Last week, an independent candidate declared his intentions to join the mayoral race, promising to challenge the status quo and interrupt the decades-long stranglehold of the Democratic machine. But not the candidate people thought might run. He’s not Sam Katz, the politico and filmmaker who nearly won the mayoral election twice, or even Bill Green, a member of a prominent Philadelphia ruling family who was in charge of the SRC until Governor Tom Wolf kicked him out.
He’s Jim Foster, a weekly newspaper publisher in Northwest Philly who thinks Mayor Michael Nutter is a failure and the city government is so bloated and laced with patronage that it has been rendered nearly useless. Depending on who you talk to, he’ll either force party candidates Democrat Jim Kenney and Republican Melissa Murray Bailey to discuss issues that wouldn’t otherwise be brought up, or he’s crafting conspiracy theories that make no sense.
Is Jim Foster crazy? Or does he represent a base of frustrated Philadelphians who feel neglected?
“I think he’ll hold the other candidates’ feet to the fire,” says Greg Paulmier, a Germantown resident and Democratic ward leader of the 12th Ward.
What’s inarguable is that barring a Dilworthian miracle, Foster almost certainly won’t win. Long odds have never stopped him before, though. Foster has run for office twice and both times his campaigns were quixotic at best. He ran for the 8th District Council spot in 2007, finishing in fourth place with 590 total votes, behind incumbent winner Donna Reed Miller, independent Jesse Brown Jr. and Green Partier Brian Rudnick. In 2012, he challenged Chaka Fattah for his seat in the U.S. House. About 4,000 people voted for Foster, and he finished well behind Fattah and the Republican challenger.
“Even though there was not a snowball’s chance I was going to win against a Democratic machine councilperson or in 2012 against a 10-term US congressman,” he says, “in both cases the party actually tried to keep me off the ballot.”
And this is where Foster’s story begins to veer into a questionable realm. He claims that in 2007 the Democratic Party had Rev. Jesse Brown Jr. change his party registration and insert him in the race as a third-party candidate so Foster’s vote total would be diluted. Bob Brady, chair of the Democratic City Committee, calls the accusation “totally false.”
“I’ve never heard of either one of those guys,” he says. “So if I’ve never heard of Jesse Brown, how could we float him out there to take votes away from an independent?”
Foster has worked the last several years as the publisher of Germantown Newspapers, Inc., which features the publication The Independent Voice. It has been released once a month this year (it was twice-monthly in recent years), free to a circulation of 35,500. Foster writes most of the articles, many of which are several-hundred words long and routinely attack Philadelphia’s most prominent leaders. Earlier this year, the front page featured a picture of Nutter and a caption identifying him as a “mortician.” Foster derided Nutter, saying the mayor had been made to look good by the media and a complacent Republican Party.
“Talk about dog and pony shows,” he says of Nutter’s administration. “‘Let’s focus on the fact that the pope is coming here and the DNC is coming here, and this is a Philadelphia wonderland.’ They totally try to distract you from the challenges. Nutter’s administration is a failure.”
Foster holds the Republican Party in low regard, too. He says the Democrats let the Republicans maintain control of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and to pay them back, the Republicans don’t run any serious candidates for city offices.
“That was the deal,” he says, “and the Republicans have been a meaningless appendage of the Democrats ever since.”
Foster believes the unfortunate recipient of what he considers to be poor governing has been Germantown. He has written that the neighborhood has been “raped and pillaged” by city government, many of its state representatives and its U.S. congressmen.
Paulmier says Foster’s views don’t counteract what many people are feeling in Germantown. He points out that in the last several years, the neighborhood has experienced the loss of multiple public schools and a recreation center and the continued decline of its business district. Issues that affect Germantown and similar neighborhoods, Paulmier says, could go neglected by Kenney and Murray Bailey but not with Foster in the race pressing the issue.
“As a Democrat I support the Democratic party,” Paulmier says, “but I think his candidacy is a good one.”
Bennett Levin, a former commissioner of L&I who met Foster at a hearing on the Market Street building collapse in 2013, says Foster “is going to be able to force a conversation about some significant issues that have long gone neglected,” specifically patronage.
But at what point do his views dive too deep into the rabbit hole? Louis Agre, the ward leader of the 21st Ward, knows Foster from political circles.
“I like Jim Foster,” Agre says. “He’s a nice guy. He’s an interesting guy. He’s got a great car. You want to publish that, publish that.”
As to whether his views are reflective of people living in Northwest Philly?
“No,” Agre says. “Unless you have some leftover aristocrat that’s been in Germantown for 7,000 years.”
If elected, Foster says the first things he will do are visit neighborhoods to examine more of their poverty problems and ask for the resignation of every appointed official, especially L&I commissioner Carlton Williams (both Kenney and Murray Bailey have said they would replace Williams).
Until the election, Foster wants to speak from a platform as long as he can, whether you believe any of it or not.
“I’m going to be saying this stuff,” he says, “every single day that they let me.”