So let’s get the results of our survey of historians and political scientists out of the way first. On the surface, at least, they’re not that surprising. But they can spark a discussion about what we really should be looking for in a mayor this time around.
We sent a questionnaire to 100 experts and received 15 responses to our queries as to who ranks among the best of Philly’s mayors and who qualifies as among the worst, and — critically — why.
Let’s run down the results before we consider the lessons learned from them.
Joe Clark, who partnered with the charismatic Richardson Dilworth in reforming corrupt Philadelphia in the 1950s and who served as mayor from 1952 to 1956, came in first in our admittedly unscientific poll, with seven votes. “Clark and Dilworth not only oversaw the implementation of the city’s new Home Rule Charter, but initiated several reforms that led the city’s mid-century planning renaissance, established the Commission on Human Relations and created a more equitable city,” says Professor Timothy J. Lombardo, a history professor at the University of South Alabama (and a born-and-raised Philadelphian).
Interestingly, the suave Dilworth is the third, and not the second, choice in our little poll of experts. That runner-up status belongs to Ed Rendell, who took a moribund city on the verge of bankruptcy in the early ’90s and, through sheer force of will, breathed new life into it.
“Go for a visionary who knows how to get things done, not a political hack,” advises Sugrue of NYU.
Rendell was a triple threat: A great cheerleading frontman, a dealmaking backroom savant, and a policy wonk — all conveyed through a schlubby heart-on-his-sleeves style that made him arguably the most beloved New Yorker in Philly history. To watch Ed in his prime work a room, with that mischievous smile, was to watch a master. He’d never stop moving, yet, in a split-second interaction, through a quip or a chuckle or a sentence of straight-talk that no politician would dare utter today, he’d convey to every person he came in contact with that they, and only they, mattered.
“The theory of how to ‘fix’ the city is always changing,” says Elaine Simon, Adjunct Associate Professor and Director of Urban Studies Program in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’d say that Clark and Rendell were the two in recent history that consistently acted in line with their theories and had accomplishments to show. Clark had strong progressive goals — clear up corruption and a commitment to ideas about city planning. He accomplished much in his four years, aided by an effective coalition.
“Rendell had to bring people together and solve some big fiscal problems after Rizzo. He made the city feel good about itself, supporting the arts and revitalization of Center City and he saw and acted on the need for the city to have good jobs for its residents. Both supported progressive public education leaders, although, in Rendell’s case, he was swimming against the conservative State forces.”
Others receiving votes included Michael Nutter — “Honest, open, and fiscally responsible leadership” — and John Street, who, according to one historian, was “a somewhat surprising choice since his administration was plagued by scandal, but he earns important points for redirecting public attention and resources away from Center City and towards long-neglected neighborhoods.”
“Rendell had to bring people together and solve some big fiscal problems after Rizzo,” says Penn’s Elaine Simon. “He made the city feel good about itself, supporting the arts and revitalization of Center City and he saw and acted on the need for the city to have good jobs for its residents.”
One respondent, Jerome I. Hodos, Associate Professor of Sociology at Franklin & Marshall College, nominated Morton McMichael, who served from 1866 to 1869: “He was instrumental in key reforms to the structure and geography of Philadelphia, which helped create a modern city with the resources to improve services and quality of life for residents: the city-county consolidation of 1854 and the Fairmount Park Commission.”
On the worst mayors list, it was a landslide, folks. Frank Rizzo received 13 votes, with only J. Hampton Moore and Richard Vaux earning Rizzo-like antipathy. “Rizzo exacerbated already deep racial divisions in the city, and stoked white anger to his political advantage,” said Thomas Sugrue, Silver professor of history and social and cultural analysis, at New York University. “He promoted police excess; diminished Black Philadelphians; grossly overspent at a moment of financial precarity; revived cronyism, and unraveled many gains of 1950s era reform.”
Okay, so what does all this tell us today? Well, keep in mind what one respondent,
Matt Thomas, professor at California State University, Chico, observed: “This is a really tough city to govern!” It requires a personality practiced in the art of politicking — someone who can put coalitions together, someone who can flex muscles in private and bring grown men to tears in public, someone with a sixth sense as to when to fight and when to fight another day, someone who is willing to say no to her friends and benefactors when the greater good calls, someone who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers but instead challenges all of us to be a part of the solution.
Here, then, some thoughts prompted by these survey results, to keep in mind in this nail-biting homestretch:
It’s the pragmatism, stupid!
I’ll never forget how, when racial tensions threatened to blow up Grays Ferry in the late ‘90s, Rendell courageously defied his liberal Jewish base and invited Rev. Louis Farrakhan here to help avert riots by taking part in an all-faith service at Temple University. Rendell’s speech back then is worth watching today, as it touches on all the touchstones of pragmatic progressivism demanded by the position of mayor:
The city was about to go up in flames, and Rendell reached out to a controversial and strange bedfellow in order to lower the heat. He did something similar as governor, enraging many of his fellow Democrats when he struck a deal with Republicans in the state legislature to secure an historic increase in school funding in his first budget: If you vote for my budget, he told them, I won’t campaign against you and, if it helps you, I’ll even write you a letter attesting to how your vote helped educate Pennsylvania’s children.
It’s telling that, in our survey, those who study Philly most closely, all single out mayors who would fight for principle — Dilworth once famously asked, “Where would cities be were it not for men like me to fight for them?”— but would seldom appear to be fighting. They were happy warriors who practiced the art of public persuasion instead of beginning a conversation with would-be converts by telling them to first check their privilege.
Here’s a slogan a new mayor ought to keep in mind: It’s The Pragmatism, Stupid.
“Go for a visionary who knows how to get things done, not a political hack,” advises Sugrue of NYU. “The best mayors think about the city holistically and connectively, building bridges between constituents. The best mayors don’t surround themselves with loyalists, but with talented, experienced staff and agency heads who know how to translate vision into reality. Build effective ties to Harrisburg and Washington to represent the city’s interests. Use mayoralty to push for federal and state policies (labor, health care, civil rights) that will benefit city residents.”
And that, it seems to me, is what this ever-so-close mayoral race is all about. We’re a city of Democrats, so there’s no party divide. I’ve written before that the actual political fault line is between progressives and reformers; idealogues, on the one hand, who would rather be right than effective, and pragmatic progressives on the other, who will work with anyone to achieve even nominal gains in pursuit of a public good. Turns out, a version of this debate is raging clear across the country, where “Abundance Progressivism”— also referred to as “Supply-Side Progressivism” or, my favorite, “Outcomes Progressivism”— is arising in response to “Movement Progressivism.”
“Rizzo promoted police excess; diminished Black Philadelphians; grossly overspent at a moment of financial precarity; revived cronyism, and unraveled many gains of 1950s era reform,” says Thomas Sugrue, of New York University.
It bears briefly diving in. “What are some of the markers of Movement Progressivism (MP)?” writes Misha David Chellam. “The vibe is young, hip, intellectual, and multi-racial. There is an emphasis on identity. Under-represented groups (women, Black & Brown people, LGBTQ+) are front and center. AOC and Ilhan Omar, among others, are the face of MP. Bold, sweeping change — such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — is envisioned to create a working-class multi-racial egalitarian democracy.”
Problem is, in cities like San Francisco, where Movement Progressivism has flourished, things have arguably gotten worse. Movement Progressivism sounds nice, but like socialism in the 20th Century, it tends to do better in theory than reality because politics is still about carefully constructing fragile coalitions rather than shouting into bullhorns and calling that change.
Abundance Progressivism, as argued for by Ezra Klein at The New York Times and embodied by Colorado Governor Jared Polis and California State Senator (and Philly ex-pat) Scott Weiner, seeks to achieve the same ends by valuing outcomes over what often turns out to be mere symbolism. “Abundance Progressivism is centered around issues like housing affordability via more housing production and climate change; these are areas where recent anti-abundance public policy has induced scarcity,” writes Chellam. “Abundant Progressivism’s focus is more economic than cultural, with the underlying belief that, given heavy correlation between socioeconomic status and race, solving economic issues can also help address racial and socioeconomic inequality.”
In this race, it seems that Allan Domb, Rebecca Rhynhart and Cherelle Parker all qualify as Abundance Progressives. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Domb hasn’t touted his Wage Tax Refund legislation. It was arguably the most progressive act of any candidate, putting $800 to $1,300 back into the pockets of poor Philadelphians.
Clearly Helen Gym is this race’s Movement Progressive. She comes out of movement politics and talks about being on the frontlines of “transformational change” for 30 years, though the specifics of her argument tend to pale against that rhetoric. Her work on eviction reform, predictive scheduling for workers, and fighting for local control of a school board (without advancing a plan for its actual governance) is … fine, but Che Guevara it’s not, right? An Abundance Progressive would, rather than talk about issues of school board governance, have a plan for attacking the shameful fact that 72 percent of Philadelphia public school third graders aren’t reading at grade level.
CEOs vs. legislator mindset
There are no hard and fast rules, but often chief executives have a different mindset than leaders who come from the more deliberative, legislative side of politics. CEO mayors — Mike Bloomberg in New York comes to mind — are hard-charging; they move fast and break things, to borrow Silicon Valley lingo. There are no doubt psychological reasons for Jim Kenney’s shrinking from the job, but part of it may just lay in his 23 years of experience in Council, where individual members are seldom called to lead on big matters. (One Councilmember told me last year, “I can’t do anything about gun violence. I can’t get Larry Krasner and the mayor to talk to each other.”)
CEO mayors lay out a vision for change and welcome accountability. Those with a legislative background can do that — former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, our How to Really Run a City podcast partner, is proof of that. But generally legislatures produce caretaker chief executives rather than change makers.
Now, don’t get me wrong; leadership is an inherently mysterious thing. I may be deifying Rendell now in hindsight, but back in 1990, he had lost a challenge to an incumbent — the city’s first Black mayor — and he’d paid a boobird 20 bucks to pelt the opposing team with snowballs during an Eagles game. No one thought he’d evolve into a transformational leader.
Which is an argument for the long arm of experience — we learn by doing and even sometimes failing. Before becoming mayor, for example, Clark served as the director of the Organizational Planning Headquarters of the United States Army Air Force and was Chief of Staff to General George E. Stratemeyer during World War II. By the time he became mayor, being a leader was second nature.
Keep in mind what Matt Thomas, professor at California State University, Chico, observed: “This is a really tough city to govern!”
Rookies, especially in times of crisis, are particularly risky bets. In this election, Jeff Brown has hyped his private sector leadership skills, but has shown his inexperience in the public realm with a stream of self-inflicted wounds. Campaigns tend to predict how someone might govern.
So who has CEO swagger today? Certainly, legislator Cherelle Parker exudes it, and she has pragmatic bipartisan chops, too. She can get stuff done — one of the premier tenets of leadership. However, her refusal to comment on her 2011 DUI and three-day prison sentence could be a red flag, not because she was drunk and driving one night 12 years ago, but because, as one political insider noted to me, “What is worrisome is her behavior when sober. Denying that she was on the street and repeatedly appealing the charges strikes me as a potentially worrying character flaw about what a leader does when caught making a mistake or doing something wrong.”
Increasingly, mayoral leadership is about convening and empowering stakeholders to own local solutions. Former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was instrumental in supporting the Allegheny Conference, a consortium of civic leaders that wrote a 10-year plan for the city. Domb, Rhynhart and Gym have all hinted at being proponents of that model, but it’s been hard to discern how much is soundbite as opposed to deeply-held conviction.
Throughout the campaign’s parade of forums, I have yet to hear a candidate cite, say, Chicago’s Civic Consulting Alliance — wherein businesses loan their best and brightest to local government to help implement policy — or, for that matter, any such innovative policy that might convey they’re thinking about leadership in a new and different way. Instead, we get soundbites and pretty shallow position papers on candidate websites that imply they have all the answers.
Is there a healer in the house?
Just think for a moment how deeply traumatized this city was even before the pandemic, the post-George Floyd racial conflagration, and our current historic surge in gun violence. Now we’re reeling. Is there a candidate who can calm the angst of a wounded, flinching electorate?
Candidates for mayor have to be like the A & R men of yesteryear’s record business, social scientist types with their fingers on the pulse of the local zeitgeist. Dilworth and Clark, in their constant call for everyday citizens to join their reform movement — housewives in their 30s were particularly engaged — showed the emotional intelligence to read their room. And every time he jumped into a swimming pool to kick off summer, joyously holding hands with young Black children, Rendell exhibited the same — doling out hope at the same time he was making tough decisions and calling for shared sacrifice.
In New York in the late 1980s, New York’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, ran just such a campaign: He talked about the “gorgeous mosaic” of his city and his calm demeanor lowered the temperature of a metropolis at war with itself. After the turbulence and combativeness of Ed Koch, Dinkins was a welcome relief — no drama, just competence. He lost reelection to a maestro of angry politics — Rudy Giuliani — but, when Dinkins died a couple of years ago, there was a lot of revisionism.
Well before Dinkins, New York Mayor John Lindsay was a dashing liberal Republican (yes, they existed!) who many thought would be president someday. In its 2000 obituary of him, The New York Times noted Lindsay’s healing role when the nation erupted in racial uprising in the late 60s: ”When riots tore at Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles and other cities, he walked the steamy night streets of Harlem and other black areas, tie askew, jacket flung over the shoulder, taller than anyone else, talking to people with only a detective at his side: a calm figure of civic dignity. And while other cities burned, New York had only minimal looting and violence.”
Has there been a candidate in this race who, you’re convinced, will show up and even if only by dint of his or her mere presence make you feel things are going to be better? Who not only outlines policies, but emits empathy and projects a “we’re all in this together” unified front? If there is, trust your gut.
“Ask not what Philadelphia can do for you…”
Finally, the notion that all we have to do is find that one person to occupy the second floor of City Hall and our problems will be solved is utterly fallacious, and flies in the face of how functional cities are now governed. In the cities that are on the rise, mayors convene and consult and collaborate. The best of them ask something of their constituents.
In her recent State of the City address, newly-elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, an Abundance Progressive, pleaded with her citizens to fully participate in her government, and even echoed a call for them to fill city job vacancies. Rather than vilify, she held out olive branches to business leaders and Hollywood executives, noting that “a new, more affordable LA — one that provides peace of mind — is dependent on the jobs that businesses create.”
Is there a candidate here who would be that type of “Ask not” chief executive? Someone who will say to citizens that just voting isn’t enough, and to business and institutional leaders that just writing a check to charity isn’t enough?
People are frustrated and afraid. They yearn to be part of a solution. As we head to Election Day, will someone take a break from the breathless sales pitch and challenge us to actually be part of building a new Philadelphia?
MORE ON THE MAYORAL ELECTION FROM THE CITIZENTop left: Mayor James Tate. Bottom left: Mayor Frank Rizzo. Center: Mayor Richardson Dilworth. Top right: Mayor John F. Street. Bottom right: Mayor Ed Rendell.