When Bob Brady announced yesterday that he wouldn’t seek reelection to Congress in an emotional presentation to local media, I flashed back to one day a few weeks ago, when I gave him a call and he strangely wanted to talk policy and not politics.
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The Inquirer had just reported that Mayor Kenney’s right hand man, 32-year-old union apparatchik Rich Lazer, was “seriously considering” mounting a challenge against the 11-term incumbent congressman, complete with union support. It was only the latest in a series of real or potential challenges to Brady; already, former deputy mayor Nina Ahmad had announced her candidacy, despite not yet living in the district, as had Michele Lawrence, former regional president of Wells Fargo, and three others.
Reformers had already been buzzing about the notion of two accomplished minority women seeking to unseat Brady in the heavily African American first congressional district. But when Lazer’s potential challenge was added to the mix, political insiders got into the act. Just what was this about? Was there blood in the water, given that, last October, two of Brady’s top aides had been indicted for paying $90,000, ostensibly for a poll, to a would-be primary rival after said rival had dropped his candidacy?
Brady’s passion for his bipartisan bill ought to serve as a note of caution for all of those, in the name of reform, who had been seeking his ouster. Because there are really two Bradys. One is a Congressman. The other is arguably the last big city machine boss in the nation.
I doubted that, especially given that, as one source close to the investigation of Brady’s office had told me, and as Brady recounted yesterday, the Feds had recently let the final statute of limitations on the charges that he faced run its course. Unless some new charge came to light, Brady was in the clear.
Nonetheless, in the Inquirer story, the Lazer speculation prompted all sorts of Machiavellian scenarios, including the notion that Brady was slyly handpicking his successor: “If Brady were to run, win the primary, and then drop out before the general election, Philadelphia ward leaders and Delaware County precinct leaders within the district would get to pick the Democratic nominee,” wrote the Inquirer’s Claudia Vargas. “As city party chairman, Brady has sway over the leaders of the 69 Democratic wards, and thus could have a role in hand-picking his successor…One political operative said Lazer replacing Brady would be ‘a status quo bait and switch.’”
When I got Brady on the phone, he was in D.C., just walking off the floor of the House of Representatives, and he was in no mood to indulge media speculation of his motives. “You media people with your millennium reporters, you don’t know shit,” he told me. “You people think there’s a shadow behind every curtain of mine.”
Interspersing some more choice language, Brady abruptly changed the subject. The quintessential political animal wanted to talk…about an issue. He’d just been negotiating with some Republican hardliners on his Harper-Brady Bill, a reform to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 that makes the Congressional process for handling sexual harassment more transparent and fairer for victims. It’s a bipartisan bill, crafted with Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi, a conservative you wouldn’t think of as a Brady pal.
That’s what Brady wanted to talk about—two weeks before the news broke of lovelorn Republican Congressman Pat Meehan, with what one source tells me was his taxpayer-funded $39,000 settlement paid to his soulmate, er, aide. “Members should be paying their own settlements, not using taxpayer money,” Brady said. “Did you know that, right now, if you’re the victim of same sex harassment, you have no legal recourse on Capitol Hill? That ain’t right.”
Like fervent anti-Communist Richard Nixon going to Red China, only Brady has the credibility to force the political culture he’s helped shape to change.
Among other reforms, Harper-Brady—also known as H.R. 4822—would free those seeking to bring a sexual harassment complaint against a member or staffer of Congress from first having to go through mandatory counseling and mediation; provides House employees with immediate access to a dedicated advocate who will provide legal representation to anyone filing a claim; provides employees with the option of working remotely or receiving paid leave without fear of retribution; requires members, not taxpayers, to bear the cost of any settlement fee; and commits to publishing online a full accounting every six months of all sexual harassment awards and settlements.
Now, given his announcement yesterday, Brady’s passion for his bipartisan bill ought to serve as a note of caution for all of those, in the name of reform, who had been seeking his ouster. Because there are really two Bradys. One is a Congressman. The other is arguably the last big city machine boss in the nation.
I take a backseat to no one in urging the latter to open his sclerotic People’s Republic of City Committee to reform. But the former—Brady the Congressman—actually embodies many of the qualities we say we want representing us in Washington. As his work on Harper-Brady attests, he is instinctively bipartisan; when Democrats were in the majority and he was Chairman of House Administration, he’d approve all travel and meal reimbursement requests, regardless of party, rebuffing his leadership when they wanted to use reimbursement as a way to punish Republicans; Brady, playing the long game, sought to hoard chits for future dealmaking.
The irony is self-evident: The last big city Democratic party boss doesn’t have a politically partisan bone in his body and is one of the least ideological members in a body that is increasingly doctrinaire.
That’s why, before Brady’s announcement, it made no sense from a purely political perspective for the Democrats to have an open primary in the first congressional district. Without Brady—the ranking member on House Administration and the number two member on Armed Services—the most senior member of the Philadelphia congressional delegation will now be Brendan Boyle, all of a two-term incumbent. With Brady gone, the delegation we send to Washington will now have less clout than we’ve had in decades.
Moreover, changing the congressman from the first congressional district—no matter who wins—does nothing to reform local politics. Brady was our local party boss long before he was a congressman, and he plans on continuing as party boss now that he’ll no longer be spending six hours in a car four days a week driving back and forth to the nation’s capitol. He said as much in his announcement yesterday: “I told my fellow ward leaders I want to come back home to them and make sure they’re okay and make sure this party is solid.”
Without Brady—the ranking member on House Administration and the number two member on Armed Services—the most senior member of the Philadelphia congressional delegation will now be Brendan Boyle, all of a two-term incumbent. With Brady gone, the delegation we send to Washington will now have less clout than we’ve had in decades.
So, all those reformers who had been buzzing about unseating Brady in Congress? The truth is, their passion had been misplaced. Instead of challenging him in a primary, we should be challenging him to bring an era of Perestroika to local politics. I’ve made the case before: Like fervent anti-Communist Richard Nixon going to Red China, only Brady has the credibility to force the political culture he’s helped shape to change.
As Brady demonstrated in his announcement yesterday, for all those who fear his backroom ways—one insider once told me Brady has a way of getting back at those who have crossed him such that “you never feel the knife”—he also can be big-hearted and sentimental about Philadelphia.
That’s the side of him I’ll be appealing to in a plea to now turn his attention to remaking local politics. He wouldn’t have to do anything too radical, and he could change the city he loves for the better and shape his legacy for the ages. Here, again, is my six-point plan that would make Brady our most unlikely reformer:
- Release a statement pledging that, from now on, the 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”?
- In his announcement, Brady indicated his preference would be for Rich Lazer, the 32-year-old aide to Mayor Kenney with ties to labor, to succeed him in Congress. But shouldn’t we start sending folks to Washington who have actually lived lives, ran things, and had some experience in public problem-solving? Lazer may be a new name, but he represents an old approach. I wouldn’t hold out much hope, but if Brady supported a dark horse, non-political candidate…that alone might ignite widespread political change.
- It would require an about-face, but sign on to the Rendell reforms. The former mayor and governor once suggested a series of moves that, together, would dilute the influence of our 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, and Brady protege, Jonathan Saidel succeeding Brady as party chair. Not exactly agents of change, huh?
The irony of yesterday’s announcement is that losing Brady in Congress will be a blow to the region. He’s been a good congressman, using his relationships to pass bills like H.R. 4822 and to bring federal bacon back home. But now I know why, when I called him a couple of weeks ago, Brady was so eager to talk about his bipartisan bill. He was already thinking in terms of legacy.
What if Brady is looking for a way to similarly leave a legacy back home? Yes, it’s a long shot. But back in the early ‘70s, you couldn’t find a pundit crazy enough to predict that the red-baiting Nixon would approach communist China with an outstretched hand. Stranger things have happened…though, granted, not many.Photo via Wikimedia Commons