Rieger abdicating his throne, but their councilman is Ricky Mariano, he of the ongoing corruption trial. Should Mariano be forced to step down, the 179th's political culture will undergo an unprecedented, and complete, overhaul. But alone, losing Rieger is big news. None of the candidates seems overly beholden to the party-first political culture that enabled the district's deterioration. So pick a candidate, voters, any candidate. Things can only get better.
The lone Republican is Troy Bouie, a 34-year-old Parking Authority site coordinator who, when asked what he'd do for the district, responded, "There's so much to do, where do you start? But I'm going to take it to the Democrats for letting this go on for forty-some-odd years."
Good point, but even the Democrats agree their party failed the neighborhood.
Tony Payton Jr., a 25-year-old United Communities housing counselor and Community College student, is comfortable talking about big-picture issues like living wages, gun control and how the legislature needs to reform education. "We have a chance to change the whole makeup of the neighborhood," says the first-time candidate. "I have no party support, which is good. We need a break from what's been going on."
Then, there's Rodnell Griffin, executive director of the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee. When I interviewed Griffin for a cover story about former Rieger aide Barbara Landers' financial crimes ["Shortchanged," April 21, 2005], she broke ranks and said that, if guilty, her friend should be held accountable: "That money could have been used for housing, senior assistance, people could use it to assist with youth programs, overall neighborhood beautification, changing behaviors." It also could have revitalized the decrepit playground a block from Landers' house that came complete with graffiti and glass-shard-coated asphalt. (She seemed sincere, but just this week, an anonymous neighborhood tipster e-mailed to tell me Landers was publicly campaigning for Griffin).
Rounding out the competition are Walter Gnoza, a 43-year-old committeeman from Oxford Circle who's beating the drum for gun control and the need for small-business support, and Emilio A. Vazquez, a PPA ticket writer who Rieger smoked in the 2004 race, but now has party backing. (He also has the support of state Sen. Tina Tartaglione, who calls Vazquez the legislative partner she's long needed in Harrisburg). Still, having publicly called out Rieger as an absentee legislator, the longtime neighborhood-cleanup activist is no shill.
Catching up with him outside the Board of Elections office, where he was verifying petition signatures last weeksome candidates' paperwork could be challenged this week, resulting in their removal from the raceVazquez echoed what he told me during a Hunting Park tour last year. "I just want to get the neighborhood straight," he said. "We've been ignored for too long."
Of course, it won't be easy for whoever wins to reverse decades of degradation. But some 233 years after the Sons of Liberty teabagged the port of Boston, the taxation of the people of the 179th will finally pay for some representation. And that alone is a victory against Philly's political business as usual.