The 33rd Ward leader doesn’t just ‘help people get elected.’
Donna Aument, 64, sits on the floor in the living room of her home on Willard Street in Kensington, a metal brush in her hand, as her 2-year-old Bouvier des Flandres named Baby Girl stands before her. The Democratic leader of the 33rd Ward was hoping to finish brushing the dog before talking politics, but she eventually hands the brush off to her husband Steve, who’s sitting on the couch.
Most of the family’s neighbors don’t really know what Aument does as a ward leader. That’s probably because people who have held that title were never actually intended to do much.
“What we were primarily supposed to [do] was to help get people elected into office that we think will do a good job,” says Aument, who worked at the city’s Board of Revision of Taxes for 30 years before the department was shut down by the Nutter administration back in 2010. But in the 1950s, she watched her father, a committeeman who lived at Fifth and Cumberland in the 19th Ward, do more than just tell his neighbors who to vote for.
“Always, people were coming to my father for favors,” the mother of four and grandmother of four recalls. But they weren’t the favors of old-school corruption. It was more about speaking for those who didn’t know who to call for help. “Like, there was always a light out,” Aument says. “So he would call the councilman’s office and say, ‘Hey, the light at 2444 N. Green St. is out. The neighbors are complaining. Could you make sure a light crew comes and fixes the light?’”
Aument carries on this tradition and has a system in the 33rd Ward in which her committee members—there are two for each of the 24 divisions in the ward—let her know what needs to be done in the community. Then, she makes sure the city follows through.
She sees herself as simply a facilitator for the city, “’cause you know how the bureaucracy is,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“Some [ward leaders] don’t get involved,” she says. (Nor are they paid.) “I don’t see it that way. I never promise anything, [but] I’ve got a nice, loud voice.”
She’s used it plenty in her 10 years as a ward leader. Recently, with the help of state Rep. John Taylor’s office, she and members of the community planted 200 new trees across the ward at places like the Juniata Older Adult Center in Juniata Park.
And in January 2012, she helped the community fight back against the city’s six-year effort to close Philly’s oldest ice rink at the Scanlon Recreation Center in Juniata. She and her oldest daughter, Marnie Aument-Loughrey, got a copy of the city budget and went through it, line by line, to find the $1.5 million needed for the renovation and year-round upkeep of the rink. They also brought the Ed Snyder Youth Hockey Foundation in to teach kids how to skate and play hockey.
Aument also works with two community groups, Juniata Civic and Kensington Independent, and attends all their meetings so she can keep up with neighborhood concerns.
She concedes that all this work she does with and for the neighborhood does help her people get elected. “As long as I’m doing my best for the neighborhood, they’ve been pretty good voting our way,” Aument says. And that leads to some interesting outcomes. In the 2008 Democratic primary, she got the 33rd Ward to carry Hillary Clinton, which other ward leaders “said I would never do” because they thought the minorities in the community would vote for Barack Obama.
In addition to being a well-connected community leader, Aument takes care of a full house; she and her husband Steve care for their grandson Jeremy, his girlfriend Lauren and their son Aiden. She’s got a lot of unfinished chores today: Her clean pots are still sitting on the table, ready to be put away, and a bathroom leak blew out one of their lights.
She and Steve, married since she was 17 and he was 22, have a lot of expenses, and now find themselves “in the doughnut”—the period of time between the end of Medicare coverage and January, when the coverage kicks back in. This month, when she and Steve went to the pharmacy for their prescriptions, she shelled out $300. If she had her way, she says, she’d revamp Medicare so that senior citizens had eye, dental and prescription coverage. “We’ve got seniors eating dog food. It’s wrong.”