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The 2023 Mayor’s Race: Tree Shaker or Jelly Maker?

Our Ultimate Job Interview series with the major mayoral candidates has featured plenty of drama … and helped shed light on the qualities needed in City Hall.

The 2023 Mayor’s Race: Tree Shaker or Jelly Maker?

Our Ultimate Job Interview series with the major mayoral candidates has featured plenty of drama … and helped shed light on the qualities needed in City Hall.

It’s a daunting job, the Mayor of Philadelphia. At any given time, a mayor essentially feeds more mouths, employs more people, manages more facilities, impacts more lives, and educates more kids than any other individual within city limits. We’re looking to hire the CEO of a $6 billion corporation — $9 billion if you count the school budget.

And then there’s our spiritual needs; post-pandemic and post-racial conflagration, we’re a deeply traumatized metropolis, with the worst poverty and some of the highest gun violence rates in the nation. A mayor needs to be part coach, part cajoler, part town crier. We look for him — and through 99 of them, it has been a him — to convene, to problem-solve, and to lead. To tell us we can do better or that it’s all going to be okay, as dictated by the facts on the ground.

How hard is the gig? “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse,” Lyndon Johnson once said. “I could be a mayor.” That said, another legendary pol, the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino, once observed that “the great privilege of being mayor is that I get to be everybody’s neighbor.”

There’s a deep wisdom in that, the notion that we come together every four years to pick a neighbor-in-chief. Our usual routine of making this hire — soundbite-laden forums, TV ads that obfuscate or point fingers, backroom deals — hasn’t really cut it. So, these last weeks, we’ve crowdsourced an actual job description and engaged experts in hiring plus one former mayor to actually interview this cycle’s major job applicants. If you weren’t able to join us at Fitler Club for the events live, check them out here.

We hope to hold a couple of additional sessions, focused more intently on policy than personal skill set, but what has already emerged is deeper, more revelatory of candidate character, and, in some cases, more fiery than what we’ve seen in past campaigns. And that is how it should be, because the stakes feel incredibly high.

It bears repeating: 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.

So, now that we’ve completed a first round of public job interviews, some takeaways for those scoring at home:

The legislator vs. the CEO.

This cycle’s candidates, both in experience and temperament, separate neatly into two distinct camps: Legislators on the one hand, CEOs on the other. It bears reflecting on the difference.

The audience at the Ultimate Job Interview event
The audience at the Ultimate Job Interview event

In recent years, we’ve swept legislators into City Hall’s second floor. By definition, a legislature is a slower moving, more deliberative body than the chief executive function. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown once described the job of mayor as “always being in the center of the action.”

On the other hand, I’m reminded of when Robert Kennedy, an action-oriented, CEO-type thinker if ever there was one, was elected to the U.S. Senate. He leaned over to his brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, during some interminable hearing and said, “What the hell do we do here all day?” Teddy, a legislator by nature, replied: “This.”

This isn’t to say legislators are not fit to be mayors. Both John Street and Michael Nutter prove otherwise. But clearly Jim Kenney is a testament to the notion that, in times of crisis, you might want the hard-charging swagger of an Ed Rendell — who was going to change his city, no matter the obstacles. Reread Buzz Bissinger’s brilliant account of Rendell’s first term, and you get an intimate look at just how intricate and intentional urban change making is.

“When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse,” Lyndon Johnson once said. “I could be a mayor.”

Rendell was willing to publicly say no to his friends, proclaiming that he’d take a municipal workers strike in order to rightsize a runaway budget thanks to Frank Rizzo’s giveaways and Mayor Wilson Goode’s fractious relationship with Council. That’s a baller CEO move. Legislators pass bills and, in this town, co-opt development, often for selfish reasons. (Thanks, councilmanic prerogative). It bears remembering that, generally, our best mayors — Richardson Dilworth, Joe Clark, Rendell — haven’t emerged from such ponderous bodies.

That said, let’s not oversimplify things. We’ve learned the hard way that government is vastly different from the private sector. From Donald Trump to Tom Wolf’s on-the-job training first year, we’ve seen how the typical CEO mindset can be lean on the amino acids of good governance: Collaboration, consensus-building, compromise.

Philly’s candidates for mayor

Regardless of past job experience, who among our current crop of candidates exhibits the right mix of insider political skill — the type often honed in a legislative body — and CEO-like derring-do? Clearly, Jeff Brown is betting on his private sector experience as a prime qualification. The question is, does calling City Council incapable of picking up your trash in his TV ads bode well for actually working with the body once elected?

Hell, Michael Nutter tried to take away Council’s taxpayer-funded cars and you would have thought he was calling for the sacrifice of their first-born, a wound that never fully healed. (“I wouldn’t take my own car into some of these neighborhoods,” an outraged then-Councilmember Frank Rizzo, Jr. told me.)

That’s why, in our interview, it was revealing that Brown described the job of mayor as simply managing two people — Chief of Staff and Managing Director — and otherwise cheerleading. He was misinterpreting the Rendell model. Rendell played both the political inside game — partnering with then-Council President John Street, for example — and was the city’s front man. He was Jagger and Richards, the poetry and prose. He was also a triple-threat, because he could wonk out on policy, too.

Like Brown, Allan Domb comes from the private sector, but has spent the last seven years learning the art of politics on Council. Others who have exhibited CEO traits are Rebecca Rhynhart, whose systemic reform agenda of remaking a sclerotic City government may not be sexy but is often the job one of a change-agent chief executive.

She’s spent 15 years on Council, but in Maria Quiñones Sánchez’s history of punching up — taking on the Democratic machine, working with varied interests to serve her constituency — she has combined both CEO get-shit-done skills while adeptly playing the inside game.

Candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia Derek Green answering audience questions
Audience members questioning Derek Green

Derek Green, as I’ve written, is thoughtful, well-respected and has provocative ideas, but he seems to lack the frontman gene. (During his interview, he mentioned the need to strike a “work/life balance.” Under his breath, one of his questioners, former Mayor Michael Nutter muttered to himself, “Ain’t no such thing.”)

Cherelle Parker and Helen Gym make for interesting case studies. Both present with charisma and verve; they exhibit CEO-like public facing leadership potential. Parker is a captivating public speaker; even her odd references to herself in the third person become charming after a while. As a state legislator, she showed real bipartisan chops, but her message is anything but honed and she can get lost in the weeds of policymaking storytelling.

Gym is Bernie Sanders redux — by her own definition, she’s leading a movement and not offering herself as an expert manager of a sprawling bureaucracy, made clear by her embrace of a seemingly Messianic quote of hers — about herself — read to her by Nutter: “When I walk into the room, systems of oppression fall and new systems of opportunity come up.”

After eight years of disinterested, burnt-out leadership, the city needs a clearly articulated vision and someone who won’t need on-the-job training to quickly put some wins on the scoreboard. Jesse Jackson used to say, “There are tree shakers, and there are jelly makers,” and that seems like a good calculus for this moment in Philadelphia’s story.

The challenge for every candidate is, yes, we need inspiration; but we don’t just need a bullhorn wielder-in-chief. We need a manager and a leader, wrapped into one. Someone eager to make hard decisions, willing to piss off their friends if private interests conflict with the common good, and open to collaborating with stakeholders. We heard a lot from our candidates about what they’d do, and precious little about what they’d ask of business, civic and nonprofit leaders.

Jesse Jackson used to say, “There are tree shakers, and there are jelly makers,” and that seems like a good calculus for this moment in Philadelphia’s story.

Most of all, whether a CEO or legislator, we need someone adept at the art of practical politics. Culture change is sexy; political change ain’t. For all his difficulty reading a speech, Joe Biden is showing how much political skill matters, having worked splintered government toward, by my count, at least five game-changing bipartisan laws passed, from Infrastructure to the CHIP Act to punishing China for its Uyghur forced labor camps.

Locally, the animating question for this campaign ought to be who can actually move the tanker that is government toward delivering real results for real people: Keeping streets safe, picking up trash, filling potholes, creating jobs. Based on our interviews, who do you think delivers on that front?

The Nutter effect

At one point during our four events, an audience member approached me and said, “Who knew that Michael Nutter is Tim Russert?”

That’s a reference to the late journalist whose incisive questioning was long feared by Washington, D.C. insiders. There has been much said of Nutter’s role in the proceedings; we’ve had no advanced knowledge of the questions he’d ask. But we felt it was important to have someone who has actually done the job interrogate those who aspire to do the same.

And Nutter’s no-nonsense questioning revealed something critical about virtually each candidate. With Brown, it was his aforementioned simplistic view of what the job entails. Nutter’s response to Green’s answer about what he’d do on day one — be out in the neighborhoods, talking to citizens — was striking: “No,” he corrected the candidate. “That was the campaign.”

As we disclosed, Nutter is close to Rhynhart, having brought her into City government during his mayoralty and contributing money to her over a year ago. But he asked the question many are asking of her privately: Are you tough enough? (Her response, if not her presentation, was convincing: “Of course I’m tough enough,” she said. “…I got into a few public fights with the Mayor over things that matter.”)

Michael Nutter at the Ultimate Job Interview

Ditto of Quiñones Sánchez: You’ve represented Kensington for 15 years, Nutter said, and it’s a mess. How is that not your responsibility? She essentially punted to a lack of mayoral leadership.

Much has been said and written about Nutter’s back and forth with Gym and Parker, both of which got contentious. However you feel about the byplay, it’s worth remembering Nutter’s preface to both: His questions, he said, were going to explore judgment. In the end, as he knows, that’s really what an election is all about. Only the toughest of questions reach a mayor’s desk, and you never really have enough data to make a truly informed decision. But, as history has shown, a mayor’s gut — some mix of integrity, instinct, vision and clarity of thought— can ultimately help a city reinvent itself.

Accountability, anyone?

Time and again in our interviews, candidates were asked to define what success would look like in their mayoral administration. And time and again we were served some nicely dressed-up word salads. When Nutter ran in 2007, the city had nearly 400 murders and he pledged not to run for reelection if he didn’t oversee a 30 percent reduction in homicides. That was an invitation to be held accountable. (Murders reached a 60-year low during Nutter’s term).

Unlike back then, there is now a way to measure success, and it’s troubling that, apparently, none of our mayoral candidates know about it. It’s called the Social Progress Index, which Anne Gemmell wrote about for us last year.

The Index was built by the Social Progress Imperative. It’s a quality of life measuring stick with research standards that cities can adopt for all of about $150,000 — a few years back, likely owing to an allergy to new ideas, the Kenney administration passed on it, even while cities around the globe are using it to, in Gemmell’s words, “chart a transparent, coordinated, data-driven course to a better future for more residents.”

Last week, I went on and on about the poverty of ideas coming from our candidates, and this ought to be Exhibit A in that brief. Would it be so hard to say that we’re going to adopt the Social Progress Index and chart our quality of life gains — or deficits — in real time? Sports teams evaluate themselves with reams of statistics. Why not governments?

Council candidate Eryn Santamoor championed the Social Progress Index on behalf of Domb as his chief of staff, but found little appetite for it in city government. Why? Because it’s easier to succeed if you never get judged, if there’s no set data guiding your goals and timetables.

Any one interviewing for a CEO job should be able to articulate how they expect to be judged, no? You want to be CEO of the sixth largest city in America and you haven’t considered evaluating job performance? After this administration’s allergy to accountability? (Remember the Mayor Kenney’s chief of staff’s answer to why no one was fired when $33 million went temporarily missing from city coffers in Kenney’s first term? “That’s not how we operate.”)

Former Mayor John Street, who has endorsed Rhynhart for Mayor, had a devastating critique of Jim Kenney’s first four years — before Kenney’s disastrous second term. “What we are getting out of this administration is kind of business as usual,” Street told me in 2018. “I can’t think of one really creative idea, something that’s really different. Think about that: Not one creative idea. A soda tax is not creative. Bike lanes are not creative.”

Not to go all Pete Townshend on you, but we need to make sure we don’t get fooled again, folks. With Street’s observation in mind, we’re working on putting together a second round of interviews that explores actual ideas. Let’s see if any of these candidates are leafing through the contents of Governing magazine and reading up on things like the Social Progress Index. Let’s hear them apply some new ideas to our long-entrenched problems. Stay tuned. Meantime, watch the videos of our interviews and decide for yourself.

This is your hire, Philly. Don’t blow it.

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