Romney visit riles W. Phila. residents

Posted: May 25, 2012

When Mitt Romney came to West Philadelphia on Thursday morning to discuss improving the American educational system, he dropped into a neighborhood that was none too happy to welcome him.

Romney's campaign bus pulled up early outside the Universal Bluford Charter School on 57th and Media Streets, much to the surprise of most locals. Philadelphia, after all, is a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 6-1.

As word spread that Romney was there to discuss education reform in a closed-door, 90-minute roundtable, neighbors gathered outside the school to protest the visit. And residents had no friendly words for the GOP presidential candidate, especially when they learned he would not venture beyond the well-maintained walls of the school to the surrounding blocks, lined with rundown rowhouses.

"Why is he here?" asked Zulema Canty, 37, one of a few dozen people gathered outside the school. "A few months ago he said he didn't care about the poor, he was more concerned with the middle class. . . . This just seems like some PR thing. And now he's going to go on TV and say he was here, when really he wasn't here."

Supporters of President Obama were also on the scene, part of an effort by Democratic leaders - the unions, City Council members, and other elected officials - to chastise Romney outside the Bluford campaign stop.

By the time Mayor Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams arrived for a news conference near the school aimed at criticizing Romney's record on education, a crowd of 50 residents and Obama backers were gathered on the sidewalk. Chanting "Obama's neighborhood" and "Down with Romney," the irked neighbors initially booed Nutter and Williams, mistakenly believing they had asked Romney to come to the city.

"I did not invite Mitt Romney to 58th and Media!" Williams told the crowd. Nutter added that he had not, either.

Nutter then criticized Romney for making a trip into the heart of West Philadelphia and choosing not to step outside and speak with voters.

"Instead of getting back on his bus, he should walk the streets," Nutter said. "You want an urban experience, then come out and talk to people."

Universal Bluford, a K-6 school that serves predominantly economically disadvantaged children, is one of five schools run by a nonprofit funded by music mogul Kenny Gamble. The school is in its second year of operating at the Bluford site, which was formerly part of the school district.

During his visit, Romney discussed his plans to improve U.S. schools and called the gap in education performance between blacks and whites "the civil rights issue of our time."

Outside the school, Nutter assailed Romney's education record, saying he had balanced the Massachusetts budget by cutting funding to schools and higher education, decisions that resulted in layoffs and rising college costs.

"Romney has always been opposed to investing in America's children," Nutter said.

Williams said his office deals with the "consequences of failed school systems," and added that an overwhelming number of the people who get arrested didn't finish high school. Obama, Williams said, has invested in public education and encouraged higher education.

When asked their views on Romney, residents unfailingly used the word rich.

"He's about the dollar," said Charles Morris, who supports Obama. "He wants to keep the rich rich, and he wants to keep the poor in poverty."

Morris didn't know about Romney's appearance until he dropped his granddaughter off at the school. Once there, he stayed and picked up one of the Obama signs offered by campaign volunteers.

"If Romney really wanted to talk to the parents, he'd have come here at the end of the day when people come to get their kids," he said.

Luida Fowler, 95, a retired machine operator, woke up to see news trucks on her street. She watched the spectacle from her porch, tufts of gray hair peeking out from under a pink satin nightcap. She said she doesn't think it's fair for people to blame Obama for the country's economic woes. She will cast her vote for him in November.

"Mitt Romney is for the rich people," Fowler said.

The Philadelphia AFL-CIO also denounced Romney's education proposals Thursday. Jerry T. Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said schools need stable and equitable funding.

"At a time when school budgets have been cut to the bone, Mitt Romney wants to take money out of our neighborhood public schools to spend on vouchers, private schools, charters and other gimmicks," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Council members called a news conference at City Hall before their weekly meeting, ostensibly to discuss the school budget crisis and in response to Wednesday's union protests. But the event also was inspired by the Romney visit, and designed to address "national issues facing urban education."

Twelve of 17 Council members attended, led by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who called for more state funding for city schools and the preservation of SEIU jobs.

"This is about the workers, it is about the parents, and it is about the safety of our kids," she said.

Several Council members described themselves as pro-union and pro-public education, but the School Reform Commission has described a budget situation that could mean laying off thousands of union workers and privatizing some schools in order to save public education. Most Council members cited the state for painting the SRC into that budgetary corner.

Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. argued for the eventual return of local control over Philadelphia schools and warned that "a lot of people are beginning to hate" the Corbett-controlled SRC.

"People shouldn't take that personally because actually the members of the School Reform Commission have changed so damn much that it means nothing," he said. "If the School Reform Commission has to make hard choices, those choice were forced on them by Gov. Corbett."

Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr., whose district Romney visited Thursday morning, said the funding problems facing Philadelphia were part of "the national policy toward education."

"It is cuts, it is antiunion, and it is anti-children," he said.


Contact Allison Steele

at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com

Miriam Hill and Troy Graham contributed to this article.

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