This week, Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas wrote an article calling on Democratic mayoral nominee Cherelle Parker to get off the “sidelines” and be more public this summer. Ubiñas notes, rightly, that we are in a time of record-breaking violence, a housing crisis, widespread poverty, and abysmal city services with an all but absent mayor. As she wrote, folks “feel like they’ve long been left to fend for themselves.”
I understand the sentiment. But as Parker says, we have “one mayor at a time.” Becoming the Democratic nominee didn’t anoint her with any special power. So what exactly do people expect from her? Platitudes and speeches.
But I don’t want pleasantries and empty statements; I want substance. When Cherelle Parker is in a position to provide substance, I’ll expect something from her.
Parker can lead quietly…for now
Lurking beneath the call for Parker to be omnipresent — before even becoming mayor — is an expectation for all leaders to be perennial podium-pounders, constantly sounding the alarm about something. Politicians grandstand not because they’re inclined to deceive but because it works. As citizens, that is our fault because grandstanding is what we like. We like politicians who make us feel good — who speak well and are easy on the eyes. But lost in that is an appreciation for plain ol’ good ideas and productivity.
One of our country’s most famed leaders who wasn’t so flamboyant was President Lyndon Banes Johnson. Dubbed “Master of the Senate” for his negotiating skills, procedural know-how, and effectiveness, Johnson went down in history as a get-shit-doner. Most people credit his accomplishments to President John F. Kennedy, for whom he served as Vice President. But the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and ’68, and so much more were all him. Johnson wasn’t a notable orator, so he wasn’t the face that JFK was. But he was effective. That’s leadership.
Let’s be clear: Now is the only time Parker will have to recharge for the next several years. Once sworn in, I expect Parker to go full steam ahead — as we all should.
Leadership is more than looking good and being well-spoken. Leadership is the ability to work and produce results. Parker is a stellar orator. But that’s not all leaders do, especially in government. On the campaign trail, Parker acknowledges this, telling voters to look not at what she says but at what she does. We should hold her to that — when it’s time.
Parker has reportedly been preparing to be mayor by meeting with state officials, stakeholders, and City Councilmembers. As a Council staffer, I’ve seen the fruits of some of it. She’s been quiet about it, but that doesn’t mean Parker’s inactive.
Plus, being an experienced lawmaker, Parker likely knows the prudence of keeping her relationship with Mayor Jim Kenney intact. Consider what pretending to be mayor would do to her relationship with Kenney and their seemingly amicable transition. If I were Kenney, I’d be damned if Parker began stepping on my toes while still expecting a smooth transition.
Politicians grandstand not because they’re inclined to deceive but because it works. As citizens, that is our fault because grandstanding is what we like.
Kenney’s not shy about letting folks know when he has an issue. And Parker already embarrassed Kenney once. Remember July 4th last year when Parker blasted Kenney for admitting that he looked forward to no longer being mayor? Now that she’s all but won the mayoral race, she lacks any incentive to make a fool of Kenney again.
And let’s be real, Parker grabbing a bullhorn to increase her public presence wouldn’t produce any tangible changes in this city. Kenney would still be mayor — in the driver’s seat until the end of his term — he’d still be unmotivated and the city would continue to be in crisis. So all Parker can do is posture, which is what some folks appear to expect of her. But we have enough city leaders posturing on situations they can’t affect.
Leaders can and should take breaks
Like every other politician this past year, Parker has been on a grind, which she’ll likely resume. Parker also has a 10-year-old son she has said she wants to spend time with this summer. She should be allowed to do that before taking on a 24/7 job, running the sixth largest city in America.
Many people ask if I want to run for office in the future, and I say absolutely not each time, in part because of stuff like this. Politics is the only profession I can think of where we criticize people for taking care of themselves. Having worked with several lawmakers, I’ve seen how it wears on them. Folks forget that these politicians are also humans. We lose nothing when elected officials take a break.
Let’s be clear: Now is the only time Parker will have to recharge for the next several years. Once sworn in, I expect Parker to go full steam ahead — as we all should. From day one, she should be working to revitalize our city, addressing crime, poverty, housing, and the rest — not with platitudes and promises, but with actions. But until Parker is in a position to do something about all these problems, I am content with Parker (who’s not even on the job yet) quietly assembling her plans and enjoying her son this summer.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College.
MORE POLITICAL SOLUTIONS FROM THE CITIZENMayoral Candidate Cherelle Parker at The Citizen's Ultimate Job Interview. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce