Uphill climb for Taubenberger

Odds are against the GOP candidate for mayor, but that won’t stop him.

Posted: September 17, 2007

Over ocean perch at the Palm, Al Taubenberger is talking manure.

"Manure is highly concentrated with nitrogen, which is very important for plant growth," he says. "Most fertilizers are nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus."

Taubenberger's degree in agronomy makes him an expert in manure, as well as grass roots. Both are serving him well in his attempt to become Philadelphia's first Republican mayor since Harry Truman occupied the White House.

That's 60 years, for those of you keeping score at home.

Taubenberger, his cell phone ringing every few minutes, cheerfully works the room. A big, beefy guy with deep pipes and a quick laugh, he'd be just as comfortable at a diner in Port Richmond.

Compare the pedigrees. Democrat Michael Nutter, the overwhelming favorite, is Wharton, finance, fine threads. Taubenberger is Penn State, soil management, Ben Franklin neckties.

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in this town five to one, Graham Lee, chairman of the political science department at St. Joseph's University, puts Taubenberger's odds at 1,000 to 1.

Sisyphus had a better shot.

No matter. Alfred Wilhem Taubenberger - part Don Quixote, part Willy Loman - has come to play. Attention must be paid.

"My candidacy is serious," says Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce since 1991 and a longtime GOP soldier. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I was going to win. I'm in it to win it.

"My odds are getting better. People are getting to know me. I'm the underdog. Maybe I'm the super underdog. Underdogs have won before."

There are underdogs and there are underdogs.

Nutter, 50, widely respected across racial and party lines, has the backing of the city's Democratic machine. Taubenberger, 54, was drafted because "he was breathing, he was Republican, and he was willing to do it," says a local wag.

"I don't see how he has any chance at all," says Republican Sam Katz, runner-up to John Street in 2003 and 1999. "That doesn't mean he doesn't deserve to have a chance."

Chances take money in politics, and Taubenberger's war chest resembles an empty ice bucket.

Katz doesn't see that changing. "I think the community at large made a judgment after the last election that Republicans couldn't win," he says. "I couldn't beat a Democrat with $20 million in two elections."

Taubenberger says his war chest "is close to six figures." He won't say how close. In the candidates' most recent financial filing (May 28), his campaign reported $16,000 and change in the bank.

"It's much better than it was, but not nearly what it should be," he says. "You just keep working. There will be a lot more when all is said and done."

Maybe. Even Taubenberger's media adviser, veteran Philadelphia adman Elliott Curson, labels his candidate's budget "very small," quickly adding that "Al doesn't need that much."

Taubenberger wasn't expected to have TV spots, but Curson says he's producing one "that will be fascinating, if it turns out. It will get some attention."

Taubenberger has never held an elected office. He knows his way around Philly politics, however, having served key positions with City Council members Jack Kelly and Joan Krajewski and U.S. Rep. Charlie Dougherty.

In another time and political climate, the amiable Taubenberger "would actually be a very strong candidate," in Katz's view.

"He's out there every day, comporting himself honorably. In the cesspool of Philadelphia politics, that rises to the level of noble."

No one disputes Taubenberger's work ethic. On Sept. 9, for example, his campaign schedule included events in Fairmount Park, Somerton, Warminster, Penn's Landing and City Hall.

At the last stop, he was approached by Belgian tourists asking for directions to the Liberty Bell. He got into an extended chat in German. A first-generation German American, he's fluent in the language.

"Al will hold a conversation with anybody, believe me. He's a lively type of guy," says Councilman Kelly, for whom he was chief of staff from 1988 to '92.

To Taubenberger's wife, Joanne, a kindergarten teacher in the Northeast, "he has a knack for getting along with people. He can talk to anybody about anything any time."

Taubenberger's family wasn't thrilled, at first, about his decision to run. "I thought he was crazy," says daughter Elizabeth, a special-ed teacher in Bucks County and one of four children.

"I knew it would be an uphill battle. Anyone who has lived in Philly knows what kind of city it is." Still, she adds, "I commend my dad for stepping up to the plate when nobody else did."

Taubenberger appears to have few enemies. His ex-wife hosted a fund-raiser for him. He and Nutter get along so well the race is being called the friendliest in city history.

The city of mayorly love?

The two men got to know each other during numerous mayoral forums before the primaries. Candidates were seated in alphabetical order; there was nobody between N and T.

"We chatted, built up a little camaraderie," says Taubenberger. "Mike's a nice guy." They had lunch and pledged to run positive campaigns. Taubenberger was an honored guest at Nutter's birthday bash in late June.

"Life's too short to acquire too many enemies," he says. "It takes a lot to make me mad. Anyone who thinks bullying people is a management tactic is sadly mistaken. In the long run, it will hurt you."

Taubenberger is all about long runs. The only child of German immigrants, he didn't leave the family rowhouse in Burholme until 1998, when he and Joanne married. They moved to within walking distance. His eldest son took over the house.

His parents owned a neighborhood deli, as did two uncles. (Taubenberger still has a weakness for corned beef with Russian, but there's venison and elk in his freezer, too.)

He wanted to be a history teacher. Then a conversation with a golf course superintendent, a Penn State agronomy grad and friend of his father's, persuaded Taubenberger to change his major.

His first job was as grounds supervisor at Friends Hospital in - where else? - the Northeast. During his tenure, it won a national award for best-maintained hospital grounds.

Despite his love of the outdoors, Taubenberger had an itch for politics. "My parents were always so passionate about it, and that passion carried over to me," he says. "I thought the whole process was pretty neat. That was the greatness of America."

Latching on to Dougherty's campaign, Taubenberger was offered a staff job after the election. It was unexpected. He was hooked. He learned that politics was personal.

"If you take the time to knock on someone's door, they're generally pretty polite. They'll tell you what's on their minds. It makes a difference."

Top priority on Taubenberger's platform: "Jobs, jobs, jobs. The mayor needs to be chief salesman as well as chief executive. . . . I'm good at it."

Public safety: More police, with better deployment and increased foot patrols. His single most important appointment would be police commissioner, he says.

Education: Smaller classes in the public schools, particularly at the elementary level.

He differs with Nutter on the issue of stop-and-frisk. To Taubenberger, it's very personal, and he's against it. "I don't like people targeted for any reason."

When he was 21, Taubenberger discovered that his father, like many other German and Japanese immigrants, had been interned during World War II.

Alfred Sr., who came to America in 1930, was detained in 1941 for almost 18 months at Army bases in New Jersey, Maryland, Texas and North Dakota.

Taubenberger made the discovery while applying for visas for a family trip to Germany. His father hadn't told him "because he never wanted me to have a bad feeling about this country, which he loved so much."

Five weeks before he died from cancer in 1983, Alfred Sr. became a U.S. citizen. "His journey was complete," Taubenberger says, fighting back tears.

Few believe that Taubenberger will complete his journey to City Hall, and that liberating absence of expectation, in itself, may explain why he's having so much fun along the way.

"He's almost like a great musician," says Katz. "He doesn't really care if the audience likes the music or not, he enjoys playing it. There's a lot to be said for that."

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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