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Join us for the next in our series of public events in which a panel of questioners with expertise in hiring — along with audience members like you! — will interview 2023 mayoral candidates using a job description created by the people of Philadelphia.

Next up are Helen Gym and Cherelle Parker, on Tuesday, February 21, from 6:30-8:30pm at Fitler Club.

The events are free, but you must register in advance here. We hope to see you there.

See our crowd-sourced job description here:

Philadelphia Mayor Job Description


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Ideas Mayoral Candidates Should Steal

Many of those running for mayor call themselves change agents. But 13 weeks from Election Day, where are the innovative plans that could alter the direction of the city?

Ideas Mayoral Candidates Should Steal

Many of those running for mayor call themselves change agents. But 13 weeks from Election Day, where are the innovative plans that could alter the direction of the city?

“A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.”

– Antoine Saint-Exupéry

It’s been a weird mayor’s race so far, folks. It’s as talented a field as I can remember — smart, committed candidates, all of whom want the job. (That alone is an improvement). But, with only 13 weeks until Election Day, can you tell me what each of them stands for? Can you outline each mayoral candidate’s abiding vision for the future of our city? Where’s their five-year plan? Is there a big policy idea among them?

Used to be, candidates for public office settled on what they believed in, put together a plan, and then announced their candidacy, with an eye toward persuading us to their point of view. Hell, in 1991, an obscure governor from Arkansas ran for president after putting it all down on paper in a 232-page book called Putting People First — the blueprint for Bill Clinton’s stewarding of the American economy into the 21st century.

But more and more of late, consultants and staffers have convinced their candidates that playing small often better serves their electoral fortunes. The less the voter knows about what you really think, the more opaque you are, the greater the likelihood that voters will see in you what they want to see. They’ll impress meaning onto you. So we get campaigns where caution and fear rule the day.

And that gets us to where we are now, as we contemplate a new political leader in Philadelphia. Every candidate is talking about crime and trash because that’s what the polls tell them you want to hear about, but they’re tip-toeing around those topics, afraid to step out too much. Need proof? Check out each campaign’s website: Good luck deciphering an idea that makes you say to yourself, “Hmmm, that’s interesting; I never thought of that before.” And forget discovering a vision for where Philadelphia ought to be in five years, or a roadmap for how to get there.

Let’s go on a little tour.

Rebecca Rhynhart’s website features two policy position papers: A credible public safety plan, and an opioid crisis intervention blueprint that would include appointing an Opioid Czar, reporting directly to the mayor. (Campaigns love to talk about appointing “czars.”)

Jeff Brown’s website is long on diagnostic bromides — “The pervasive lack of economic opportunity, particularly in neighborhoods and communities of color across Philadelphia, represents one of the biggest failures in our city. Addressing this issue will require new ideas, innovative solutions, and someone who has a history of personally tackling these issues.” — but contains not one specific policy proposal. He calls for new ideas, but doesn’t proffer one.

Allan Domb has published a detailed 10-point public safety plan he’d implement in his first 100 days — and that’s it, though he is laudably posting the questionnaires he’s filled out for various community and political groups, presumably to prove that he’s not saying one thing to one interest group and the exact opposite to another, a tried and true political pander.

Maria Quiñones Sánchez makes for an interesting case study. Her website lays out three agendas: Public safety, education and creating an “affordable and equitable Philadelphia.” There are solid, if incremental, ideas in all three, though her public safety platform begins with this questionable assertion: “Public safety starts with our city’s operational departments: Licenses & Inspections, Streets, Water, Neighborhood Services, and Health and Human Services.”

Really? Policing is what, an afterthought? She obviously didn’t listen to David Muhammad, arguably the nation’s preeminent reducer of gun violence, on our How To Really Run a City podcast, who submits actual data as to who’s doing the shooting and how to stop them. In Quiñones Sánchez’s safety plan, better stormwater management gets much higher billing than does, say, engaging in “a forensic top-to-bottom review of the PPD’s budget of almost $800 million to make sure our spending is focused on preventing crime,” which, come to think of it, is precisely the review Rebecca Rhynhart performed last year as Controller.

While Quiñones Sánchez’s education platform is pretty anodyne — “We must invest in our students, removing the barriers that make it harder for them to learn” — her equity agenda is chock full of programs she supported as a Councilmember and, presumably, will turbocharge as Mayor. It’s not that she doesn’t have ideas — one is to enact a “city housing voucher program … through a partial direct subsidy” that offers “housing for families that they can afford at a fixed, predictable rent” — but it’s long on verbiage and short on information: What’s the cost, pay for, and return on investment?

Ironically, Quiñones Sánchez’s most innovative proposal is one that is nowhere to be found on her website: Zero-based budgeting.

At one point, Quinones-Sanchez pledges to “Make the Land Bank Work” but doesn’t mention her opposition to the chief impediment to that goal — the tyranny of councilmanic prerogative. Ironically, Quiñones Sánchez’s most innovative proposal is one that is nowhere to be found on her website: Zero-based budgeting, which Jim Kenney pledged to implement eight years ago until he saw that City departments building their budgets up from $0 was a radical idea, in that it would expose all the fiscal political promises through the decades that now clog our governmental arteries.

Helen Gym’s website contains a list of her accomplishments on Council, including her much-praised Eviction Diversion Program and, more dubiously, claiming to have “shut down abusive youth residential facilities like Glen Mills and helped lead on statewide reform of juvenile justice policies.”

She also takes credit for leading “a 17-year movement to end the state takeover of our public schools;” I’ve heard her call the transition from the SRC to an appointed local school board “transformative.” But how transformative has it been, now that said Board is, Keystone Cops-like, essentially suing the mayoral administration that appointed it? And how progressive can such a Board be when it just went through a superintendent search that resulted in three underwhelming all-male finalists? That’s progressivism, Gym-style?

Besides, Gym’s website has not one specific policy pledge for what she’ll do as mayor. Ditto Cherelle Parker’s, which appears to be simply a fundraising site.

Derek Green has likely been this campaign’s most consistently substantive candidate. His public safety platform, released this week, would boldly — and likely impractically — “circumvent the District Attorney’s Office to process cases through a Memorandum of Understanding between the City and federal authorities.” Green says it’s a $50 million plan, but it’s one that would require federal prosecutors to almost double their workforce — and he reportedly didn’t even put this notion to them before announcing it.

“I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once said. “Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.”

Recently, Green also called on Mayor Kenney to appoint a Reparations Commission, and doubled-down on what I’ve previously outlined as a well-intentioned but wrongheaded plan for a public bank — all to be paid for by the legalization of adult-use cannabis, which he has no power to enact.

Green is the only candidate to unambiguously say that, if elected, he will replace Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. So no one can accuse him of putting his finger to the wind, or of not thinking big. Whether any of his ideas are doable — and if he’s yet demonstrated in his public career the skillset to get big things done — is another issue.

But Green is an outlier. It’s not like those of us in the Fourth Estate are being inundated with press releases that detail intricate plans to move Philly forward. For the most part, I haven’t heard one overarching idea that distinguishes one candidate from another. Have you?

There are ideas worth importing

“I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once said. “Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.”

Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a mayor demonstrating “curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism?” Other cities seem to follow the Einstein postulate, and you’d think that maybe some of those ideas might be worthy of importation. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot took on that city’s version of councilmanic prerogative (and, perhaps not coincidentally, may lose her reelection bid) and is currently presiding over the nation’s biggest experiment yet in Universal Basic Income.

Here’s hoping that the next 13 weeks will reveal a mayoral candidate whose ideas for our future are, all at once, reasonable, measurable and inspirational.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Vi Lyles has spearheaded a racial equity initiative in partnership with civic and business leaders that has raised $230 million to invest in closing the digital divide and in “Corridors of Opportunity” in underserved neighborhoods. That’s a big idea right there, and in its implementation lies a style Philadelphia could use: a willingness to collaborate, to bring together public, private and nonprofit interests in pursuit of the common good.

There are other examples of mayors who ran on and are realizing policies that uniquely define them and their cities. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, Mayor Ras Baraka oversaw a massive three-year project that replaced 23,000 lead pipes delivering water into his city’s homes. In Scranton, Mayor Paige Cognetti didn’t wait for the state to raise our anemic minimum wage; instead, she used American Rescue Act money to launch a Wage Boost grant program, to which small businesses can apply for up to $50,000 to bolster employee wages over the next two years.

And you want to talk trash? How about Memphis partnering with NBA all-star Ja Morant and his Grizzlies to create Slam Dunk Litter League, in which teams of citizens from each City Council district compete to win prizes — like Grizzlies’ tix — by seeing who can beautify their respective neighborhoods the most.

These are ideas that can give a city a renewed sense of itself, and, when successfully implemented, they can signal that local government can still get shit done for its taxpayers. Every few years, candidates tell us that, this time, it’s the most important election ever. For Philadelphia, right now, that sounds about right.

A city with the nation’s highest poverty and tax rates, exploding gun violence, and anemic job growth can easily slide into becoming Detroit circa 2012, when street lights blinkered off and no one responded to 911 calls. But a city with a bustling eds and meds-fueled tech sector, world-class universities, newly engaged civic and business leaders, and scrappy citizens who don’t let a little grease keep them from climbing poles … that city could just as easily compete with modern-day Boston, provided there’s forward-thinking political leadership with goals, timetables and real time metrics that track success.

Here’s a simpler way of saying it, Philly: We need a win. We need to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves — that’s kinda the literal definition of citizenship, after all. Here’s hoping that the next 13 weeks will reveal a mayoral candidate whose ideas for our future are, all at once, reasonable, measurable and inspirational. It’s a tall order, but we’ve had folks step up and meet our collective moment before.


Photo by Theo Wys-Flamm, graph design by by Ralph Thorn

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