It wasn’t until Cherelle Parker metaphorically picked Jeff Brown up, turned him upside down, and wiped the floor with him at the recent BBEx Wealth and Politics mayoral forum hosted by Diverseforce that people seemed jolted into the realization that we’ve got a mayor’s race going on.
Parker cleverly bided her time till the end of the event. Then, at the 3 hour, 26 minute mark, she blasted Brown without naming him, to widespread applause. “How much of your White privilege wealth are you willing to share with the small Black business owners who don’t have access to venture capital?” she bellowed, as Brown and the other candidates sat on the stage behind her.
Turns out, Parker’s accusation that Brown pays his grocery workers — many of whom are returning citizens — $9 an hour may have been off. The Inquirer quoted Brown supporter Wendell Young, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 1776, saying that “no one” gets paid $9.65 an hour at Brown’s ShopRite stores. The Brown campaign released a statement stating that the average rate for all workers at Brown’s ShopRite stories is $18.32 an hour, and the average compensation for those with benefits is $25.78 per hour.
But, sad to say, the facts almost don’t matter. Parker, no doubt threatened by Brown’s appeal to Black voters, has struck at the heart of the foundational argument for Brown’s candidacy: That, as he put it just before Parker attacked him, “People of color, especially Black people, have been my life’s work.”
Who among this group will divine what Philadelphians want and need, and display the character, force of will and empathy to become the vessel for a city’s hope?
That is no doubt true, as we’ve chronicled. But no candidate in history not called Bill Clinton can actually say something that cringeworthy. Brown followed up the forum by releasing an ad of him surrounded by Black folk on a Philly street and being spoken about by a young Black man as a “Big Ma” or “God” to the Black community. “This is some weird White savior shit,” a prominent Black politician texted me immediately.
In the ad, a young Black man, looking adoringly at Brown, says, “One thing about God is, He’s always going to have your back no matter how hard it gets, and so will Mr. Brown.” Over at Philly Mag, Ernest Owens was incensed.
Calling it pandering, Owens writes: “The God I believe in will never be a rich White man who comes to Black neighborhoods and films the community inflating his ego and singing his praises.” After he weighed in about it, the Brown campaign pulled it from its social media platforms.
Then, just this week an Inquirer story found Brown appearing to deliver diametrically opposed messages in different parts of the city. In West Philly, he was hitting all the right progressive notes. In the Northeast, he was breaking from Larry Krasner and sounding all law and order.
These are rookie mistakes by Brown, but they go to the heart of who he says he is. On the other hand, he may take some solace in the fact that his name recognition may be rising.
Welcome to the campaign, folks. Here, some other observations:
Why will no one talk about Commissioner Outlaw?
If you didn’t know better, you’d think this city doesn’t have a police commissioner. At a forum on gun violence at St. Joseph’s University, after a couple of hours of not even naming ours, every candidate was asked if they’d retain Commissioner Outlaw. Brown — amazingly, surprised by the question — hemmed and hawed before saying he’d likely make a change. With the exception of Green, whose “No” was unequivocal, the others all said they’d keep the Commish, until Parker and Rebecca Rhynhart refused to answer, saying they were there to discuss policy, not personnel. At which point Brown tried to amend his answer: “I agree with that.”
Okay, let’s dive in here. First, let’s stipulate: This is as smart and talented a group of candidates for mayor as we’ve seen. In this forum, Rhynhart, Allan Domb, Brown and Helen Gym — who, in contrast to her fiery public persona, was often the voice of calm reason — all impressed with a mastery of facts and policy positions. Parker also had a solid grasp of the issues, but it was hard to get past her references to herself in the third person — I counted three in her first three minutes of speaking time.
But, their skills notwithstanding, in a crowded field with low name recognition across the board, caution inevitably rules the day. Just how can all these candidates agree that we’re in an existential crisis of gun violence, and then not even mention the city’s top law enforcement officer? And when asked about said police chief, either tepidly endorse her or refuse to answer the question? Isn’t there an inherent contradiction there? We’re in a crisis, yes, but hell if we’re going to hold anybody accountable for it.
Now, mine is not a popular view inside the political bubble. I talked to two prominent politicos — one White, one Black — and they each told me I’m out of my mind. One said it’s bad form to step on the current mayor’s team, especially one with a year left in office. The other said that Black women will be the city’s largest voting bloc, and to essentially jettison one has political peril written all over it.
But is the electorate that gullible? Do we really think that Black women are less upset by our record-setting parade of body bags and chalk outlines because a Black woman is in charge? Besides, this isn’t about Commissioner Outlaw, not really. It’s about testing the leadership instincts of our candidates.
In fact, we know that’s what voters want — leadership and solid judgment. In presidential campaigns, both qualities, for good or ill, are often displayed in a candidate’s vice presidential choice. Remember, were it not for John McCain’s chaotic and ill-fated choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, we may never have had a President Obama. McCain not only exhibited poor judgment, he gave us a preview into his undisciplined leadership style.
That’s why Parker and Rhynhart’s distinction between “personnel” and “policy” is ludicrous. The fact is, as both insiders I spoke to conceded, not one of these candidates for mayor, if elected, will retain Commissioner Outlaw — and it’s a slap in the face to the voter for candidates to imply otherwise. (Once elected, they’ll accept her decision to spend more time with her family, thereby conveniently, but disingenuously, staying true to their forum obfuscations.)
But, if they really believe we’re in such a crisis, shouldn’t they level with us and at least walk us through the qualities they want in their next commissioner? Note to the consultants who are filling these candidates with caution and fear: Want your choice to stand out? Have him or her announce their pick now. Say, if elected, I will bring recently retired so-and-so here to reform our police department and make our streets safe for you. Hold a press conference with your de facto running mate. You’ll dominate the airwaves and make everyone else react to you.
The Mystery of District Council 33’s endorsement of Jeff Brown
Out of the blue, and earlier than ever, the city’s largest municipal union, District Council 33, threw its weight behind Brown, for the oddest of reasons: “When you talk to Jeff Brown, it’s not like talking to a politician. It’s almost like you fall in love with the words that come out of his mouth,” union president Ernest Garrett told the Inquirer. “It’s the human element that makes you feel comfortable about him. Unfortunately, some politicians, they all start sounding the same.”
Kind of reminds you of the oft-stated appeal of George W. Bush, that he was a guy you’d want to “have a beer with.” Brown is supremely likable — a true strength in politics. But is that really a qualification for running what is, in effect, a $6 billion corporation?
The surprise endorsement led to much speculation behind the scenes. One insider put it this way: “Either Jeff said something to make them think they’ll do well when their contract is up, or they figured, let’s go with the guy with the least governmental experience because he’ll be easier to roll in contract negotiations.”
You can’t put it all on Jim Kenney if you’ve been on Council and haven’t called bullshit on his administration, just like you can’t claim we’re in crisis but refuse to hold the police commissioner accountable.
Which gets to another tension in Brown’s campaign: He speaks movingly of reforming the way the city does business, but can you do that effectively when you’re beholden to its status quo? We had a mayor once who talked tough when it came to bullying people without power, but who cowered before union interests. Frank Rizzo’s giveaways fueled an exodus of residents from the city.
Brown is no Rizzo, of course, but standing up to your own union can often be good governance, as Mayor Ed Rendell demonstrated in the early ‘90s. Domb did likewise in his first term, when he proposed reforming the city’s retirement program, DROP, calling it a “Rolls Royce pension program” when we have a “Buick budget.”
His legislation would have prevented future non-union employees from enrolling in the program, which has fueled our runaway pension debt crisis. In a sign of just how hard it is to change things in this town, District 33 went apoplectic then, fearing the slippery slope. Was strangely saying they didn’t consider endorsing Domb because “he doesn’t share our values” the union’s revenge?
It was telling that former Mayor John Street this week endorsed Rhynhart, after having flirted with Brown. Street, for all his progressive bona fides, was, at heart, a responsible steward of the public trough. He knows that indiscriminate spending — as we’ve seen under Mayor Kenney, and as we saw from Rizzo — leads to more poverty, more lack of opportunity.
Who’s complicit? Who’s not?
Did you see the Inquirer story about the city’s anti-violence grant that improperly funneled nearly 80 grand to a former police district captain and nine other police staffers? Erica Atwood, the city’s deputy manager director who heads the Office of Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said it was “not something that we could have predicted.”
Or could it be a harbinger of scandal to come? Remember, the Kenney administration has flooded the zone with anti-violence community group funding — some $200 million in grassroots funding for what I’ve come to call the Anti-Gun Violence Industrial Complex. Money is shelled out without regard to metrics for success or regular reporting procedures, and we wonder why nary a dent is made on murder and crime. Domb called for auditing such funding over a year ago and, as controller, Ryhnhart released an eye-opening report of anti-violence spending last August. Others have paid lip service here and there, but few have demanded full and transparent reporting.
“The God I believe in will never be a rich White man who comes to Black neighborhoods and films the community inflating his ego and singing his praises,” wrote Ernest Owens of Brown’s new ad.
That’s why, if you’re running for mayor and you haven’t made the lack of accountability of anti-violence spending a priority, you should have some ‘splainin’ to do. You can’t put it all on Jim Kenney if you’ve been on Council and haven’t called bullshit on his administration, just like you can’t claim we’re in crisis but refuse to hold the police commissioner accountable.
Who’s going to emerge as the EQ candidate?
I was having lunch with a friend this week who observed that there’s no one on the national scene capable of rising above the daily noise and speaking to all of us with a sense of wisdom and unifying wonder. Obama was able to stir the soul with political poetry, perhaps, but who else in recent history rallies us to common purpose? Joe Biden? He’s a good and decent man, but increasingly he’s having trouble getting through a sentence without coughing up a lung.
It got me thinking that that’s what this mayor’s race is really about. We’re a deeply traumatized city. We’ve battled the pandemic, record poverty and murder, trash-strewn streets … all with a disengaged, burned-out mayor.
In the past, we’ve seen political leaders emerge who channel public sentiment and turn it into a force field of collective hope. Ed Rendell had already lost previous elections for governor and mayor when, in the early 90s, he inherited a ghost town of a city and — by turns angry, boyish and idealistic — he breathed life into its streets. Richardson Dilworth (who once said, “Where would cities be were it not for men like me to fight for them?”) slugged his way into the electorate’s heart. John Street sensed that folks in our neighborhoods felt overlooked, and he adopted policies, like the removal of 40,000 abandoned cars in 40 days, that told them they mattered. Perhaps no greater example of EQ in politics was FDR: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
This week, you might have seen the report that the Philadelphia Water Department has requested a 12 percent hike in your bill. Another blow — in one of the highest taxed cities in America. How are you faring when it comes to return on that investment? Who’s going to say you deserve a raise, not another rate hike?
That’s the message Scrantonians have gotten from Mayor Paige Cognetti; her ARPA Wage Boost grant program is using federal dollars to pay for $4-an-hour wage increases at small businesses for a year, and the city and those businesses will split the cost of maintaining the higher wages in year two. Cognetti, who talks often about the disparity between her city’s real and living wages, felt her constituents’ pain, and then addressed it with policy.
Who among this group will divine what Philadelphians want and need, and display the character, force of will and empathy to become the vessel for a city’s hope? No consultant can script it. Often, high office reveals the character of those holding it. But sometimes, the zeitgeist picks the person the moment needs.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how Derek Green answered the question, at a candidates forum, of whether he would keep Police Commissioner Outlaw if elected mayor. He said “no.”
MORE COVERAGE OF THE MAYORAL ELECTION FROM THE CITIZEN
Left to right: Helen Gym, Jeff Brown, and Cherelle Parker