We spend a lot of time here in Citizenville talking about old versus new, which seems to be the dominant theme emerging in Philly’s nascent Kenney era. Was the mayoral campaign a mandate for progressive change, as some have maintained, or did it represent a return to a depressingly familiar politics as usual?
The jury is still out, though it’s clear that Kenney’s biographical journey—South Philly Two-Streeter evolved into a paragon of tolerance and communitarianism—gives him an epic opportunity. After all, Kenney, if he so chooses, can play Nixon going to China; who else would have more credibility getting, say, labor, the old political guard and other interest groups to think beyond the orbit of their own narrow talking points than the former Vince Fumo acolyte?
There have been some encouraging signs, like when the new mayor excoriated some foul-mouthed and offensive Mummers. And when he said he’d push ally John Dougherty towards more diversity in the union ranks.
I remain hopeful that Mayor Kenney will be a change agent. If so, it will be a strenuous lift. Over the last few weeks, the state of our politics, both locally and statewide, seem to be defaulting to our insider-dominated past. There were three stories in particular that, honestly, got me pretty down, because they felt a part of our city and state’s longstanding corrupt and contented narrative. And there was one development that gave me some hope that help is on the way.
Few things could build public cynicism more than a made up job with a salary bump for someone the voters had shown the door. Thanks, Darrell Clarke.
First, here’s what sent me Googling in search of some political Prozac:
The Old Boys Club Takes Care Of Itself. Right after the new year, Council President Darrell Clarke created a $135,000 annual senior policy advisor position for former Councilman (and Clarke loyalist) W. Wilson Goode, effectively giving the Councilman—who had just been voted out of office—a $6,000 raise for a job that had not previously existed.
Few things could build public cynicism more than a made up job with a salary bump for someone the voters had shown the door. Of course, the reason we didn’t know such a position existed, or that a spare $135,000 was sitting around, is that Clarke’s Council exempts itself from the transparency to which it holds other city departments. That’s right, try figuring out how Clarke spends his $16 million budget. You can’t.
Kenney praised Clarke’s hiring of Goode in a press release: “I know he will enhance the great work already being done by the Council president’s office and all of City Council.” There is much to be hopeful about in Kenney’s improved relationship with Clarke and Council when compared to former Mayor Michael Nutter––maybe the Mayor and Council can get stuff done like then-Mayor Ed Rendell and then-Council President John Street were once able to do. But for now, this seeming act of political welfare for Goode speaks to the downside of such improved relations: There will be hefty ransoms to pay for amicability between the Mayor and our legislative body.
Three words: Anthony Friggin’ Clark. Not since State Senator Buddy Cianfrani—who once famously said about one prosecutor, “if he can’t get me, what kind of investigator is he?”—have we had such a toxic mix of shamelessness and chutzpah. City Commissioner Clark, who doesn’t often vote or show up for work, had the temerity to mark the dawning of the Kenney era by filing for DROP, the early retirement program never intended for elected officials. Upon retirement, he’ll pocket close to a cool half a million for a job he didn’t often do. That’s on top of his $10,000 a month pension.
But perhaps worse than Clark was the machinations that enabled him to retain his chairmanship of the board that runs Philadelphia’s elections. Republican Al Schmidt—a one-time good government reformer who has done some good things as Commissioner—threw his support to Clark. Say it ain’t so, Al. For a guy who was first motivated to run for by office by the object lessons provided by legendary reformer Richardson Dilworth, the deal with Clark, and Schmidt’s tortured explanation of needing “continuity,” was particularly sad. Schmidt benefits from Clark being AWOL on the job (a stunning Inquirer story on Sunday had photos provided by Clark of the Commissioner in Egypt while on the Philly taxpayer’s dime!) because he essentially gets to run the $9.6 million, 98-employee city election bureaucracy in Clark’s absence. In 2006, Schmidt, contemplating running for the office, knew that these positions ought not to be political. He even told me he just might run on the platform of abolishing the very row office he’d be seeking. Needless to say, he didn’t. Whither reform, Al?
To his credit, Kenney called Clark’s DROP grab “a slap in the face to all Philadelphians” and has urged Clark to, uh, actually show up for work, saying his truancy “makes us all look bad.”
Perhaps worse than Anthony Clark was fellow Commissioner Al Schmidt’s support for him. Schmidt is a one-time good government reformer. Say it ain’t so, Al.
Statesmen?…Anyone?…Anyone? There has been a lot of handwringing about the inability of our Governor and state legislature to pass a budget. It’s been particularly embarrassing, and everyone connected to the failure looks small and petulant. Even so, a largely unreported behind-the-scenes fact ought to lower legislative leaders in our estimation, if that’s possible. Turns out that the sticking point for many legislators, especially House Democrats, was their opposition to being included in the proposed pension reform. Under the reform, “new members” would join other new state workers in a defined contribution plan. But the sticking point was the definition of “new member”; it would include every member of the body after each election. So, all those House Dems opposed to this reform? They knew that, once they get reelected, they’d have to start contributing to their own retirement packages.
Let’s be clear: This was a shining example of “do as I say, not as I do” leadership. Legislators who widely acknowledge the looming pension crisis are, in effect, saying we want to prescribe behavior for others…but don’t ask us to follow it, too.
Puts me in mind of Steve Lopez, the legendary Inquirer columnist in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He used this line as a common refrain: “Pennsylvania, Land of Giants.”
So here’s my dilemma. Stories like these get me down, but we want the Citizen to be constructive, to focus on solutions. We have such great stuff happening in this city and state, why is it that, when it comes to our politics, it so often feels that we’re a backwater town in some old movie where Rod Steiger plays a corrupt mayor or chief of police? Wasn’t there anything to give me some hope?
Well, after my piece deconstructing Mayor Kenney’s small ball Inaugural speech, I got a call from a City Council insider…with more complaints. He was calling to agree with my point of view. But then he told me something that sparked my interest. “You know, Allan Domb has said some things to his staff this week that are pretty cool.”
Hmmm. When I got the Condo King-turned-freshman Councilman on the phone, Domb didn’t want to go into it at first. “I’m really just trying to keep my head down and study,” he said.
I pressed him. He explained that he plans on working with the Mayor and his Council colleagues on a host of issues. I must have heard, he said, about five priorities he laid out for his staff that they would try to achieve. He not only told his staff to get to work on these five goals, but that, as a team, they’d formally assess their progress on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Here they are:
1). We’re going to take 100,000 people of poverty in four years. Domb says we can get at least halfway there by educating taxpayers to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit and by increasing the minimum wage.
2). We’re going to create 100,000 new jobs in the next four years.
3). We’re going to raise the high school graduation rate from 65 percent to 75 percent in four years.
4). We’re going to permanently fix the pension problem.
5). We’re going to collect or write off the $1.8 billion in uncollected real estate taxes owed to the city.
My first thought: Maybe I was too hard on Kenney’s speech. I criticized him for not inspiring by asking something of us. But maybe all that was needed was some specific goals and timetables. Maybe that would have been inspiration enough.
”Every business I’ve ever been associated with has had goals and daily, weekly and monthly assessments of how you’re doing in reaching them,” Domb said. “Why should government be any different?”
This isn’t an endorsement of Domb the Councilman; who knows how he’ll evolve? But by simply articulating a game plan, even if only among his staff, and by establishing a process for assessing it in an on-going way, he reminds us of what has been missing in our politics: Some clear-eyed, no-nonsense leadership. Looked at that way, changing our culture suddenly didn’t seem quite as daunting a challenge. I started to feel a little bit better.