Candidate Joseph Rahenkamp comes out of his shell

by Amy Kingsley

When Joseph Rahenkamp Sr. joined the Greensboro Fire Department in 1956, the agency used ’53 model trucks with an open cab. In the winter, the windshield would freeze, forcing Rahenkamp to drive standing with his head over the top of the cab to see the road. Other firefighters would ride in the back of the open pumper truck that carried water and hoses.

The city switched to closed-cab trucks in 1972. Now the trucks come equipped with buddy seats behind the driver for firefighters traveling to an emergency. Standard features include air-conditioning and windshield defrosters; preventing the need for future drivers to endure the harsh conditions Rahenkamp faced every winter.

The city took more than 16 years to address an easily solved problem that jeopardized the safety of fire fighters and citizens requiring emergency assistance, he said. This election, Rahenkamp is campaigning on the notion that Greensboro citizens deserve faster progress than that. The 70-year-old retired from fire fighting eight years ago and has run for local office almost every year since.

This year he is campaigning to represent District 4, currently represented by at-large candidate Florence Gatten. His opponents in the majority-white district, which covers northwest Greensboro, include former Guilford County Commissioner Mike Barber and political newcomer Janet Wallace. Although Barber narrowly lost the 2004 county commissioner race to Mike Winstead, most local pundits handicapping the District 4 race give him the advantage.

‘“Anyone who works as a fire fighter, in EMS or the police has got to be a little,’” he cocked his forefinger to his temple, ‘“in the head,’” he said. ‘“Because it’s hazardous work. But I still love it.’”

Voters might have gotten used to seeing Rahenkamp’s name on the ballot, but most would not recognize the stocky, suited politician with a grizzled mug and respectable shock of silver hair. In past elections he has kept a low profile, eschewing yard signs and mass mailings and only appearing at campaign forums. Rahenkamp hadn’t decided whether this year he will campaign more actively.

‘“If the water’s not right you’re not going to win anyway,’” Rahenkamp said about his last bids for public office. ‘“I don’t care if you spend half a million dollars. It isn’t gonna do you any good.’”

Rahenkamp keeps throwing his hat into the political ring ‘— year after year ‘— for reasons other than winning. During the campaign he meets other politicians, citizens and gains an education in local politics. He rarely attends city council meetings in person but sometimes watches them on television.

Despite his relaxed campaigning style, Rahenkamp has strong opinions about how city leaders and departments can improve the city. Chief among those is a restructuring of the water and city services bill. The fees for hazardous waste collection, wastewater and runoff have increased by 15 percent since January and might increase 35 percent over twelve months, Rahenkamp said.

About 10 years ago the water bill only covered the amount of water a resident used and did not include other city services, he said. Home and business owners should pick up the tab for hazardous waste collection and wastewater through property taxes, which they could write off their income taxes. Including the city services fees in the water bill increases taxes through the back door, he said.

Rahenkamp has lived in Greensboro for almost all of his 70 years. His dad transferred the family to Roxboro outside of Durham for a short time when he was 15. One son works as a Greensboro police officer, one daughter is a homemaker and two more sons work odd jobs nearby. He has five grandchildren, including one who attends Greensboro College and one at Northeastern High School in McLeansville.

Reticent when talking about his life and family, Rahenkamp opens up when the conversation shifts to local politics.

‘“I’m a Republican, but I’m for seeing things go forward,’” Rahenkamp said. Progress has emerged as a touchstone for his campaign. Greensboro leaders and citizens should think toward the future, he said.

As a conservative, Rahenkamp opposes blanket regulations on businesses, such as emissions or other environmental policies, but chemicals that are harmful to citizens should not be released into the air or water, he said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies insuring the safety of the home or workplace have earned his support. Nostalgia doesn’t motivate Rahenkamp, who supports the demolition of old and unsafe structures.

With a family history in public safety, Rahenkamp said mostly good things about the Greensboro police and fire departments.

‘“They have come way up since nine-eleven,’” he said. ‘“Now you want to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.’”

He would like to see firefighters’ workweek reduced from 56 hours to 40. When he started at the age of 20, Greensboro fire fighters worked 78.5-hour weeks with 24 hours on, 24 off. The current scheme allows firefighters 24 hours on shift with 48 hours off. Still, Rahenkamp said the long shifts tax the firefighters.

As someone who knows the streets of Greensboro better than most lifetime residents, he can also name several places where ill-conceived road construction snarls traffic and slows emergency response. His response: Bulldoze and rebuild. Financing should always come from bonds instead of raising taxes.

‘“I’m against anything that is going to cost taxpayers any money,’” he said.

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