Art imitates life for Santorum's Traynham

The real Robert Traynham, on CNN.
The real Robert Traynham, on CNN.
Posted: August 03, 2012

The one thing most politicians and journalists have in common is an acute interest in how they are perceived by others.

So, HBO's new series "The Newsroom" can spark something of a political parlor game, as we try to guess the true-life inspirations for fictional characters who spend a lot of time pontificating about real people engaged in real news. Most of the characters seem like composites of more than one well-known person.

Then there is Sutton Wall.

Wall is a character who loses his cool on the fictional Atlantis Cable News with the show's star — Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels — in Sunday's episode. Wall was introduced as former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's former deputy chief of staff who now teaches at Temple University.

The confrontation stemmed from Wall, black and gay, working for a social conservative who has a history of calling homosexuals a threat to society.

We wondered what Robert Traynham, a real-life former deputy chief of staff to Santorum who happens to be black and gay and now lectures at the George Washington University, thought about the episode.

"It's very obvious to me that the researchers on that show did a little research on me," said Traynham, who was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Delaware County. "I think they did a very good job of portraying my thoughts and feelings. On one hand, I'm flattered. On another hand, I'm dumbfounded."

The character, played by actor Damon Gupton, doesn't just give voice to some of Traynham's thoughts. He also looks and sounds a lot like Traynham.

Traynham believes that the scene was inspired by a milder showdown he had on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews," another Philly guy, in January.

Traynham, an MSNBC contributor, thought that he was invited on the show to comment about the Republican presidential race, since the first primary election was about to take place.

But Matthews, who repeatedly interrupted Traynham on air, was much more focused on Santorum's positions on social issues, such as gays serving in the military and gay marriage.

Traynham said that he was "taken aback by how aggressive" Matthews was. On the show, Traynham said that he disagrees with Santorum on gay marriage.

Fast-forward to "The Newsroom," in an episode titled "Bullies," when the Sutton Wall character loses his temper on air after being repeatedly interrupted while explaining that he disagrees with some of Santorum's positions, including gay marriage.

"Shut up, I'll let you know when I'm finished," the character rails. "I am not defined by my blackness. I am not defined by my gayness. And if that doesn't fit your narrow-minded expectation of who I'm supposed to be, I don't give a damn because I'm not defined by you, either."

Traynham told us that he often makes the point when speaking on television and radio shows to say that he is not defined by his race or sexual orientation.

Aaron Sorkin, the writer who created "The Newsroom," was unavailable to discuss the episode, an HBO spokeswoman said.

In case all this wasn't meta enough for you, Daniels was on "Hardball" three weeks ago to talk about the show. Matthews ran a clip that included his son, Thomas Matthews, who plays Martin Stallworth on the show.

"Who's that really good-looking young guy playing Martin on that scene," Matthews asked.

"Some kid we hired off the street," Daniels deadpanned.

Red light on PPA career

The Philadelphia Parking Authority's red-light-camera program has been a money-maker and a stimulus program in the jobs it created at the Republican-dominated agency since 2005.

But a pair of expensive blunders may cost the man in charge, Chris Vogler, his job. We're told that Vogler, Republican leader of the 55th Ward in lower Northeast Philly, has been suspended with the intent to dismiss after 6?1/2 years at the PPA.

The PPA last week acknowledged that it screwed up with red-light cameras at Island Avenue and Lindbergh Boulevard, near the Philadelphia International Airport. Violations were issued for drivers photographed running red lights even though a warning sign about the new cameras had not been posted for a full 60 days, as required by law.

That means that 13,549 violations worth $100 each had to be voided. Since about 8,000 of those fines were paid, the PPA has to refund about $800,000 and write off what would have been another $554,900 in fines that were due.

A problem with calibration of red-light cameras in 2008 forced the agency to refund about $440,000 in fines. So the two problems cost the PPA nearly $1.8 million in four years.

PPA executive director Vince Fenerty and board chairman Joe Ashdale said they could not comment about Vogler's status at the PPA. Fenerty said that Vogler still works at the agency.

PPA board member Al Taubenberger said that board members received an email advising them about Vogler's suspension. Vogler is eligible for a hearing to fight for his job, he added.

Vogler, who is paid $80,736 per year at the PPA, didn't respond to our requests for comment.

His father, Walt Vogler, is Republican leader of the 21st Ward in Roxborough and works for the PPA as deputy director of airport operations.

"I'm not in a position to talk about it," Vogler said about his son's suspension.

Contact Chris Brennan at 215-854-5973 or email him at brennac@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisBrennanDN and read his blog, PhillyClout.com.

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