About a week before this week’s seismic election, I ran into former Mayor and Governor Ed Rendell. We had a long talk that, of course, touched on the fate of our favorite football team, the Iggles. But we also found time to compare notes on the prospects for Philly’s next mayoral race, in 2023.
“We need a balance, someone who can get some of the very important progressive goals done, but also someone who can grow jobs and who has the temperament to work with the business community in order to raise wages that improve people’s lives,” Rendell said when I asked him what qualities we ought be looking for in a next mayor. “One thing is clear —temperamentally, that’s not Helen Gym.”
He went on to praise Gym’s political instincts and skills, but also to note the City Councilmember and progressive standard-bearer’s penchant for generating more heat than light. Ever since 2016, there has been a strain of the Democratic party given to reacting to Donald Trump as Trump would: Shouting down others, questioning motive rather than debating solutions, eschewing compromise in favor of bumper sticker-sloganeering. Gym, Rendell seemed to suggest, comes from that wing—as does, I’d submit, our district attorney.
If there’s one takeaway from Tuesday night, it’s this: We don’t need people playing at politics. The time is now for serious people, doing serious things.
I thought of Rendell’s prophetic view as I watched the election returns this week, because it raises a fundamental question: Just what is the vision for the future of our city? As the news from Virginia came in, as a progressive New Jersey governorship teetered on the brink, as it became clear that Republicans were ascendant all over the map (even in Philly, where District Attorney candidate Chuck Peruto, not the most serious of candidates, won 12 wards), and as other cities seemed to eschew democratic socialism by electing a slew of pragmatic progressives, the fault lines seemed to be coming more clearly into view.
So consider this a Philly-centric interpretation of the election results, with the caveat that these notes are worth precisely what you’re paying for them. They may just be the ramblings of a guy with enough time on his hands that he tuned into the Boston mayoral debate on C-Span, not once…but twice.
The New York influence
Back in 2015, a Philly City Councilman who had risen to power as a protege of the ultimate backroom insider (and eventual convicted felon) State Senator Vince Fumo saw the degree to which a decidedly progressive agenda had carried New York City Councilman Bill de Blasio to that city’s mayoralty the year before. Jim Kenney had theretofore not exactly been a local version of Bernie Sanders, but he embraced the still-nascent progressive playbook, skillfully held together a mulit-racial constituency, and rode to victory.
Just as New York was a bellwether for Philly six years ago, might it be again in 2023? This time, New York models for us a type of correction in the form of Mayor-elect Eric Adams. Driven by common sense and a no-BS persona, Adams has quickly become what we’ll call the nation’s foremost Opportunity Democrat. “This is not a socialist country, let’s be clear on that,” Adams told Bill Maher in July. “This is a country that believes in giving people the opportunities [so] that they will be able to succeed and excel in this country.”
A former cop, Adams is disdainful of ludicrous notions like defunding the police, yet committed to holding bad cops accountable. He’s announced that, under him, “New York is open for business”; he has rejected the politics of class and race resentment and built a wide coalition that includes Wall Street titans, real estate movers and shakers, New York’s most powerful labor unions, and what was once the White, Black and Brown working class base of the Democratic party.
If this Tuesday night showed us anything, it’s that Democrats are continuing to lose working-class votes in droves and are in danger of becoming a party of, by, and for the elite—a prescription for permanent minority party status. That’s what the hubbub over Critical Race Theory is really about; it’s a new language straight out of the hallowed halls of academe, and the backlash to it stems from the fatigue of working moms in the Virginia ‘burbs at being told to confront their privilege and the resentment felt by Black inner-city laborers who see debates over pronouns taking precedent over programmatically addressing their own dire economic circumstances. It may make you feel good to demand that a worker in a suburban office park mouth Ibram Kendi’s anti-racist talking points, but it is no way to actually win votes. Have you ever persuaded another human being to your point of view by starting with the phrase, “What you don’t realize about yourself is…?”
Adams may represent a blueprint towards a new paradigm that I touched on last week regarding Josh Shapiro: A “liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism,” in the words of Richard Kahlenberg of the The Century Foundation.
Democrats are continuing to lose working-class votes in droves and are in danger of becoming a party of, by, and for the elite—a prescription for permanent minority party status.
Is there an Adams among us? I’m not yet sure. Representative Dwight Evans comes to mind, someone who advertises himself not as a charter member of the progressive or moderate wing of his party so much as a faithful leader of its governing wing. Adams—who comes out of Brooklyn’s insider political machine—represents a return to a politics that doesn’t just do photo ops and Twitter pandering, but that can actually get stuff done, at a time when no one seems able to. (See: the embarrassingly long-languishing bipartisan infrastructure bill in Congress.)
The Boston option
Or might the very different results in Boston this week be a harbinger for Philly? There, for the first time in nearly 200 years, two women faced each other in a mayoral runoff, resulting in the first woman—and first person of color—to be voted into City Hall in the city’s storied history.
Like I said, I watched the mayoral debate twice, because I have no life, and was impressed by both candidates. The winner, Michelle Wu, is a 36-year-old daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and a Boston Public Schools mother; she was opposed by her fellow City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who ran a more moderate campaign modeled on the mayoralty of Marty Walsh, who has gone on to the Biden administration. In her concession speech, Essaibi George said of Wu, “I want her to show the city how mothers get it done.”
Boston is famous—even more so than Philly—for its provincialism, and Wu will be its first mayor in over a century not born and raised there.There is something thrilling—and maybe foreshadowing?—about both Wu’s win and the fact that two women ran against each other in a big Northeastern city like Boston, an advertisement for progress in and of itself. Was this a one-off, or is it a sign of a shifting zeitgeist? Feels to me like the latter, which means we might be hearing lots more from some combination of Gym, Rebecca Rhynhart, Cherelle Parker, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.
But another possible precedent in Boston’s election lay in plain sight: Wu, though moderately tempered, is as progressive as they come. She ran on an ambitious platform of left wing policies, including free and accessible public transportation and a local Green New Deal. Essaibi George’s pragmatic critique of such proposals as pie in the sky fell on the electorate’s deaf ears.
But there’s a note of caution in the rise of Wu, too—the elitism we’ve seen stand in the way of Democratic success elsewhere. Wu is a Harvard graduate, her mentor is Elizabeth Warren, and she’s married to a banker. For a party that is losing its way with working people, the question will be whether Boston just bought itself some out-of-touch theorizing, as opposed to real change in real people’s lives.
The limits of Twitter progressivism
I hesitate to use the term progressive, because what really took a thumping in this election was an elitist strain of democratic socialism, a movement that always contained within itself its own downfall. In Buffalo, a socialist who had never held office before beat an incumbent mayor in a low-turnout primary last spring; lo and behold, that mayor waged a write-in campaign and Tuesday night scored a landslide victory.
In Minneapolis, voters rejected a vague plan to remake the police department in what had been seen as a “defund the police” referendum; turns out, Black and Brown folk in cities actually want police…they just don’t want them busting their heads. And in Ohio, Democrat Shontel Brown won a special election for a congressional seat after defeating democratic socialist and Bernie Sanders acolyte Nina Turner in the August primary, after Turner had described voting for Joe Biden as like “eating a bowl of shit.”
How many anecdotes add up to proof positive? Time and again, extreme progressives, complete with the type of incivility that is the hallmark of the true believer, have gotten kicked to the curb by voters who seem intent on reasonableness even in chaotic, unreasonable times.
Here, political insiders doubt Gym at their peril, for her base is highly energized. In a crowded field, one could see her becoming the next mayor with all of, say, 30 percent of the vote. If that comes to pass, it will not be proof of a progressive wave so much as an advertisement for our need for ranked choice voting.
Democrats in denial
In the aftermath of the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor in blue Virginia we’ve heard all sorts of rationalizations for their loss from democrats—instead of introspection. We’ve heard that the last five presidents all saw the Virginia governorship fall to the opposing party after their first year in office; that’s true, but a fact that a little too conveniently can keep a loser of an election from owning the outcome, and growing from it. And we’ve heard that Youngkin’s harping on Critical Race Theory in the schools was both a dog whistle and also a lie.
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We can go down the rabbit hole of Critical Race Theory another time, but let’s at least posit that both options gloss over some important facts on the ground. First, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe’s now-infamous “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” debate comment was not in response to a question about CRT. He’d been asked about parents wanting to be notified in advance if their children were assigned sexually explicit reading material. In what universe is that a threat to the civic order? When Democrats’ values don’t align with those of their voters, they lose. Besides, what was McAuliffe thinking? You’d think a former governor could read a room. Guess who votes, Terry? Parents.
Ever since 2016, there has been a strain of the Democratic party given to reacting to Donald Trump as Trump would: Shouting down others, questioning motive rather than debating solutions, eschewing compromise in favor of bumper sticker-sloganeering. Gym, Rendell seemed to suggest, comes from that wing—as does, I’d submit, our district attorney.
Was Youngkin dog-whistling on the CRT front? No doubt. But was that actually the difference in the election? Exit polling showed that voters named economic concerns as their top issue. And guess whose platform was more palatable to working class and middle-income voters? Youngkin ran on doubling Virginia’s standard income tax deduction; sending Virginians one-time tax rebate checks of $300 to $600; suspending a recent gas tax increase; providing a temporary tax holiday to small business owners, and altogether eliminating the state’s 2.5 percent grocery tax, one of only 13 in the country.
Remember when Democrats used to be the party arguing for repealing regressive taxes? No wonder the independents who voted for Biden a year ago swung back. While Democrats were busy tearing down statues of Thomas Jefferson, and while Congress and the president couldn’t figure out how to pass a bill—the bipartisan infrastructure deal—that had been agreed to months ago, here was Youngkin, a candidate who seemed to be focusing on their pocketbook issues.
In my youth, I spent my summers with my grandparents in the Catskills at a kochelein—Yiddish for “Cook Alone.” These were commonly referred to as Bungalow Colonies, where families would pack into tiny cottages in close proximity to hundreds of others, all escaping the city swelter. Every morning in my grandmother’s kitchen, other housecoat wearing yentas and their hunched-over husbands would amble in and, over coffee, discuss the news of the day. (I still remember my Uncle Leo constantly referring to National Security Advisor Poindexter as “Poinsetta.”) These weren’t learned people, but, listening to them, they were never not right. It’s like they all had a built-in bullshit detector; listening to them, I learned that Jimmy Carter was a mensch but lacked gumption, and that Ronald Reagan was an empty suit but that there was something about what he was selling that made you feel good, like anything was possible.
I’m reminded of those days now, because in this age of pollsters and crosstabs and media consultants, it seems the practitioners of our politics have lost sight of the fact that electorates are like juries: When the referee is doing its job—the judge in the courtroom, the media in the court of public opinion—there is, more often than not, a wisdom emanating from crowds of ordinary Americans. That’s what Rendell was talking about in our pre-election conversation, it seems to me now. Like my Mom-Mom and all her yenta friends back in the day—all gone now—voters tend to know who is on their side.
A would-be leader in Philadelphia can’t govern based on Twitter noise. She will have to do what a president needs to be doing right now: Feel people’s pain—to borrow an old Clinton line that a flawed man rode to the White House and actual progressive change—and begin the earnest hard work of rebuilding a sense of community in an ever-fraying city, state and country. If there’s one takeaway from Tuesday night, it’s this: We don’t need people playing at politics. The time is now for serious people, doing serious things.