Moscow on the Delaware

With two months to go in the election, can Democratic Party candidates rise above the mediocrity of one party rule?

Moscow on the Delaware

With two months to go in the election, can Democratic Party candidates rise above the mediocrity of one party rule?

What is the incentive to do things differently in a one party system that too often rewards loyalty over performance?

Can the next mayor rise above the accommodations of one party rule to change the basic operating assumptions of government? Or will we read about the transgressions at Licenses and Inspections ten years from now, just as we did ten and twenty years ago?

First, let’s be clear: The Republican Party in Philadelphia has no chance to win a citywide election based on party registration and the national brand of the party, particularly with African American voters. The city’s Republican establishment seems fine with losing as long as it maintains a small share of patronage through the parking authority and the courts. Moreover, the two most competitive Republican candidates during the past fifty years were former Democrats: Frank Rizzo and Sam Katz. If Katz or Bill Green ran as independents this fall, their chances of winning would increase dramatically if the Republican Party disappeared. But it won’t; a reliable but diminishing number of Republican votes will siphon votes from an independent.

The Democratic Party decides who is next. Political reform is now less about new ways of doing things and more about bringing new constituencies into the fold: LGBT voters, new immigrants, the bicycle lobby.

One party rule is not unusual in urban politics. Chicago and Boston have had Democratic mayors for 85 straight years. That’s a run that would make Mexico’s PRI, which held national power for a mere 71 straight years, blush with envy. But in Philly, we excel at it. During the past 138 years, Philadelphia has had two streaks of one party rule. The Republicans ran the city for 75 straight years between 1884 and 1951 and from 1952 until today we have been a Democratic town: 63 years and counting.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party reform movement led to the election of Joseph Clark as mayor in 1952 followed by the estimable Richardson Dilworth. This ended a Republican patronage machine with a colorful and often corrupt history.

But the golden era of reform was short-lived. By the late 1960’s the reform-minded Democratic Party was becoming a more insular ward- based system. Mayors Tate and Rizzo represented the rise of row home Philadelphia, with heavy support from working and middle class neighborhoods that felt cut out by the Republicans, but were also alienated from the seemingly more well-heeled good government Democrats.

Then came the emergence of African American political power in the 1970’s, a disruptive force to the party of Tate and Rizzo. In fact the first serious African American candidate for mayor, Charles Bowser, bucked the party in the 1970’s and ran as an independent.

Through Bowser, African American leaders signaled that the party better make room. African American wards and electoral power became increasingly mainstreamed; three of our  past four mayors have been African American.

Since those days, the battle within the Democratic Party has been about the distribution of appointments, nominations, and contracts among social groups bound by neighborhood, ward loyalty, money, and ethnic or racial affiliation.

The party is one of the main arbiters of this distribution. It helps decide who is next. It is not able to fully control what happens, including who gets nominated and elected, but it is a formidable player in all that goes on in local politics, and in the doings of  the businesses and civic groups that rely on government funding.

So political reform in Philadelphia is now less about new ways of doing things and more about bringing new constituencies into the fold: LGBT voters, new immigrants, the bicycle lobby, and so forth.

The reform of major administrative departments is less common and most often follows a crisis: a housing authority executive gets in trouble; a building collapses; the state takes over the schools; the crime rate spirals out of control; the Sherriff’s office misplaces millions of dollars; people wonder why taxes go uncollected when the schools are resource- starved, and the mayor wants to raise real estate taxes.

Changing the zoning code, instituting a land bank (although the land bank is more sizzle than steak), and adopting the actual value initiative are three of the bigger reforms of the past several years. City Council and the public unions blocked other major reforms, like the PGW sale and changes in pension fund management.

When members of the Ironworkers Union damaged the new Chestnut Hill Meeting House because it was a non-union site, no local politician called the Meeting House to express concern about the attack. It was as if the Meeting House broke the rules, not the Ironworkers.

The rest of the good stuff these past years was driven by the interests of the mayor and didn’t require changes in institutional behavior. The mayor cared about quality design, pedestrian mobility, government ethics, the arts, and energy conservation.  None of those issues have a post-Nutter institutional home, but they do have lots of citizen support.

Is it possible to avoid the civic dilemma of single party rule? New York City, which also has its share of crises and corruption, allows its a candidates to be nominated by more than one party in a single election.

If you did not want to vote for Republican Giuliani, you could vote for the Liberal party candidate: Giuliani. It can result in an interesting mix of coalitions coming together to enact change. Fiorello LaGuardia used just such a fusion strategy to take down Tammany Hall in the 1930’s. Other New York fusion candidates have included John Lindsay and Michael Bloomberg.

There are no provisions in Pennsylvania that allow for fusion politics, which is too bad. In fact, there are only eight states that presently allow a candidate to run from multiple parties in the same election.

In principle there is nothing wrong with long-term, one party rule in a democratic society. People vote politicians into office and can vote them out. It happens all the time. You cannot blame the politicians. They are doing their job, which is mostly to get reelected.

But long-term one party rule can have dangerous civic consequences. A lack of competition for office brings a lack of competition around ideas. Limited competition creates voter apathy. And one party rule diminishes the checks and balances we need in a political system.

So why aren’t the candidates talking more about reforming departments that are ineffective? Getting to the bottom of the Sherriff’s office mess? Talking about the shame of the four legislators caught taking small bribes who would have walked, had it been up to the state’s chief law enforcement officer?

The power of party incumbency is hard to overcome unless there is an obvious headline that calls it all into question.  And even then, action may be elusive; in a noncompetitive political environment, after all, headlines have a way of fading away.

When the new Chestnut Hill Meeting House was being built, its construction site was attacked by members of the Ironworkers Union, who damaged non-union sites in what they referred to as “night work.” I’m told that nobody from that Meeting House ever received a call from a local politician concerned about the attack. It was as if the Meeting House broke the rules, not the Ironworkers.

In a world where we have so much access to information and the ability to make an ever-widening number of choices, eventually a dumb system will not be able to keep up with smart citizens. That was one of the lessons of the old Soviet system where the joke was “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”.

It’s time for a new playbook.

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