Melissa Murray Bailey is running for Mayor of Philadelphia as a Republican in November. The real election happened on May 19th when the Democratic primary was held and Jim Kenney won.
In Philadelphia, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia by 8 to 1. No Republican has been mayor since 1951. The national brand of the Republican Party is damaged in the eyes of African American voters, the largest ethnic voting bloc in the city. And the Democratic nominee has done a great job building a big tent candidacy.
Melissa Murray Bailey has less chance of winning than the 2015 Phillies. But unlike our hapless baseball team, she can make her candidacy relevant. How?
First she can focus on solutions to big issues and force those solutions to be debated. While she will not win, she has the freedom to put things on the table.
Secondly she can organize new voters to the local Republican Party. Who are they? People turned off by a one party system who are unwilling to align with a national Republican Party that is captive to the extreme right on social issues.
The Republican candidate is a woman. If she were a Democratic nominee that was definitely going to win, this would be big news. If Bailey can contrast herself with the insider guy who has been a life-long politician, she can at least get her message out and pick up new voters.
Melissa Murray Bailey has four things going for her: She is young; she is a woman; she is bright, and she has no political baggage.
This is a rare package for Philadelphia politics. When you have a regime rather than a competitive political system, candidates are vetted through political lineages, like family connections. Loyalty to the regime becomes the dominant reason for advancement and job security. This makes it hard for the young and the unaffiliated to enter. There are too many apparatchiks in the way.
The Republican candidate is a woman. If she were the Democratic nominee, this breakthrough in the old boys network would be big news. But Melissa Murray Bailey has to make it clear that this is still big news. If she can contrast herself with the insider guy who has been a life-long politician, she can at least get her message out and pick up new voters.
In the recent primary there were only two independent minded Democrats that got elected: Allan Domb and Helen Gym, the business guy and the grassroots activist. Everyone else had a political godfather or godmother. And even when the party designees lost—Neilson and Goode—Kenney noted they might find a place in his administration. Local politics is still a full employment system.
As for the issues she should run on, my advice to the Republican candidate is to choose big ones and shape them in a centrist manner: Fair-minded fiscal reform that faces the pension fund crisis; an approach to schools that emphasizes both choice and equity, and a proactive public safety strategy that recognizes the importance of upholding civil rights.
On fiscal issues, she needs to get out the big Ross Perot style charts and explain what it means over the long term to the city’s operating and school budgets if we do not address pensions. And this has to be done without blaming workers who have paid in and without positing solutions that shortchange current retirees.
In fact, that is one of the points of pension reform: to make changes before it is too late, as happened in Detroit and several other places. She has to be specific in terms of the things that will have to be done in the short term and the long term to move the unfunded liability needle, including the sale of city assets.
In education, Philadelphians want both equity and choice. They want a predictable and equitable funding formula from Harrisburg, but they also want a system of schools that offers options. The local financial contribution to the school district has risen significantly in recent years but it is not a long-term answer to come back to the city every year expecting a new tax or fee. So say what your funding plan would be and tie it to the reform of public pensions and the overall tax system.
With respect to the issue of charters versus district schools, do not be afraid to say that you support both quality charters and quality district schools. But that in both cases, educational quality and responsible management will be determining factors.
This is one area where it is wise to watch what people do and not just listen to what they say. John Dougherty, the powerful union leader who was instrumental in building a pro-labor coalition to support Kenney, created a charter school through his union. Jim Kenney, who, like Doc, is a product of Catholic schools, served on the board of a charter school. And newly-elected City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a fervent District and PFT supporter, was a founder of a local charter school.
The last I checked none of those three charters were organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. So if the pro-PFT activists were so high on the teacher’s union, they should tell us why they created or governed non-PFT schools.
Philadelphians do not support poorly run charters nor a District that has failed too many of their children year after year. They are largely pragmatists. They are not in favor of an anything goes-style of choice, without an eye toward quality and agreed upon standards of fairness. This is an area where libertarian ideologues miss the mark. There is no constituency that wants to do away with reasonable levels of public regulation. But there is a constituency for school-based autonomy that rewards merit and allows school leaders to function as effective managers.
The Republican candidate would be wise to describe the system we have, not the one the Democratic Party candidates often imagine. We have a system of district schools that include 17 special select schools, contract schools with other agencies, and charter schools for one out of three students. We have moved slowly but surely to a multi-provider portfolio system. We are not going back to the one-size fits all district system. That was decided almost 20 years ago.
The system evolved this way because parents wanted options both inside and outside the District, not because rich guys in the suburbs forced them to go to charters. So how do we get to both equity and choice? Through the combined efforts of better funding formulas and the use of data and political will to shut down low performing charters and district schools.
Finally, there is the issue of public safety. We have made recent strides in that area but we are still the most dangerous big city in America. Moreover, there is a crisis in America today regarding policing methods and racial disparities. The inability to balance civil rights concerns and proactive policing can lead to an ungovernable city.
This is the current lesson of Baltimore, where the tension between residents, rank and file police officers, the commissioner, and the mayor is at the crisis point. Crime is spiking upward, the police feel besieged, and too many inner city communities are dissatisfied with both too much of one kind of policing and too little of another kind of policing.
The Republican candidate should run on a comprehensive public safety strategy that links law enforcement, social services, and economic growth. Again, it must be proactive and evidence-based, but it also must be mindful of civil rights.
There is no reason to back away from the enforcement of quality of life laws, from those that ought to be managed by Licenses and Inspections to those that are a matter of direct police authority.
Propose something big in the area of public safety that builds on the successes we have already had with GunStat and Focused Deterrence, two programs that I noted in a previous column. Pledge that this will be central to your administration so as to reduce the per capita murder rate to New York City levels over the next five years.
And make it clear that crime is not only caused by poverty, but also helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty by degrading public institutions and the potential for increased private investment. A city that struggles to create jobs and opportunity cannot go the way of Baltimore.
The Republican candidate can say these things because the local Democratic Party has slowly been ceding the political center to a more left leaning position on schools, policing and fiscal management. Melissa Murray Bailey won’t win, but she would be wise to occupy that center.