Mayoral candidates feast on informed residents' views

Posted: August 25, 2007

As far as candidate forums go, last night's affair in Mount Airy pitting Democrat Michael Nutter and Republican Al Taubenberger was a decidedly low-key, intimate affair.

That's because they were meeting in the Victorian home of Ebony Staton and John Weidman, and they were surrounded by more than a dozen potential voters who were very engaged in this year's mayoral election, and because the candidates were there mainly to listen to people speak their minds about problems in the city.

The event was the second of a series of potluck dinners organized by Great Expectations, a citizens' voices forum sponsored by the Inquirer Editorial Board and the Project on Civic Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania.

Early on, Nutter sampled the cheese from the antipasto platter, and Taubenberger dug into a plate of lasagna and coleslaw. His hosts fussed that he was eating from a paper plate instead of china.

The potential voters, who had participated in Great Expectations discussions, all brought an appetizer, salad or dessert and contributed their concerns to the discussion.

Harris Sokoloff, a University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education professor who was the evening's moderator, taped a pad to the dining-room door and asked for topics on city issues to discuss.

The list soon grew to more than 16 items, including the environment, violence, poverty, housing, health and education.

Without much formality, with box fans whirring, the candidates and citizens took seats around a long dinner table and plunged into discussions - and their meals.

Francesca Toscani of Logan Square, who brought a grilled vegetable and rice salad, started off the discussion by saying she wanted the city to be "clean and green."

The candidates listened, but no one was expecting them to respond. Which they did not.

Next up was Patricia Berrian-Marrujo of East Oak Lane, who brought cold cuts and potato salad. Her issue was the city's community gardens. Schoolchildren should be encouraged to participate and get their hands in the dirt, she said.

Iván Ortiz of North Philadelphia, who brought pasteles and rellenos, agreed.

"We have two women in their 70s taking care of our gardens," he said. "They need help from younger people."

Mary Ellen Graham, who had grown the cabbage for the coleslaw in a community garden in Spring Garden, said that children from a Salvation Army shelter had helped out at the garden one year.

And that's how most of the evening went, with the participants speaking their minds and the candidates politely paying attention. Both candidates soon took off their jackets and got comfortable.

At one point, Taubenberger pointed out that he was very pro-green. He has a degree in agronomy from Pennsylvania State University.

"A land-grant college," he emphasized, taking a jab at Nutter, an Ivy League graduate.

"He holds that up to me all the time," retorted Nutter, who went to Penn.

The lighthearted exchange was one of the few the candidates would have all evening. They were here to listen.

When Nutter pointed out that University City High School has a gardening program, moderator Sokoloff used the mention of schools to shift the discussion to education.

Several diners have relatives who teach in the Philadelphia school system, including Taubenberger, whose wife is a kindergarten teacher, and Berrian-Marrujo, whose daughter teaches art.

Everyone agreed with Leroy Howell, a community-outreach coordinator at Albert Einstein Medical Center whose wife is a teacher in Bridesburg, that class sizes are too big.

Teachers can only do so much, said Sheyna Arthur, a Drexel University student adviser who lives in the Graduate Hospital area.

Ortiz agreed. We have to teach these kids who are having kids to be parents, he said.

The group discussed job opportunities while sampling the desserts - apple tart, chocolate mousse, and coconut custard and pineapple cheese pies.

Nutter pointed out that the city has run a successful intern program for teens this summer.

The dinner was to end at 8 but lasted an additional 45 minutes and ended with the candidates stating what they expected from the city residents.

Nutter challenged the participants to prove New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin wrong. Nagin had said that Philadelphia was dirtier than his city.

Pick up the trash, Nutter said. "Potato-chip bags don't fall out of the sky."

Taubenberger urged the participants to volunteer for Town Watch and block cleanups.

The two men are expected to sit across the table at two or three more potluck dinners before the election.

By then, they will have heard from an additional 50 or so city residents about the challenges they would face as mayor - and will have sampled some of Philadelphia's finest home cooking.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or

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