New Blood: A Novel Idea…
Paul Steinke has managed organizations, including the Reading Terminal Market. Can someone with real world experience make a difference in Philadelphia politics?
By Larry Platt
The Philadelphia Citizen
February 13, 2015
One afternoon, when he was 10 years old and growing up in Northeast Philly, Paul Steinke had a doctor’s appointment. There was a long wait. So, to occupy himself, he decided on a challenge: He would read every word in that day’s Philadelphia Bulletin, one of the great, and last, afternoon newspapers.
“I’ve been a newspaper junkie ever since,” says Steinke, 51, who for the last 13 years was the general manager of the iconic Reading Terminal Market, before resigning in December to run for Council at-large.
But that long-ago day in the office of an ear, nose and throat man didn’t just jumpstart a fascination with newspapers—it ignited an obsession with his city. He’d look at the baseball page and see the Phillies—his Phillies—listed in the standings alongside (back then, usuallyunderneath) New York and St. Louis and he’d wonder: What are those cities like? What do they have that we don’t? At 12 years old, he sent typewritten letters to multiple Chambers of Commerce across the country, requesting information about their cities. “It was before the Internet,” he recalls, laughing. “They didn’t know this was a kid asking. I’d get these big manila envelopes back, stuffed with brochures. Even then, I was looking for data that could help make the city better.”
Ever since, public service of some sort in his own hometown has been in the back of Steinke’s mind. He considered an at-large bid in 2011, but the reelection of Michael Nutter was a foregone conclusion, meaning turnout would be especially low. Last summer, he decided 2015 would be his time. Every day, he’d take two hours for lunch and, along with consultant Joe Corrigan—a key player in the brain trust of another local disrupter, State Representative Brian Sims—he’d dial for pledges of support that he could convert into donations once he quit his job and announced his candidacy. The discipline paid off: When the Council and mayoral candidates filed their recent campaign finance reports, Steinke had more cash on hand than any incumbent or challenger, some $91,000.
His is a candidacy the likes of which Council hasn’t seen before. First, there is the issue of his sexual orientation: If elected, Steinke would be the first out member of City Council. “I’ve been an active member of the LGBT community, and it would be a wonderful capstone on that to be the first openly gay elected councilperson,” he says, noting that “Council is well-represented in every other way.”
“We need a stronger sense that we’re all in this together,” says Steinke, whose management of Reading Terminal often moved disparate groups toward the common good.
But Steinke would be a rarity on Council in another way, too: He’s someone with real business and management experience. Council is a pretty good gig—the six-figure salary, the car, the expense account, the 20-odd weeks off per year. No wonder it’s been a seat for near-life for so many. Steinke would be one of the few who arguably held a better job beforecoming to Council. And his skill set in the private sector, where he often had to juggle the interests of competing constituencies to get things done, might just be a welcome relief.
Take the seemingly no-brainer idea some years ago for Reading Terminal to open on Sundays. “There were strong voices on both sides of that issue,” Steinke recalls. “The Market is an institution that values tradition. So we approached this change incrementally. We started with a commitment for a quarter of the year—three months. And then we extended that by a quarter, and another quarter, and another. This went on for two years. Ultimately, 85 percent of the merchants saw an increase in their bottom line.”
In other words, by listening to and building bridges between merchants, board members and customers, Steinke made change less frightening. The customers only knew that their favorite Market had now doubled its weekend hours; little did they know how much cajoling that required behind the scenes. That’s the hard work of management: getting disparate interests to common ground. And it’s a lost art in the dug-in world of politics.
“You have to respect different points of view, take people at face value, and make them realize they’re being heard, even if they don’t agree with your decision,” he says. But can the same approach work in the messy political realm, where taking people at face value is a trickier proposition? Can Steinke’s politics of reasonableness work in an atmosphere where, to take just one recent shameful example, a $1.8 billion windfall was torpedoed by petty personal animus—while the combatants in question continued to publicly refer to each other through gritted teeth as one another’s “friend?”
Steinke frowns when the aborted sale of PGW is raised. “Yeah, that didn’t send a good message,” he says. “It sent a message of government dysfunction and businesses hate uncertainty. We have a reputation for making it too expensive and frustrating to do business in Philadelphia.”
When it comes to policy, Steinke wants to resurrect tax reform—“We had the tax reform commissions of ’03 and ’09, but precious little has been done.”—and he hits all the fair funding formula talking points when it comes to the schools. But you don’t get the sense that it’s policy that animates Steinke so much as it is an antiquated view of leadership. Leaders get people who disagree into a room and find a way to move them toward the common good. To think beyond their narrow interests.
“We need a stronger sense that we’re all in this together,” he says. “It’s not just about how we function as a municipality or city. After all, our state is referred to as a Commonwealth. We ought to start acting like it.”
Steinke first experienced the degree to which our commonalities trump what divides us as a 19-year-old in the 1980s, when he decided to tell friends and family he was gay. “I was like, ‘This is who I am, like it or lump it,’” he says. And, overwhelmingly, they liked it. “I’ve faced relatively little in overt discrimination,” he says. “Part of that is due to living in this city, the friendliest in the nation to LGBT civil rights.”
For essentially a one-party town, there is still much in our politics that divides us. In effect, Steinke is saying: Just imagine if it didn’t.
Read more on The Philadelphia Citizen…