The Challengers: For Al Taubenberger, Elected Office Is a Lifelong Dream
This week, Citified is featuring Q&As with leading at-large City Council challengers running for the two slots reserved for minority parties and independents.
Will this be the year Al Taubenberger finally wins an election?
The former president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has run for state representative, City Council, mayor and Congress — so far, without success. During the City Council at-large race four years ago, though, he came close. Heartbreakingly, maddeningly close: He was just 203 votes away from beating now-Councilman David Oh.
Taubenberger, 62, believes this will be the election in which he finally cinches a seat. He says he has more labor support than ever before, with unions such as the Fraternal Order of Police, Firefighters and Paramedics Union, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers backing him. If Taubenberger is successful on Election Day, he will likely be a strong advocate for senior citizens and Northeast Philadelphians on City Council.
During a Q&A with Citified, Taubenberger talked about his proudest day at the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, his changing attitudes toward gay marriage, and the state of Philadelphia’s school system. Our questions have been paraphrased and Taubenberger’s responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Citified: Earlier this week, there was a City Council at-large debate, which was said to be the only debate this season where all the Republican and Independent candidates were invited. You didn’t attend. Why not?
Taubenberger: Because I had a long-standing fundraiser. Campaigns are long and they’re complicated, and I set this about six weeks ago, and I was first emailed about the debate on October 15th and I declined. I tried to think about how it could possibly work, but when you ask people who support you and who are your supporters to come to an event and support you financially and emotionally as friends and so on, you gotta be there for them. …
Citified: You were the head of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce for many years. What was your proudest achievement during that time?
Taubenberger: There are two things I’m overall very proud of. One is helping small businesses along the way, and that’s a lot of little problems over a period of time, making sure things move smoothly and they know who to speak to.
But my proudest achievement overall has to do with Agusta Air Base. Agusta Air Base had been on our board for a number of years, and as I took over in 1992, I went to each board member [including the general manager of Agusta Air Base] and said, “Hey … how can I be of help to your company?” … At that time [Agusta] had 50 employees. They were essentially the final stage. When the helicopter was built, it came over with two exceptions: the wiring had to be put in in the United States and the painting had to be done in the United States. Not because of any rules or regulations, but because that’s just their manufacturing process. But they also had these customers that would pick these helicopters up from Brazil, South America, Mexico, various places in the United States.
… One day [the general manager of Agusta] calls me and he goes, “Hey Al, can you get me a meeting with the governor of Pennsylvania?” I said, “Vince, I don’t know, but I’ll try.” Then he said exactly the following, he said, “Listen. I tried the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and they couldn’t get me a meeting.” And I said, “Well, I’ll try,” and I hung up the phone. But then I realized the resources I had at hand, and I said to him, “Have that meeting with the Speaker of the House.” … He said, “You know what, we’ll do it. Set it up.”
So I called the Speaker and he said, “Love to meet, where do you want to do it?” … And [Agusta] wanted it pretty quickly because there was competition for what they wanted to do. They wanted to expand large, and they were talking to the state of Texas, Alabama, Kansas I know for a fact, and I think one location in Florida as well. So time was kind of moving quickly and [Agusta’s GM] also liked Philadelphia and wanted to stay here, so he really wanted to give it his best effort. So the fact of the matter is, we flew out there, we took the plan to the Speaker of the House. The Speaker looked at it and said, “This is a great plan. This is a great idea. This will add a significant number of employees here.” He said, “Let’s go.” “Where are we going?” I said. “We’re going to go see the Governor.”
He literally called him over, saw Gov. Ed Rendell. Rendell loved it. He said, “Well, let me call Mayor John Street.” And in one afternoon, all parts of government in our region were working together. The end result is that Agusta Air Base now has a whole complex that builds helicopters here from scratch. They no longer have to bring them in from … Milan, Italy is where they come from. They actually build them from scratch, employing 600 new jobs.
Citified: You’ve run for mayor, City Council, Congress and state representative, and you haven’t been successful in any of those races. What would you say to voters who may be thinking, “I like him, but I don’t want to waste my vote by supporting him?”
Taubenberger: Well, two things. The one that drives me the most right now is I was so very, very close four year ago. I was within  votes of being a City Councilman. Had I lost that race by 5,000, 3,000, 2,000, maybe even 1,000 [votes], I don’t think you and I would be talking.
What drives me, though, is I know the city can do better, but it’s something that’s deeply in my heart. My parents were immigrants from Germany, actually from the 1930s Nazi Germany. My dad actually felt very strongly that this was the greatest place on earth, and why? Because you could discuss what was already on people’s minds politically. You could talk about the president of the United States, whether you liked him or didn’t like him. And in some cases, it may be a her coming up. The fact of the matter is you could discuss it. He said, “Alfred, when I left Germany, you would not dare, you would not dare criticize the Chancellor of Germany because you will not be alive, or you would either be incarcerated or dead by the time the sun came up from the day you started talking about shortcomings of the Chancellor.” They appreciated the freedoms we had.
And I will also say, the one thing that drives me, too, is this year, unlike four years ago, I have unprecedented union support. And that is important, too. And I believe strongly that experience matters. You can talk about the youth and all the energy that goes with that, but there’s something about experience as well. And you know what, age is just a matter of mind as well.
Citified: In the LGBTQ community, there has been some concern about your position on gay marriage. You once opposed it. Where you stand today?
Taubenberger: I am in support of gay marriage. The Supreme Court has weighed in on it and that ends that discussion. And I truly believe government should be out of the bedroom. And if someone has an affinity, a love for someone else, whether it’s same sex or not, there should be no government interference because matters of the heart are truly matters of the heart. If somebody happens to fall in love with someone who happens to be of the same sex, that’s okay with me because you know what, there’s true love there. And to discriminate in that matter is actually wrong.
Listen, I was in a Republican primary in 2002 where the discussion came up. And I’ll be very direct about it: It was a new concept at the time to me. And I just felt at that moment in time, that I could not support it. I have thought about it over time, my position has evolved, and also I realized, you know what, I know a few more gay people than I realized I do. And what really changed my mind was, there’s a man I’ve known for a long time. I knew he was gay, but he wanted to deeply to marry one particular person who, they’ve gone out, those two gentleman, for a long time. I’ve seen him for many, many years. I never saw the man happier. That’s the kind of thing that changed my mind and turned me around completely.
Citified: You said you wanted to talk about schools. Why?
Taubenberger: Let me say this. I’m a product of Philadelphia public schools, my wife is a former Philadelphia public school teacher, and all my children have graduated from a Philadelphia public school. … And really, the current state of the funding formula is extremely unfair to Philadelphia schools.
Unless the [School Reform Commission] corrects this inequity, the SRC ought to be disbanded and then restore local control. This is something that’s very important in my mind and we really, absolutely have a funding problem. So do some other counties in the state of Pennsylvania. It has to be worked out because, you know what, when you walk into a school, Holly, something very magical happens. You know what magic it is? You all of a sudden come face to face with the future of this city, this state and the country because there they are, sitting before you. And that future has to be well taken care of.
You would not, I’m telling you right now — this comes from the fact that my parents came from Europe, from Germany — you would not have this problem anywhere in Europe. They realize that schools are the future and they act accordingly. And we don’t. For some reason, this has become a political football and should not be.
Citified: So you said that you think the SRC needs to fix the funding formula or disband. They don’t have any taxing authority, though.
Taubenberger: They don’t, but they also exist so they can work with the funding elements with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That’s why they exist. And that’s why, in some ways, the experiment was set up. So the state would help fund the schools to a great level, but they would also have a seat at the table on how that money is spent. And they just haven’t been able to come up on their end on a regular funding formula.
Citified: In Philadelphia, there’s little disagreement over the need for a new funding formula at the state level. But as a Council member, all that you can really do is advocate for that in Harrisburg. What you do have the power to do on Council is raise or reform taxes at the local level. So how would you, within that set of powers you would have as a Councilman, help the school district’s funding problem? Would you raise taxes?
Taubenberger: We can make sure that money is well spent. And you do have to do advocacy. I think you can tell from my voice I got a pretty loud mouth and am willing to speak up on issues. I’m not a wallflower that sits in the back and does nothing. I will take full use of the seat — one of 17 seats — to speak up loudly about what I think is inequity. That might also mean going to Harrisburg, which some of our city leaders have done, but guess what? They’ve all gone in separate cars, spoke to separate things at times. How about coming up with a united voice and having all of us be part of that? I think that can be done as well.
But the state has a big responsibility for this, they really do. … We are one of the largest states in the United States with a great population and a wealthy population as well. I’m not saying we’re the richest people, and there’s certainly poor people as well, but Pennsylvania could probably stand on its own as its own little nation. The fact of the matter is, we have great resources. We not only still have coal — and you can debate whether we use that wisely — but we also have now oil and natural gas in particular. Plus, we’re still one of the top agricultural states when it comes to dairy products. This is not a poor state. We have to work this inequity out where rural school districts and urban school districts get a better and a fair share of the pie.