Veteran Philadelphia foodie acquires a taste for registering voters

Steve Poses (center) meets with potential voter-registration volunteers at the Parkway House.
Steve Poses (center) meets with potential voter-registration volunteers at the Parkway House. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff)
Posted: October 02, 2012

snSteve Poses, he of Frog Commissary fame, one of the city's founding foodies, has been running a campaign to register voters. And now, with only a week left before the deadline, he's in the midst of a blitz fueled by carrot cake.

Aside from a brief stint as a committeeperson in his youth and a conscientious exercising of his own voting rights, Poses has had little experience in elections. But at 65, having ceded management of his catering and restaurant business to his wife, Christina, he has more free time now than in the last 40 years.

At first, his motives were partisan. An unapologetic supporter of President Obama, he volunteered in June to help the reelection effort.

"I was focused on Nov. 7," Poses said. "I realized the only thing I can control is that the day after the election, I can tell myself I did everything I could."

While collecting data on registered Democrats in Center City, however, Poses stumbled upon some shocking numbers. Of the estimated 23,000 residents in 95 high-rise apartment buildings, about 12,000 - nearly half - were not registered to vote.

His research isn't perfect, he acknowledges. Even the city's voter registration office doesn't know how many eligible voters there are, said Gregory Irving, acting voter registration administrator. (The census puts the number of U.S. citizens in Philadelphia older than 18 at 1.1 million. And by Irving's count, 1,045,581 are currently registered to vote.) But Poses' estimates are close enough to indicate a considerable gap between those who can vote and those who are forfeiting the privilege.

Students might be voting by absentee ballot in their home cities, he said. "Others are elderly people, like my mother, who had a place here but lived most of the year in Florida and voted there. But 11,000 is such a big number that even if half of those are eligible -" The problem, he said, is getting to them. Because unlike suburbia or rowhouse neighborhoods, a high-rise is a fortress.

"You can't get in unless you know someone on the inside," he said. Even then, it isn't easy to sign people up. An unspoken etiquette rules out knocking on strangers' doors.

"You can live in an apartment house for years and never know your neighbors," said Marciarose Shestack, a former TV anchorwoman who has lived in Parkway House for 44 years. "Everybody is protective of their privacy."

Shestack was among a half-dozen potential volunteers from the building who attended a meeting Thursday night organized by Poses and hosted by Bonnie Snyder-Rothman, a widow with a teenage daughter.

They had come in response to direct invitations and e-mails. Most were retirees - a former fashion designer, an accountant. One was an active librarian. The only one under 40 was an engineer for Comcast.

Poses began organizing over the summer with half a dozen friends and provided the seed capital. The entire operation is now running on about $15,000 in private donations for maps, fliers, information packets, and gasoline, and it has recruited more than 250 volunteers. They are using their connections to get inside apartment houses, organize "floor captains" to slip voter registration information under doors, help people get proper identification, and hand-deliver applications to the right offices.

"I have done nothing but work on this since Labor Day," said Frances Dalton, one of the leaders from Logan Square. "And it's been one of the hardest and most satisfying things I've ever done." Dalton, 62, a retired lawyer, said she was motivated by her anger at the state's voter-ID law.

"I see it every day," she said. "I talk to people who are confused or badly informed or not up to date on all the changes in the requirements." In the last weeks before a presidential election, new registration applications tend to surge, but this year, Irving said, concern about voter ID seems to be leading legitimately registered city voters to reregister. The city received 32,000 applications in August, and in September, 48,000 more. "People are making sure that their records conform."

In Parkway House, Poses estimates that 166 eligible voters are not registered. "Suppose we could get 50 of them? We'd be thrilled!" Dogs, Dalton suggested, can be the best ambassadors, offering a way to open a conversation.

Marion Parkinson, the librarian, warmed to the idea.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable knocking on doors," she said. "I do know a lot of dogs in this building, though." So through her corgis, Griffin and Grace, she plans to reach out.

"It shouldn't require so much effort to get people to do what they're supposed to," said John Hart, the Comcast engineer. Voting, he said, is a personal responsibility.

As Hart spoke, Snyder-Rothman handed him a slice of Poses' carrot cake. Hart thanked her. He didn't need the bribe, though. He was in. He would help hang information on his neighbors' apartment doors.

"That," he said, "I can do."


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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