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Video

Watch: Both Rhynhart and Krasner speak on the issues

 

Cheat Sheet

Short on time? Read the cliff notes for this story

  • Last Tuesday’s election showed that change has finally made it to Philly. Now the challenge is how we manage it.
  • Turnout—while still a formidable challenge—hit 17 percent, compared to 9 percent the last time these seats were on the ballot. Now the task is to warn our new faces that it’s not enough to simply be new; you have to think new, too.
  • Democratic Controller candidate Rebecca Rhynhart is tough as nails, she just might represent a broader definition of reform. She has the chance to be our first-ever “Big Picture Reformer,” taking the high road personally and rhetorically, while steadfastly sticking to her mantras about true transparency and efficiency in government.
  • She’s started to do that by promising to audit the Parking Authority, which is clever politically, because it is comparatively low risk, entailing the taking on of Republican patronage. The key is going to be how and when she stands up to Democratic interests, including her former boss, Mayor Kenney.
  • Democratic DA candidate Larry Krasner got off to a bad start on that score in the immediate aftermath of election day. His response to reports of his supporters’ election-night chants of “No good cops in a racist system” was particularly tone-deaf.
  • The stakes are high for Krasner, and for the city. FOP President John McNesby, calling Krasner “anti-law enforcement,” has shamefully already raised the specter of de-policing, suggesting officers refrain from taking action when they find themselves in dangerous situations.
  • This election also showed that our attempts at campaign finance reform may have backfired. A few months ago, no one had heard of Krasner. His competitors, like Joe Khan and Rich Negrin, spent endless hours dialing for dollars in $3,000 increments, while a Super PAC funded by a billionaire who may never have stepped foot inside Philadelphia made sure that Krasner’s message would get before you.
  • Clearly, the best electoral reform starts at the ballot box. We’ve seen it elsewhere: Widespread turnout leads to a far more responsive government. But voting is only the first step if we want to insure that fresh faces like Rhynhart and Krasner don’t ultimately become usual suspects.

Watch out, establishment—something is in the air. Now let’s make sure our new faces also think anew

On the morning after election day, after Rebecca Rhynhart’s stunning upset of Alan Butkovitz and Larry Krasner’s coming out of nowhere to position himself as our odds-on next District Attorney, (most of us were, like, “Larry Who?” two months ago), I got an email from a friend who escaped Philly for greener, though far less interesting, Midwestern pastures some years ago: “New never beats old in Philly! What happened?”

So true. A little over a decade ago, the writer Bruce Buschel—a Philly native who’d gone on to bigger and better in New York—came back to town after 25 years up I-95 and penned a piece for Philly Mag headlined “The Ghosts of Broad Street.” In it, he walks the length of our main thoroughfare, the longest boulevard in urban America, and talks to the indigenous peoples, searching for the heart of what makes us Philly. (He later turned it into an uproarious book that I heartily recommend, Walking Broad: Looking For The Heart of Brotherly Love.)

The results of election day made me think of this passage from Buschel’s 2006 piece:

“Atop the Oak Lane Diner’s roof at 66th is a sign that sings WELCOME TO PHILADELPHIA. So I stop for a cup of coffee and the Daily News. Making news are Larry Bowa, union unrest, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Stein, Eagle madness, Ed Rendell, Jerry Blavat, Dick Vermeil, Arlen Specter, Lynne Abraham, and the resignation of the Cardinal Dougherty athletic director, who allegedly used racist epithets. Is this the Twilight Zone? A quarter of a century, and nothing has changed. It’s comforting; it’s disconcerting. It’s why you left; it’s why you are back today.”

Well, our election results may well be the best answer yet to Buschel: Change has finally made it to Philly, and this is what it feels like, folks. Now the challenge is how we manage it.

For maybe the first time since Richardson Dilworth and Joe Clark swept into power in 1949, the future seems to have won. Think about the fresh faces suddenly in our midst, regardless of party or ideology: Rhynhart, State Representatives Jared Solomon, Chris Rabb and Martina White, Congressman Brendan Boyle. The DA’s race gave us not only Krasner, but also Joe Kahn, who ran a fine campaign. Even the races for judge produced refreshing newcomers like Vikki Kristiansson.

But first, let’s rejoice. The torch has been passed. During the last mayor’s race, many of us bemoaned the hegemony of Old Philadelphia. Buschel was somewhere in the Big Apple no doubt shaking his head during the Jim Kenney/Lynne Abraham/Tony Williams race, a triumvirate of decades-long headline makers.

But not even two years later, during the City Controller debate between Rhynhart and Butkovitz that we hosted with Committee of 70, there was one political veteran remarking upon the sight before us: “What I see on that podium is old Philly versus the future.” And, for maybe the first time since Richardson Dilworth and Joe Clark swept into power in 1949, the future seems to have won. Think about the fresh faces suddenly in our midst, regardless of party or ideology: Rhynhart, State Representatives Jared Solomon, Chris Rabb and Martina White, Congressman Brendan Boyle. The DA’s race gave us not only Krasner, but also Joe Kahn, who ran a fine campaign. Even the races for judge produced refreshing newcomers like Vikki Kristiansson.

Turnout—while still a formidable challenge—hit 17 percent, compared to 9 percent the last time these seats were on the ballot. But, it turns out, voting for change might have been the easy part. Now the task is to warn our new faces that it’s not enough to simply be new; you have to think new, too. That involves rejecting the inbred transactional nature of Philly politics and placing the common good above the accumulation of power for power’s sake.

There’s a cautionary precedent here. Back in 1991, when Congressman Bill Gray resigned from Congress, the Democratic party quite undemocratically appointed his successor, then-Councilman Lucien Blackwell —“Lucien the Solution.” Blackwell was a leader of the African-American old guard; a young African-American upstart challenged and ultimately upset him in 1994. That darling of the reformer class now sits in a federal jail cell: Chaka Fattah. In Philly politics, new and fresh has a way of turning old and incarcerated after a few decades.

So here are some random post-election thoughts, all offered in the hope that our theme song doesn’t once again harken back to The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.

The Rise of Rhynhart. In the general election, Rhynhart has the opportunity to establish herself as a key player in the future of Philadelphia politics—potentially our first female mayor, but more importantly, as an avatar of a new kind of reformer. Reform in Philadelphia from Dilworth and Clark on has been snarling and pugilistic; at first, I thought Rhynhart’s emphasis on technocratic collaboration could be a sign of meekness and that, like her mentor, Michael Nutter, she’d avoid spending political capital on the toughest of fights.

But, around the time during their debate that Rhynhart was fixing her steely gaze on Butkovitz and saying, “Docile? I don’t think that’s ever been a word used to describe me,” I entertained the thought that my thinking was unnecessarily steeped in a very Philly, macho-fueled philosophy, in which making headlines and enemies are the barometers of success. Rhynhart is tough as nails, I realized, but she just might represent a broader definition of reform. She has the chance to be our first-ever “Big Picture Reformer,” taking the high road personally and rhetorically, while steadfastly sticking to her mantras about true transparency and efficiency in government.

Rhynhart is tough as nails, I realized, but she just might represent a broader definition of reform. She has the chance to be our first-ever “Big Picture Reformer,” taking the high road personally and rhetorically, while steadfastly sticking to her mantras about true transparency and efficiency in government.

She’ll need to use the general election to lay out such priorities. She’s started to do that by promising to audit the Parking Authority, which is clever politically, because it is comparatively low risk, entailing the taking on of Republican patronage. The key is going to be how and when she stands up to Democratic interests, including her former boss, Mayor Kenney. Maybe, using her collaborative skills, she can persuade Darrell Clarke to release an itemization of Council’s secretive $17 million budget. And maybe she’ll  commit to doing one of the few things the Charter specifically demands and audit the school district. And maybe, during her tenure, we’ll start to see a spotlight being shone on the web of city contracts that go to political stalwarts.

There will be forces in city government fighting her calls for transparency, and the challenge for Rhynhart will be sticking to her principles in the face of such opposition. She witnessed that kind of backing down firsthand, when, shortly after being elected, Mayor Kenney abandoned his reformist campaign pledge to institute zero-based budgeting—an accounting system that exposes graft and fat long in the system. If she follows that lead, cue up Daltry and Townsend.

Krasner Concerns. This election featured a win by a reformer—Rhynhart—and a progressive, Larry Krasner. It will be interesting to watch the degree to which the interests of both groups merge and diverge in the ensuing years.

In the general election and beyond, Krasner’s challenge is the opposite of Rhynhart’s. Where she has to prove that she can be confrontational when needed, he has to prove he can be a pragmatic and conciliatory bridge builder—and he needs to do it starting now.

What should Krasner have said? How about explicitly disagreeing with the actual content of the speech, rather than issuing a highfalutin defense of its right to be said? Something like: “There’s no place in this campaign for that kind of divisive sentiment. We are one city and now is the time to heal the divisions between cop and citizen by focusing on fairness, justice and mutual respect.”

Krasner got off to a bad start on that score in the immediate aftermath of election day. His response to reports of his supporters’ election-night chants of “No good cops in a racist system” was particularly tone-deaf. “I’m a great believer in free speech,” Krasner said. “That does not mean I always agree with everything that is said.”

That’s an activist making a rhetorical point, not a leader who is interested in bringing disparate groups together. In fact, it’s reminiscent of Donald Trump’s thinly-veiled endorsements of hateful rhetoric at his 2016 rallies. What should Krasner have said? How about explicitly disagreeing with the actual content of the speech, rather than issuing a highfalutin defense of its right to be said? Something like: “There’s no place in this campaign for that kind of divisive sentiment. We are one city and now is the time to heal the divisions between cop and citizen by focusing on fairness, justice and mutual respect.” Would that have been so hard?

The stakes are high for Krasner, and for the city. FOP President John McNesby, calling Krasner “anti-law enforcement,” has shamefully already raised the specter of de-policing, suggesting officers refrain from taking action when they find themselves in dangerous situations. “Pull over to the side of the road and call the District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “Don’t do a damn thing, because you’re not going to be covered.”

Until recently, there’s been scant empirical evidence of de-policing, in which officers, feeling under siege, disengage from proactive policing. Citizen interaction and arrest totals plummet, the theory goes; it’s almost an on-the-job strike. Now comes an FBI report released earlier this month, giving credence to it as a real phenomenon. And a Louisiana State University survey of 3,346 law enforcement professionals found that, when asked about their post-Ferguson feelings, 45 percent reported that they were less motivated and 47 percent said that the amount of traffic and pedestrians stops they’d made had decreased.

I’m no fan of McNesby and we should all condemn officers who de-police. But Krasner responded to McNesby’s threat by lecturing his critic on cops’ civic duty, an indication that the nominee is still in theoretical mode, trying to win an argument rather than trying to find common ground between cops, ADAs and citizens who feel hassled and oppressed by law enforcement.

Where’s The Outrage Over Outside Money This Time Around? Back during the 2015 Mayoral primary, there was considerable media handwringing over the big dollar Super PAC support for candidate Tony Williams from three Main Line financial wizards, whom the Daily News’ Will Bunch called the candidate’s “trading guru backers from the Main Line.” They were Jeff Yass, Art Dantchik, and Joel Greenberg, founders of Susquehanna International Group, a global trading firm in Bala Cynwyd, and they spent millions in independent expenditures supporting Williams due to their belief in school vouchers and charters.

This election cycle saw another independent expenditure, when a George Soros-funded PAC likely turned the election by spending $1.45 million in support of Krasner. Yet the outrage this time was comparatively muted—suggesting that big money Super PAC influence can be tolerated when would-be critics see it, through their own political prism, as in service of a good cause.

That outside money may have just bought a District Attorney’s seat ought to start a discussion about the unintended consequences of campaign finance reform. Back in the early to mid aughts, I supported the campaign finance limits proposed by reformers like then-Councilman Michael Nutter and Chris Satullo, then editor of the Inquirer’s editorial page. We’d had no limits on how much could be contributed to political campaigns—it was not unheard of for individuals and law firms, even those doing business with the city, to donate in the six figures to candidates for mayor—and we’d just gone through headline-making “pay to play” scandals. By the time Nutter ran in 2007, those limits were imposed, and individuals were limited to $2,500 contributions and organizations to $10,000. (Those limits have since slightly grown with inflation).

Well, in 2010 we got Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that unleashed an independent expenditure onslaught upon our campaigns. Suddenly, Super PACs could donate any amount—so long as they didn’t coordinate with the campaigns they were supporting.

This election cycle saw another independent expenditure, when a George Soros-funded PAC likely turned the election by spending $1.45 million in support of Krasner. Yet the outrage this time was comparatively muted—suggesting that big money Super PAC influence can be tolerated when would-be critics see it, through their own political prism, as in service of a good cause.

Meantime, the hard limits established by our well-intentioned reform to get money out of our politics only ended up handcuffing any candidate not supported by such shadowy outside money. In the 2015 mayoral race, it wasn’t a coincidence that the two top candidates—Kenney and Williams—were also the top beneficiaries of independent expenditures; Kenney from labor by way of George Norcross, and Williams from the Main Line education reform billionaires. Thanks to campaign finance reform, none of the other candidates could raise enough money to get their messages out in a competitive way.

And history has just repeated itself. A few months ago, no one had heard of Krasner. His competitors, like Joe Khan and Rich Negrin, spent endless hours dialing for dollars in $3,000 increments, while a Super PAC funded by a billionaire who may never have stepped foot inside Philadelphia made sure that Krasner’s message would get before you. Those of us who supported the reforms a decade ago ought to admit that something is amiss. I’m not sure what the answer is—maybe it’s going back to no limits, but combining it with real transparency, both in terms of who gives what and in what they get for giving; a website, for example, that makes it easy to cross reference contributions with, say, city contracts.

Clearly, the best electoral reform starts at the ballot box. We’ve seen it elsewhere: Widespread turnout leads to a far more responsive government. But voting is only the first step if we want to insure that fresh faces like Rhynhart and Krasner don’t ultimately become usual suspects. Again, those noted political philosophers The Who come to mind: Next week, we’ll look at a change in the way we do elections here that just might be the best way to guard against getting fooled yet again.

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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