Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.[UPDATE: Since this story ran in mid-July, Stober has hired a fulltime campaign manager and fundraiser and is on track to have raised $100,000 by Labor Day. This week, he withstood a Republican ballot challenge. For nearly three days, his team of volunteers—a close friend, plus his Mom and Dad—took on Republican operatives in an argument over thousands of signatures before the Board of Elections. When the dust settled, Stober remained on the ballot, but precious campaign and fundraising time had been wasted. “I am certainly perceived as a threat,” Stober says of the Republican opposition to his Independent candidacy, which threatens to upend one of the Republicans on Council. “As well I should be.”]
A few months ago, Andrew Stober started asking political people, “Am I missing something?” Since 2008, the 36-year-old Stober had been one of the faceless behind-the-scenes shapers of the Nutter administration’s policies. As Director of Strategic Initiatives of The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, and then as the department’s Chief of Staff, Stober, who holds a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says he was in the business of “making Philadelphia government work.”
But, around the time that a handful of highly qualified challengers were vying for the at-large Democratic nominations to Council—ultimate winners Allan Domb and Helen Gym, not to mention impressive candidates like Paul Steinke, Tom Wyatt and Isaiah Thomas—Stober started wondering why no one was thinking of running for City Council in the general election, as an Independent. After all, per the Home Rule Charter, two Council seats are reserved for minority parties. The current occupants are Republicans David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, neither of whom are exactly imposing. All it would take, the smart thinking told Stober, is 45,000 votes for an Independent to capture one of those seats. Robo-calls and a press conference endorsement from Mayor Nutter ought to be able to deliver that.
“Council should be holding hearings and looking at best practices across the nation,” Stober says. “We need a Councilman who has done that, who has explored what works around the globe and how that can fit in a Philadelphia context.”
So Stober, who has been a registered Independent since 2013, announced his candidacy, at a time when the local zeitgeist might just be ready for a jolt.
It’s easy to read May’s primary Council results in cynical terms: The ascension of Domb and Gym is proof of nothing more than that he who spends the most and she who screams the loudest gets elected. Proof that all that matters in low-turnout elections is a modicum of name recognition. Stober thinks something deeper is afoot.
“The voters are hungry for something different,” he says, sitting in Dilworth Park, petitions at the ready. He has three more weeks to amass at least 1,300 signatures in order to appear on the fall ballot. “Domb and Gym were the two most accomplished candidates among some very accomplished choices. That said to me that the voters want to see a Council that is a portfolio of representatives—some who are political, some who have business experience, some who have been outside advocates.”
What’s missing from the current portfolio is what Stober can bring: Someone who, in the Executive branch, has done the hard and often thankless work of making government more efficient. Council critics—guilty as charged—often lambaste Darrell Clarke and his minions for their paucity of ambitious legislation, for self-servingly practicing constituent service and engaging in transactional political deals instead of tackling issues like school or pension reform. But Stober identifies what may be a more crucial failing, and it goes straight to his rationale for running. “How about simple oversight?” He says. “Council should be holding hearings. Holding the administration accountable, but also looking at best practices across the nation. We need a Councilman who has done that, who has explored what works around the globe and how that can fit in a Philadelphia context.”
Stober is running on a list of accomplishments, everything from the Indegogo bike share program, to the more than $50 million in Federal infrastructure grants he’s helped secure, to the expanded biking and walking trails that now dot the city’s map. It’s true that, under former Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler, the administration’s Transportation Department was among the city’s most forward-thinking agencies. But it’s also true that most citizens’ overall impression of local government is not nearly as sanguine or as nuanced as Stober might hope for. He wants to change that perception.
“Here’s a specific for you,” he says. “The Department of Public Property has this pilot program, where 12 plumbers, carpenters and electricians act as a roving preventative team in city buildings. They’ve paid for their salaries many times over. They’ll tune up a boiler, for example, eliminating the need for an emergency repair, and the cost of a $65 per hour plumber visit on a Sunday. Well, you just saw the Controller’s report on the infrastructure state of our schools? Where’s the preventative maintenance been? Someone on Council should have been pushing the School District: ‘What’s your preventative maintenance program?’ Now, that’s not going to save the District. But it would send a message of accountability and set a tone, which would get us taken more seriously when we go to Harrisburg. Instead, Council asks the District about teaching cursive. That doesn’t help us.”
Stober grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, around a dinner table dominated by conversation about public service. His parents were special education teachers and administrators in Harlem and the South Bronx. Today, their son is a self-described “policy nerd,” an obsession that took hold as an undergraduate at Northeastern University. Though he majored in business, two political science courses he took convinced him that the real action was in the public sector. “Public Policy Analysis” and “State & Local Government” were both taught by former Massachusetts Governor and Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. The policy class, in particular, was transformative for Stober— just he and a fellow student, both soaking up Dukakis’ stories and insights.
“It was thrilling,” Stober recalls. “I saw the impact policy could have on real lives.”
It could be argued that Dukakis was the original policy nerd, having declared in his 1988 nomination acceptance speech that, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence.” Twenty-five years ago, that was a controversial statement; Dukakis was pilloried for its bloodlessness. His opponent, George Bush, won the war of ideas when he responded: “Competence is a narrow ideal. Competence makes the trains run on time but doesn’t know where they’re going.” Stober knows that the minutiae of governing doesn’t send thrills up legs, but he’s betting that, in the aftermath of a City Council that wouldn’t even hold a hearing to consider a $1.8 billion sale of a city asset, the electorate might be in the mood for a little competence.
“My wife is a self-employed psychologist,” says the South Philly resident. “So we owe money at the end of every year. It takes four days for the IRS to cash our check. It takes maybe a week for the state to cash our check. And it takes about two months for the city to deposit our check.”
That he’s running as an Independent is what can turn Stober’s quest from quixotic to transformative. According to the book Independent Nation by John Avlon, 50 years ago, 47 percent of Americans identified as Democrats, 28 percent as Republicans and 23 percent as Independents. By the new millennium, those numbers had been upended: 40 percent identified as Independents, 34 percent as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans. Today, among those between 18 and 29, 44 percent say they are Independents. Regionally, the number of Independents has been steadily growing, while membership in both the Democratic and Republican parties has been falling.
We know that the local Republican party long ago decided not to compete, settling instead for the crumbs of patronage. So the best chance for reform might just be a vibrant Independent movement. There’s talk of Bill Green and Sam Katz running as tandem Independent candidates for Council; smart money says Green will only do it if Katz gets in, and that seems unlikely. But that it’s in the air, along with Stober’s actual candidacy, is a good sign.
Unlike Green and Katz, should Stober win, name recognition will not have played a role. He will have won because he was right in thinking that voters finally hunger for a little competence. And maybe that could start something. “I don’t see myself as a harbinger of a movement, so much as representative of the changing dynamics of the city,” he says. “If I’m successful, I can’t control what comes next. I hope others look at me, some unknown from the outside who worked really hard, and say, ‘If he can do it, anyone could do it,’ and then they run. That would be a great thing.”
For more on Stober, go to andrewstober.com
This story first appeared on The Citizen on 07.13.15