The Local Lens
• Wed, Jan 21, 2015
By Thom Nickels
I don’t like to hang out in places where politicians and their friends rule the roost. When there are too many political-types in a room the atmosphere gets thick and tense.
Politicians can be genuinely insincere despite the face they like to wear. A casual conversation with a politician can be stilted because the things they say are usually carefully measured and controlled. What you wind up with during conversations like this are approved sound bites. To get raw, unadulterated feelings and opinions from a politician you’d first have to have those opinions sanctioned by their public relations machine and staff. This is necessary because the politician has to be sure that what he or she is saying is the right thing. On a human scale, this makes for a lot of insincerity.
Despite feeling this way, when I received an invitation to hear former Reading Terminal head Paul Steinke announce his intention to run for City Council-at-Large, I headed over to the Field House on Filbert Street to be a part of the event.
While on my way to the Steinke kick-off, I happened to fall alongside a young family walking with their young children near 11th and Market Streets. The family seemed to be rushing as if they were late for something. The mother, in fact, paced out ahead of her husband with one of the children running on her heels.
"Where’s the fire, lady?" I said to myself as we all crossed an intersection at the same time. But when I heard the mother say, "Here’s the Field House!" I knew they were going to the Steinke event. What I didn’t know (but would discover later) was that the father of the family was one of Steinke’s brothers. When this fact came to light I thought how lucky Paul was to have the total support of his family.
When I attended Nutter-for-Mayor events years ago it always amazed me that there were still so many people around who believed that "our" candidate— the "right" candidate– will change the world and that Utopia would be right around the corner when he or she wins. People keep holding on to this myth despite the fact that once these politicians get elected they inevitably fall short as their Utopian dreams come crashing down to earth. Still, we like to delude ourselves with the fanfare of political campaigns: the shiny candidate buttons or colorful placards to put in our windows.
At the Field House sign-in table there were Steinke candidate buttons and placards galore. Political-types in suits and name tags smiled like morticians. The room was crowded so it was hard to move about easily. I recognized a number of people— political faces I’d seen in years past at rallies or at City Hall events. I watched their lips move as they talked to others in attendance. TV crews readied their big cameras as some in the swelling crowd bought beer at the bar. A small table off to the side (but hidden by a portion of the crowd) offered pizza and pretzels. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the small table until the end of the rally, so my evening was a mix of politics and a growling stomach.
Anyone who has ever met Paul Steinke knows that he’s a "go to" nice guy. The Northeast-born Philadelphian is smart and accomplished. People like Steinke because he seems to be a genuinely humble man despite his accomplishments. He was the Finance Director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation as well as the first Executive Director of the University City District. He was also the head of the Reading Terminal Market from 2001 until 2014 when he resigned to run for City Council. At the Reading Terminal Market, Steinke’s tenure has been nothing short of phenomenal. He brought the market into the 21st Century and out of the doldrums of leaky ceilings and the smell of mildew to its current status as one of the top city markets in the country. Steinke also seems to have the ability to talk and listen to many different types of people. He’s not a business-only-type of candidate. If there are traces of arrogance in his personality, he keeps them well hidden.
At the event’s start, Representative Brian Sims of Philadelphia County addressed the crowd in his confident, humorously prickly style. He mentioned Steinke’s accomplishments while advising those in the crowd to pick up a placard and applaud vigorously at the right moment.
Sims had commented that introducing Steinke was like introducing a movie star and as Steinke came on stage he looked like a Kennedy clone or an actor in a Christopher Isherwood drama. The crowd applauded when the candidate took the mic and then listened attentively as he began his speech.
Kool-Aid was not passed around.
Steinke talked about the historic importance of Philadelphia, Independence Hall, the Constitution and all of the fine historic events that happened here.He then enumerated his positions on a number of issues, both local and national.
As the first openly LGBT candidate for City Council, Steinke had yet to play the sexual orientation card although this fact was (appropriately) mentioned by Sims during his introduction. It is doubtful whether anyone in the room had not been aware of this fact but it came out like fireworks at the end of Steinke’s speech when he thanked a number of LGBT activists for making his candidacy possible. He even mentioned the name of Frank Kameny, a Los Angeles based activist who left an important legacy in the area of LGBT civil rights.
At this point during the proceedings I was thinking a number of things.
My first thought was to send a message to Steinke and suggest that he "up" the volume and amplification in his public talks. After all, when making a speech, it is perfectly okay to speak up and show some passion and let your voice rise and fall like ocean waves meeting the shore.
Then I might suggest to him that if his talents are to grace the corridors of City Hall, perhaps he should first concentrate on winning the hearts and minds of Mr. and Mrs. Average Philadelphia and not focus too heavily on obscure (from a mainstream point of view) ideological personalities like Frank Kameny.
"After all, Paul," I might say. "As composer Ned Rorem once said, ‘It’s not Walt Whitman’s sexuality, but his universality that made him beloved throughout the globe.’"