Guest Commentary: Philly’s Pay to Sway Culture

Guest Commentary: Philly’s Pay to Sway Culture

A good government advocate wonders how we can be ready for the big time when we’re still mired in our petty political culture

When it comes to winning hearts and minds in public-policy debates, I see the world a lot like Seinfeld’s character George Costanza sees resorting to parking in a garage. “A garage,” Costanza said. “I can’t even pull in there. It’s like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

Brett Mandel

But, instead of applying themselves and making a good case for their cause, some in power-wielding Philadelphia are apparently happy to just “pay-to-sway” no matter the societal costs of this policy prostitution.

Philadelphians got another look behind the curtain last week to see how influence is peddled and how business really gets done in our town when The Daily News reported that the President of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) received $25,000 as a “consultant” from the mayor’s political action committee. Those payments, sloppily disguised in campaign-finance reports, were quickly linked to the NAACP’s support of the Mayor’s Soda Tax initiative.

Soda tax opponents suggested that those payments led the local NAACP to reverse opposition to the soda tax. Of course, evidence of a flip-flop or quid-pro-quo was not noted in the Mayoral PAC’s financial-disclosure documents.

Just when we thought Philadelphia might be ready for the big time in making a world-class pitch to attract Amazon’s second corporate headquarters, there comes this reminder that Philadelphia stubbornly clings to its backwater mindset. We are an incestuous and insular town and we are all stuck together in a web of often-inappropriate connections that lead to so many corrupted relationships.  

Because everybody is connected to everybody, nobody is independent and anybody can have leverage to use with anybody else through threats or rewards that may never be obvious to the greater public. Because every action is tied to so many other equal and opposite reactions, nothing can be considered on its merits and everything must be looked at based on how it affects the web of relationships.

Just when we thought Philadelphia might be ready for the big time in making a world-class pitch to attract Amazon’s second corporate headquarters, there comes this reminder that Philadelphia stubbornly clings to its backwater mindset.

Philadelphia is a city where too many decisions about what can be built where and by whom are determined by politicians on a case-by-case basis. It is a city where so many policies that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands are enacted based on how they affect a close friend of an elected official. It is a city where so many are so tied together that few can push too hard against everything that is wrong in the city for fear that the powers that be will create consequences for the attack on the status quo.

Maybe, the head of the NAACP was providing some valuable consulting services to the mayor’s campaign more than a year before a re-election campaign. Maybe the NAACP’s embrace of the soda tax is a sincere belief that a regressive levy that falls disproportionately on Philadelphia’s non-white population is the best way to raise public revenue. But, a casual observer of the state of our city might just see powerful officials engaged in the oldest profession.

Call it a bribe or a consideration or a really lousy-looking coincidence, but putting cash on the nightstand is no way to create positive public policy. Maybe that is why so much policy in Philadelphia fails to benefit the public. If this is the way business is done, we might as well just establish what we are and haggle over the price. Maybe Amazon and others looking to do business in Philadelphia might appreciate such a straightforward approach.

I’ve been involved in a lot of public-policy debates in my career and I understand that compromise and flexibility are important to achieve meaningful progress. I know that many factors influence the embrace or rejection of policy initiatives and I am not so naive to believe that every single debate is won solely on merit. But, I firmly believe that relationships like the “pay-to-sway” deal exposed last week are emblematic of the political culture that holds Philadelphia back. Maybe it’s just as simple as noting that too few of us can say, “I’ve never had to pay for it.”

Brett Mandel is former executive director of Philadelphia Forward, a nonprofit that encourages civic engagement and advocates for smarter uses of public money. He ran for City Controller in 2013.

Header Photo: Pixaby

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