On November 5, voters are going to polls around the country and in Cincinnati, they'll be deciding whether or not to vote for P.G. Sittenfeld, who holds the honor of being the youngest council member ever elected in the city. PolicyMic caught up with the councilman in this exclusive interview.
The "Queen City" is blooming again. The core of Cincinnati is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. The Bengals are showing their stripes. There’s a thing called "Cincinnati Chili" if you haven’t tried. Throw a rock anywhere downtown and it'll hit a Fortune 500 company.
"I feel like I’m the 'Chief Evangelist for Cincinnati,'" P.G. tells me.
Sittenfeld is one of Cincinnati’s chief spokespeople. As one of nine city councilmembers, he is charged with overseeing a $1.5 billion dollar city budget and 5,500 city employees. He’s four years removed from grad school, and having just turned 29, is the youngest serving member on the council — and loving every minute of it.
"It is the absolute joy of my life that I get to wake up and I get to think about how I can change my community and serve my neighbors. What an amazing job description. People call it public service, but I just get to be a community booster," he says.
To keep his job, however, Sittenfeld will have to survive this Tuesday’s highly contested city council election — 22 candidates vying for nine seats. Cincinnati is an at-large district, meaning that the nine top vote-getters will represent the entire city, regardless of their residence. Historically, these members have served two-year terms. This year’s election, however, has a new wrinkle is added to them: four-year terms.
To any casual follower of politics, P.G. Sittenfeld will offer a refreshing sight: A politician who will say the right things, and mean it. He’s polished, but sincere. He’s successful, but humble. He’s young, but not inexperienced. He seems to just get it.
"It’s not lost on me the blessings in my life beyond my control. Two loving parents, not everyone gets that. I got an awesome education. Not everyone gets that," P.G. says. "I feel a huge degree of gratitude for things in my life that were nothing more than luck."
Sittenfeld understands that character matters in his business, and in a modern politics with a major trust deficit between voters and those elected, a reputation and accountability mean everything.
"Elected officials, at the end of the day, all they have is their reputation. If they try to weasel out of a given issue, play both sides on an issue, then people will see them as two-faced. But if you disappoint someone on a particular issue, but you demonstrate you did your homework, thoughtful, played it straight, they will respect that over time," he says.
A Child of Cincinnati, A Leader of Cincinnatians
Alexander Paul George Sittenfeld was born, raised, and educated in Cincinnati. His father worked with the Fine Arts Fund, his mother taught art history. He is the youngest of four siblings. Sittenfeld attended Princeton University and graduated in 2007 with a degree in English. His senior year, he was awarded a Marshall Scholarship and a stint at Oxford, finishing graduate school in May 2009.
"It’s not lost on me my two greatest blessings: a loving family and tremendous education. I would ride to school every day with a school librarian and teacher who was my mother," he says.
In November 2011, after moving back to Cincinnati, Sittenfeld entered election for city council. Now, most candidates in their first race are expected just to make some noise and set themselves up to win next time. Sittenfeld, a Democrat, finished second in a field of 23, receiving broad support from both Independent and Republican voters, and becoming the youngest Cincinnati city councilmember ever elected at the young age of 27.
He works seven days a week. He love the daily mechanics of governing, from helping with constituent services, to just being a proud member of the community. His signature focuses are education and strategic economic growth. He continues to work part-time at the Community Learning Center Institute, an increasingly successful model for making public schools at the center of their communities that has caught on in other urban areas.
In his first term, Sittenfeld has governed in the way he knows best: actively and socially.
"I’m a hugely social person. It shocks me when people in politics seem like they don’t like people that much," P.G. says. "If there is a better arena than politics to do so, then I haven’t found it."
Every Saturday he hosts "Talk of the Town," a morning radio show broadcasted by the city’s largest black radio station. If you take a listen (they’re on YouTube) you’ll hear he’s a natural. He says the show isn’t race-conscious; it’s merely a white civic leader (the only white host on the station) of a largely black and white city talking to you about issues like economic development, community safety, and minority inclusion.
Another one of his initiatives, #Runthecity, involves him live tweeting weekly jogs (or walks) with some of the most important figures in the city, from the police chief to the city solicitor. The initiative helped start a Cincinnati chapter of Michelle Obama’s national "Let’s Move" program. His main goals: have a healthy city and make city officials as accessible as possible. "People won’t always take you up on the invitation but it doesn’t mean you don’t offer it. You can still find ways to be in touch. It’s about effort, especially with today’s technology."
To Millennials: It’s about Ideas and Personnel
He's always had a political bug.
"My idol was [senator and NBA champion] Bill Bradley. He had a sense of where you are. You're the best basketball player in the country, and instead of being an NBA star you become a Rhodes scholar. He knew there was a broader world out there, beyond basketball," he says.
P.G.'s most memorable political moment in 2004 is one familiar to this generation of political junkies: the Democratic National Convention — a senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama.
"Clinton spoke at the convention Monday. Tuesday, Barack Obama’s keynote address. Watching those two on a 12-inch T.V. screen … Goosebumps. I was moved by the political rhetoric, the way they were articulating an idea and position," he says.
For Sittenfeld, politics and good governance is all about personnel and the passion behind your beliefs.
"Leadership needs to renew itself. Young people need to think the political arena can be a place for me, that my voice matters and will shape the dialogue. Being 26 doesn’t mean your voice isn’t valuable. Independent of age, people complain machinery, but it’s more about the people rather than the machinery. It’s about personnel, the caliber and accessibility of the person, and the expectations to go with it."
His ultimate advice to the millennials: Make your mind as nimble as possible.
"We don’t know what the world will call us to do. Condition your brain to think you don’t have to be a master at everything." His challenge to others is to get involved — in whatever capacity you think you can offer. "In college, I thought I’d be a features writer for a magazine, or speechwriter for a senator. I wanted to be in an arena to deploy a powerful story," P.G. says. "If you can tell people a story that really grabs them, you can move them to accomplish things they otherwise might not have."
Sittenfeld can be found on Twitter at @VotePG