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The Ghost of Reformers Past

As the Feds raise the temperature on party boss Bob Brady, could he use it as an opportunity for reform?

As the Feds raise the temperature on party boss Bob Brady, could he use it as an opportunity for reform?

Just days before the local media and political worlds went into overdrive in response to the federal indictments of Ken Smukler and D.A. Jones, Bob Brady’s chief strategists, I stopped into The Palm for a drink with Zack Stalberg. He was visiting our town for the first time since he rode off into the New Mexican sunset three years ago, urging other members of Philly’s “permanent establishment” to similarly “think about giving way to a younger and more change-oriented set of players.”

Stalberg, the former longtime editor of The Daily News who then reinvigorated the political watchdog group Committee of 70 when he took it over in 2005, had long been one of Philly’s larger than life characters, an outspoken contrarian with a mischievous glint in his eye. Now here he was, looking utterly stress free under a cowboy hat, wearing a jean jacket and a custom-made ‘Z’ insignia belt buckle, sipping a bourbon, and telling tall tales of retirement.

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When the conversation turned to local politics and the future prospects for Brady and his political machine—one of the last in the country—Stalberg, long an outspoken critic of Philly’s back-room politics, had a surprising take.

“The machine isn’t necessarily good for good government, but not all alleged misdeeds are the same,” he said. “What Philly needs are people who can represent it well in Harrisburg and Washington. I’d be real careful about taking Brady out—someone with real influence who brings home the bacon—for what seems like chickenshit reasons.”

Hold on, I said. But you’re a longtime good government reformer, no?

“Look, people in positions of authority, whether editors or prosecutors, have to make judgment calls,” Stalberg said. “You have to decide what’s worthy of attention and what isn’t. It’s always tricky to get into this, because you don’t know at this point what Brady did or didn’t do. But from what’s out there, it feels like a chickenshit case.”

Stalberg’s point of view forced me to confront my own discomfort, not only with the Brady case, but with the trend of overzealous prosecutions that criminalize politics. It appears that Brady, who is both the longtime local party head and a U.S. congressman, is being investigated for paying $90,000 to retire the campaign debt of a would-be congressional challenger by purchasing said challenger’s polling data about him.

The U.S. Attorney’s press release about the indictment of Brady’s aides is written in a tortured and confusing way—just how could Brady’s consultants cause his opponent’s campaign to file false FEC records?—but the implication is clear: Brady’s campaign, it is alleged, skirted campaign finance laws in order to avoid a political challenge. (Even though few believe that Brady, who consistently wins reelection in his first congressional district with Kremlin-like landslides, faced a real threat from Judge Jimmie Moore, the would-be candidate in question.)

The best chance for real reform—slim though it may be—may just rest in Brady, if he emerges unscathed from federal scrutiny, rising to the occasion and positioning his machine to at least begin to change with the times.

I’m old enough to remember Michael Dukakis retiring Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign debt in 1988—and plying him with a plane—in exchange for his endorsement. (Some good that did). Sometimes politics is repulsive—but is such deal-making illegal?

I’ve written often that Brady’s machine-driven transactional way of politics is antiquated and impedes widespread civic participation, but, and this is what Stalberg was getting at it, it’s a far cry from the type of corruption that has sent the likes of Seth Williams, Vince Fumo and Kathleen Kane on long involuntary vacations. They either stole or committed perjury; yet, increasingly, it has become fashionable to prosecute icky politics in the same way.

What State Senator Larry Farnese did was gross—paying the tuition for the daughter of a committeewoman whose vote he sought in a ward election, which was not a state senatorial “official act”—but  the jury acquitted him of federal fraud and conspiracy charges, and the case became an example of prosecutorial overreach and probably shouldn’t have been brought in the first place. As I wrote recently, the most insidious type of corruption in our midst is that which is completely legal.

Stalberg’s point, though, went beyond the legal niceties. Watch out, he seemed to be saying to reformers, channeling The Talking Heads from the ’80s: You might get what you’re after. “I thought it was great back in the ‘80s when City Council members George Schwartz and Isadore Bellis were convicted,” he said. “I didn’t like them. But when they were gone, so too were the two smartest members of City Council. Even if we assume the worst with Brady, I prefer someone in charge who is guilty of a small political misdeed who can get stuff done, rather than an idiot or a thug.”

I don’t mean to mount a defense of Brady, so much as argue that what ails us is much bigger than any one political actor. The perp walk parade that has gone on here ever since journalist Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented” in his 1904 book, The Shame Of The Cities, is proof that we can’t just prosecute our corrupt culture away.

The perp walk parade that has gone on here ever since journalist Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented” in his 1904 book, The Shame Of The Cities, is proof that we can’t just prosecute our corrupt culture away.

It was Steffens who observed that, in Philadelphia, “the people are not innocent.” Today, as then, power in Philadelphia is disproportionately political. Steffens called Philly one of the hotbeds of “knownothingism,” arguing that the heads of educational and charitable institutions “go along in order to get appropriations from the state and land from the city. They know what is going on, but they do not join reform movements. The provost of the University of Pennsylvania declined to join a revolt because, he said, it might impair his usefulness to the university. And so it is with…lawyers who want briefs, real estate dealers who like to know in advance about public improvements, and real estate owners who appreciate light assessment.”

Getting rid of Brady, just as sending Williams away, likely does nothing to clean up this longstanding culture. What could, however, is if a repentant Brady now takes the first tentative steps toward local political reform. Consider this a Hail Mary. If Stalberg is right and the U.S. Attorney doesn’t have enough to indict or convict Brady of actual crimes, maybe this is an opportunity for the Democratic boss to not only sigh in relief at having dodged a bullet, but also to realize that, like fervent anti-Communist Richard Nixon going to Red China, only he has the credibility to force the political culture he’s helped shape to change.

He wouldn’t have to do anything too radical and he could shape his legacy for the ages. How’s this for starters:

  • Release a statement pledging that, from now on, City Committee will not endorse any candidate for public office who has either been indicted or is under a cloud of investigation. This would seem to be low-hanging fruit, but it’s what passes for political reform in Philadelphia. How refreshing would it be to no longer see headlines like the one that ran in December of 2015: “Brady Backs Indicted Fattah For Re-Election.”
  • It would require an about-face, but sign on to the Rendell reforms. Last spring, the former mayor and governor, who is increasingly taking on a role as political elder statesman, suggested a series of moves that, together, would dilute the influence of our shadowy ward leaders. Brady rejected out of hand Rendell’s call to run candidate endorsements through a vote of committee people, rather than leaving them up to individual ward leaders. Rendell also suggested lessening ward leader terms from 4 to 2 years, as a hedge against entrenchment. These changes might not have groundbreaking effects, but Rendell argued that they’d be a first step toward opening the party beyond the traditional ward-dominated system.
  • Instead of dismissing Ali Perelman of reform-minded PAC Philadelphia 3.0 as “a rich girl with nothing better to do,” embrace the new blood she’s encouraging to run at the ward and committee levels. You can still endorse your apparatchiks, er, incumbents, but actually partnering with Perelman on training a new generation of candidates could ultimately strengthen your hold on power by signaling that the old guard is thinking long term and is open to integrating new ideas and new faces into our power constellation.

  • Brady has come out in favor of a merit-based system for electing judges, and has even said he wouldn’t support judges who don’t receive the Bar Association’s imprimatur as qualified. But he’s long attached a condition: In exchange, he wants the party’s endorsed candidates to get prime ballot position. How about this for reform: Give up the condition. Say you’re not afraid of competition and challenge those you’ve endorsed to make their case—no matter where they fall on the ballot.
  • Really groom a successor. In recent years, there has been talk of labor leader John Dougherty—himself under federal scrutiny—or former City Controller Jonathan Saidel succeeding Brady as party chair. Not exactly agents of change, huh?

“The most important thing Brady can do is cultivate someone who can reform the system and represent the city with muscle in Harrisburg and Washington,” says Stalberg. “Someone smart and tough and visionary.”

I’m not sure who that is—Stalberg suggests Congressman Brendan Boyle, but I suspect the mere thought would send Boyle, who has proven to be a savvy, if cautious, outsider,  into paroxysms of panic.

But the point remains: The best chance for real reform—slim though it may be—may just rest in Brady, if he emerges unscathed from federal scrutiny, rising to the occasion and positioning his machine to at least begin to change with the times.

There’s an unlikely precedent here. Back in the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev brought Glasnost to the Soviet Union—a system of reforms centered around openness and transparency in government. Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. Gorbachev went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize; such recognition might not exactly be in Brady’s future. But maybe the comparison has a certain symmetry. After all, there’s a reason why Citizen columnist Jeremy Nowak often refers to Philadelphia as “Moscow on the Delaware.” Maybe it’s time for a little Perestroika, Brady-style.

Correction: An earlier version of this story named the wrong City Councilman whose conviction Stalberg mentions, along with George Schwartz. It was Isadore Bellis.

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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