New Blood: A Tale of Two At-Large Council Candidates

Allan Domb and Helen Gym come down to the wire

New Blood: A Tale of Two At-Large Council Candidates

Allan Domb and Helen Gym come down to the wire

Just days before news broke that his self-funding had exceeded $250,000 and thus triggered the campaign finance provision doubling allowable donations from individuals and PACs, at-large candidate and real estate macher Allan Domb was bouncing around Parc, the restaurant he owns with Stephen Starr in Rittenhouse Square.

He was glad-handing among his base, but, for Domb, there’s never a bad time to inspect an idea. He is finally letting his long-suppressed inner policy wonk fly. He pulled me aside, a sly smile on his face. “I’ve got a new idea – wait’ll you hear this,” he said, getting breathless. “Currently, we invest $5 billion of our pension money. Why not allocate $500 million in a Philadelphia Fund? It could be $250 million of city money plus $250 million of investor money, you get excellent money managers to run it, and we invest only in Philadelphia companies that are here or entrepreneurs with local ideas.”

I didn’t have time to ask: Wait—what?

“When I was 17 years old,” Domb continued, “I read a book, The Richest Man In Babylon. It was all about how to build wealth, and one of the chapters was ‘Invest In Thyself.’ That’s what I’m saying. Let’s invest part of our pension fund money in Philadelphia, which would open up our arms to entrepreneurs here and solve overnight the issue of having no capital to expand business.”

“We have 40,000 families leaving $100 million on the table because they don’t file for the Earned Income Tax Credit,” says Domb. “It’s disgusting… I want to negotiate a deal with HR Block—think of the goodwill publicity you’d get if you help every eligible Philadelphian file for this money they’re entitled to.”

It was an interesting idea, but I have to say, I was more taken by Domb’s passion for it than by the substance itself. Most politicians I know are too busy trying to get elected, either triangulating or doing the math of turnout, to be bothered by abstract ideas. I’ve never seen one so animated by a policy he had just dreamt up. I kept thinking of Domb’s unique mode of retail politicking. A couple of days later, I left a message for him. He called me back late at night, on his way back from a meeting with ward leaders. Okay, I thought, after a night with a roomful of apparatchiks, he’ll likely be a bit deflated…but the dude was still gushing.

“I talked to Governor Rendell about my idea,” he reported. “He thinks it’s a great idea. I come from retail. This is all about expanding the store.”

By now, press reports were full of silly speculation that Domb had exceeded the self-funding limits as part of some Machiavellian deal with Council President Darrell Clarke, so incumbents could take in more dollars during the final weeks of the campaign. The speculation, of course, glosses over what Domb would have to gain by engaging in such a transaction. Plus, the guy on the other end of that phone? He sounded like he could care less about political deals. “Aw, that’s just nonsense, just nonsense,” Domb said, before launching into another big idea.

“I know it’s late, but you have time for another one?” he asked. “This is disgusting. Absolutely disgusting. We have 40,000 families leaving $100 million on the table because they don’t file for the Earned Income Tax Credit when they file their taxes. That’s money that comes from D.C. to help our people get out of poverty, only they don’t know about it. We should offer free tax preparation. In New York, they leave $40 million on the table—but they have many more people eligible for it. I’d want to distribute the form throughout every neighborhood and negotiate a deal with HR Block—think of the goodwill publicity you’d get if you help every eligible Philadelphian file for this money they’re entitled to. I’ll negotiate that deal tomorrow.”

Like every businessman, Domb is goal-obsessed. He wants to lift 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty in the next four years. “The EITC credit? That’s 40,000 right there,” he said. “Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 gets another 30,000. We’re on our way.”

I asked if he spends as much time strategizing as chewing over policy. “I’m constantly thinking about ways to fix our issues,” he said.

Domb may be politically naïve, but here’s wishing for more naïve candidates for public office. I had hoped that another at-large Council candidate would be similarly refreshing. When Helen Gym announced her candidacy in February, her speech was a tour de force. “People sometimes ask me if I’m angry,” she said. “If you are not angry, if you are not outraged, then, as the saying goes, you’re not paying attention.”

She was right: Philly needs some outrage. One of our greatest threats is the shrugging acceptance of mere incrementalism. Losing jobs, despite a population growth? Let’s drop the wage tax by a fraction. Concerned about a 28 percent poverty rate? Let’s get a plan out there —any plan—with all those familiar shibboleths in it.

What Gym was promising was a type of moral authority only a true citizen could bring to our public life, having been a grassroots organizer on schools and in Chinatown. She positioned herself as another in a long line of citizen activists, someone with the legitimacy to speak truth to power and spur us to tackle transformational challenges.

Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my hero, Jane Jacobs, stared down an establishment of rich men, led by power broker Robert Moses, and prevented an expressway from running through New York’s Washington Square Park, literally defining and preserving what we’ve come to consider the modern American city. (For a great recapitulation of Jacobs’ stunning triumph, read Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City).

More recently, in Seattle, landscape architect Cary Moon put together a broad coalition to develop a waterfront and fight the big highway planning of downtown business leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, Boeing, and the unions, among others. It’s a long, sordid story best chronicled here, but suffice to say this: It is now clear that Moon, the citizen activist, was right all along, over more than a decade. She didn’t just critique; like Jacobs, in the face of personal attack, she steadfastly advanced clearheaded policy alternatives. And she did it in a way that reserved for her the high moral ground. “She is polished, professional, and fact-driven,” Seattle Weekly recently wrote, before quoting a colleague: “She is always very good at disagreeing with people without being disagreeable.”

Other citizen activists get demeaned and attacked, yet refrain from name-calling and demagoguery. Gym does the opposite: She demonizes, which makes for good sound bites, but not necessarily smart policy.

I’ve been thinking of the eloquent examples set by Jacobs and Moon as I’ve watched Gym’s campaign. I love her fire…but something has felt off to me. Her policy prescriptions have tended toward the predictable and unimaginative: Her plan for funding the schools, for example, raises multiple taxes in a city that already has the highest tax burden in the nation next to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her platform hits all the right progressive notes, like a $15 minimum wage, but seems derivative. Reading it, at no time do you say to yourself, “Huh. That’s interesting. I’ve never thought of that before.”

But it wasn’t until Gym insinuated herself into the mayor’s race that I finally realized just why her campaign hadn’t been resonating for me. Jacobs and Moon would often be demeaned and attacked; yet they’d refrain from name-calling and demagoguery, opting instead to try and find ways to work with their critics. Gym does the opposite: She demonizes, which makes for good sound bites, but not necessarily smart policy.

“These are three hedge-fund billionaires who are destroying education in a city they will never live in, for children they will never know,” Gym said about the Main Line rich guys backing Tony Williams’ mayoral campaign. This isn’t a defense of the three rich dudes; merely an observation that questioning the motives of those with whom you disagree isn’t really a way to hold political debate that promises to go anywhere. It’s just more noise. Moreover, by playing to populist sentiment, Gym was practicing a politics we’ve seen before here…it’s the politics of the cynical, ever-calculating politician.

Helen Gym is clearly very smart and has the potential to be an inspirational voice. But the question that remains is: To what end? As a legislator, do you want to bring people together and problem-solve? Do you want to challenge the status quo, as Jacobs and Moon did, by advancing alternatives…or defend it by demonizing those who suggest there might be a better way? Would you rather call those you disagree with “dishonest” or “corporate raiders” and score points by shouting? I’ve been wanting to ask her this for months, but she hasn’t returned my calls after initially agreeing to an interview.

If we could talk, I’d tell Helen that what I’d hoped we’d be getting from her was something we’re ironically getting from the millionaire Allan Domb: an earnest discussion of ideas. While Domb talks about sui generis strategies to lift people out of poverty, Gym calls people names. That’s not exactly new in this town.

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