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Notes From Crazy Town

An insurrectionist, a stroke patient, a TV doctor, a newspaper that’s anti-vote, and warring progressive and establishment factions walk into an election. Is the joke on us?

Notes From Crazy Town

An insurrectionist, a stroke patient, a TV doctor, a newspaper that’s anti-vote, and warring progressive and establishment factions walk into an election. Is the joke on us?

Every election is, to borrow Barack Obama’s phrase, “silly season:” The breathless rhetoric (we’ve yet to have an election that isn’t the most important in a generation if the candidates are to be believed), the looseness with facts, the cartoonish demonization in place of respectful debate. But what we’ve just gone through? This feels like a jump-the-shark moment, no?

On Wednesday, I called around to the smartest political minds I know, to get their takes on Tuesday’s results. “What do I think?” one said, “I think the world is fucking crazy.”

There’s always been a bit of that, right? But this is different, and more extreme. As the examples of crazy accumulated — the seditious gubernatorial nominee, the senate candidate suffering a (secretive) stroke, the newspaper refusing to endorse a candidate, and the ideological war taking place in our city that seems to not grasp that democracy itself is at stake — I found myself wistful for what used to pass for our political mishagos.

Does good government reform matter to either side? The divide in Philly increasingly pits a sclerotic, anachronistic machine against a group that strategically adds in local names to Bernie Sanders’ presidential platform … and calls that innovative urban problem-solving.

“Liberals want results without accountability,” Jeremy Nowak, the late civic leader and The Citizen’s founding chairman, used to bemoan. “And conservatives want accountability, but could care less about results.”

Ah, if only we had that sort of dysfunction today!

Herewith, a modest attempt to make some sort of sense out of the drumbeat of political news these last weeks, an almost therapeutic attempt to widen the aperture of our lens, even if just a bit. To find some meaning in all the crazy. Here goes:

Progressives vs. the establishment…United in a war against solutions?

Make no mistake about it, there is a war afoot in Philly. It was eye-opening when the local Democratic party endorsed challengers to two incumbents — democratic socialist state reps Elizabeth Fiedler and Rick Krajewski — and backed incumbent Isabella Fitzgerald against another progressive incumbent Chris Rabb, after redistricting forced the two to square off against one another. A 501c4 with ties to the Democratic party establishment sent out mailers attacking the three, leading to howls of outrage in progressive quarters.

The establishment’s candidates came up short against this triumvirate, leading to all sorts of high-fiving on Woke Twitter. But the progressives had their own setbacks, as well. Groups like Reclaim Philly and the Working Families Party had targeted State Senator Tony Williams, and the former mayoral candidate survived the challenge from his left. And they went all out to try to torpedo State Rep. Amen Brown in the new 10th House district, after he was the only Democrat to support the Lifeline Scholarship Program, a statewide educational voucher program favored by controversial billionaire libertarian Jeff Yass. Brown also drew woke ire when he once proposed new mandatory minimum sentences

Progressive stalwarts like Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Helen Gym and DA Larry Krasner all stumped for Brown’s progressive opponent. But it appears he has staved off the challenge. Philly progressives had made real inroads in recent elections; this time, what we really saw was the power of incumbency at work.

And now one wonders what all this will mean a year from now. Will Fiedler now run against establishment Councilmember Mark Squilla? Will Brown challenge first termer Gauthier, after he did so well at the polls in the parts of his district that overlap with hers?

It’s not so clear that a local progressive-ascendent realignment is in the offing, so much as a fraught co-existence between progressives and Bob Brady’s Democratic City Committee. Brady will keep his foot soldiers and the jobs his machine doles out, and progressives will continue to run for office, and often win. Until, that is, voters see that their lives remain unchanged.

Because there are no reformers here. It’s telling that Amen Brown was the center of so much political jockeying; given that he’s also been implicated in some questionable real estate deals — a criminal charge eight years ago was ultimately thrown out of court — one has to wonder: Does good government reform matter to either side? The divide in Philly increasingly pits a sclerotic, anachronistic machine against a group that strategically adds in local names to Bernie Sanders’ presidential platform … and calls that innovative urban problem-solving.

Uh, about that stroke …

What was it Hunter Thompson wrote? “When the going gets weird, the weird get going.” Well, a weird election season got downright weirder when Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic frontrunner for U.S. senate, suffered a stroke just before election day. Well, actually, he suffered the stroke last Friday. We just didn’t hear about it until Sunday, and the press never did get a chance to question his doctors. On election night, Fetterman’s wife talked about their campaign’s “transparency” — at best, disingenuously.

All the information about the candidate’s health crisis came via press release from his campaign. At six o’clock on election night, the campaign sent out another missive that was all like, By the way, John just had a pacemaker installed. You mean you didn’t know he was heading for a pacemaker on, say, Sunday? Think about how bonkers the left justifiably got when Trump was all dodgy about when and how he got Covid. Fetterman is alway saying he’s a different type of dude, but the way his team managed the flow of information regarding his health suggests he’s more like established pols than we may have thought.

But let’s not throw too much shade Fetterman’s way. Truth is, what he pulled off here is extraordinary. Quick: Name any Lieutenant Governor over the last few decades. The last one — Mike Stack — annoyed people out of the job, one it’s pretty hard to screw up. The only memorable thing about Governor Edward G. Rendell’s lieutenant, the late Catherine Baker Knoll, was that she was given to introducing him as “Edward G. Robinson!”

Fetterman seized on two issues — the lieutenant governor’s role atop the Board of Pardons and marijuana legalization — to make for himself a statewide profile. “He impressively built a brand,” marveled the political consultant J.J. Balaban.

That said, Fetterman has an uphill climb in front of him, particularly if Dave McCormick winds up the Republican nominee. McCormick is a substantive guy with a reasonable air about him, and he will swiftly tack back to the political center after pretending to be all MAGA during the primary.

Fetterman performed abysmally in the primary debate, and his website is long on slickly-produced and moving issues-related testimonials but lacking in policy ideas. That said, as I’ve written, his everyman persona strikes a nice contrast, especially when viewed alongside McCormick’s buttoned-down image. The potential for Fetterman to form a coalition between progressives and rural voters conjures the unique, if fleeting, convergence of interests that characterized Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign: “A liberalism without elitism, and a populism without racism” in the words of Richard Kahlenberg.

But — back to the war between progressivism and reform — can Fetterman actually govern? It’s a big country and a big state, and politics is about finding common ground with those with whom you disagree. You can be right or you can be effective. Fetterman, aloof and shy, is famously disliked by his colleagues. Can he work with others to serve the greater good or is he another cautionary tale of the perils of self-righteousness?

Like our district attorney Larry Krasner, Fetterman’s true believer outlook might make him a mouthpiece, but not an enactor, of change. When Fetterman runs against Joe Manchin, for example, isn’t he advertising his own political naïveté? If you don’t work with Manchin — whose state Trump carried by 40 points — you don’t get a progressive in his place. You get more of what you’re trying to fight.

If elected, can Fetterman put aside his celebrity, and, as Al Franken once did, prove himself to be more workhorse than show horse?

Malcolm, we hardly knew ya

So much for all the cheerleading for State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who apparently thought that frequent guest spots on MSNBC would translate into Keystone state votes. The senate candidate finished a distant third overall, with a mere 10 percent of the vote. Worse, he decisively lost Philly to Fetterman. “He lost his home city to a guy who just had a stroke,” one politico told me.

Yes, Kenyatta was compelling in debate, and he may still have a bright future. But the enthusiasm for him, it turns out, was less about him and more about having a Black gay candidate. Kenyatta erroneously thought he had a winning issue: Fetterman, while mayor of Braddock, allegedly pulled a gun on a Black jogger he suspected of firing a weapon.

But I’m told that many campaigns had polled and focus-grouped the issue and found that for both Black and White voters, there was no there there. Turns out, as Tuesday’s results showed, voters of all stripes were okay with a city’s chief law enforcement officer — which Fetterman was in Braddock — pulling over suspected criminals.

You have to marvel at the practicality of Black voters. They heard Kenyatta’s complaint, but looked at Fetterman — this 6’8” skinhead-looking dude who literally had inked into his skin the dates of all of his town’s murders, the victims of which had overwhelmingly been Black or Brown. They took stock of the dramatic decline in violent crime during his time in office. And they said, Nah. He’s all right.

Apparently, that’s the new calculus: The Inquirer will now, one presumes, only endorse pro-choice Republicans in Republican primaries. It would seem the paper’s leftward move is complete and that they’ve given up on the notion of being a paper of record for everybody.

Is the Inquirer anti-vote?

Did you see the Inquirer non-endorsement in the Republican primary, under the headline: “We wanted to endorse in Republican primaries this year. We can’t”?

Now, I’m not sure newspaper endorsements matter anymore, other than to the consultants who use them in candidates’ TV advertising. But, still, the paper of record in the birthplace of American democracy essentially told Republican members of its audience not to vote. That can’t be good, right?

Saying that only one candidate in the senate race, Jeff Bartos, had been willing to concede that Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020, the editorial writers penned a stellar line: “How do you find points of agreement when you can’t reach common ground on facts so basic that they could be used in a field sobriety test?”

But doesn’t that argue for actually endorsing Bartos? By your own admission, you’d reached common ground with him. If you conclude that there’s only one sane option, and you believe that voting is a public good in and of itself, isn’t the choice clear? It’s not like Bartos was unknown to the Inquirer editorial board. He’d run an honorable campaign against his friend Fetterman for Lieutenant Governor in 2018.

The Inquirer’s non-endorsement appeared to take the apolitical high road, but something didn’t smell right. Here was the dead giveaway as to the Board’s real motive: “But then we read the leaked draft opinion of the Supreme Court that would completely overturn Roe v. Wade. The next governor of Pennsylvania is likely to be the one to decide whether to sign or veto a ban on abortion. This board has endorsed Roe from the day it was decided in 1973. None of the Republican candidates for governor supports abortion rights and all of them say they would implement statewide restrictions — some more rigid than others.”

Remember, this was a Republican primary. The Board concluded Bartos was the only sane option, but couldn’t bring themselves to endorse him because of a principled moral disagreement on abortion. Apparently, that’s the new calculus: The Inquirer will now, one presumes, only endorse pro-choice Republicans in Republican primaries. It would seem the paper’s leftward move is complete and that they’ve given up on the notion of being a paper of record for everybody.

Shapiro is tenacious and a fighter — I’m still trying to figure out how he cleared the primary field for himself — but now the election won’t be about him. Sounds hokey, I know, but now the stakes are the future of Western civilization itself.

Be careful what you wish for, Josh Shapiro.

During the primary, Attorney General Josh Shapiro brazenly insinuated himself into the Republican contest, airing an ad subtly extolling the virtues for Republican voters of eventual nominee Doug Mastriano — a Christian nationalist and election denier who attended the January 6 Stop The Steal rally. It was an example of Shapiro trying to choose his opponent.

But now that Mastriano has won his party’s nomination, the pressure is on. Because Shapiro not only gets the guy he wanted, he suddenly kinda has the fate of the free world on his shoulders. Mastriano, election denier, purveyor of fake news, and sneering hater of the press, is so out there that he changes the very tenets of journalism. Calling Mastriano seditious just may be what qualifies as objective reporting these days, as MSNBC (and Citizen board member) Ali Velshi has pointed out when identifying the challenges of covering Trump. The rise of Mastriano heightens the stakes here.

Shapiro is tenacious and a fighter — I’m still trying to figure out how he cleared the primary field for himself — but now the election won’t be about him. Sounds hokey, I know, but now the stakes are the future of Western civilization itself. The mistake is in thinking that Shapiro — or anyone — wears some sort of superhero cape. The fact is we know what the antidote is. It’s what got us out of the Depression and World War II and what won the Cold War: Citizenship.

Here’s a novel idea: How about we try that?

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