If this week’s 2019 Philly citywide elections were supposed to serve as any sort of dress rehearsal for next year’s even bigger 2020 election, don’t get your hopes up.
About the most exciting thing that happened in Philly Tuesday night was the storybook win of Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks. And even that had its limitations. The crumply curmudgeon Democratic Party machine got twisted up in knots about nothing since, well, she did knock off a Republican. Feelings got hurt for nothing while the city stays the same.
Democrats in at-large slots still kept their seats, and despite open grumbling from at-Large Councilman Derek Green on WURD’s Reality Check, calling in to express concerns over Councilwoman at-Large Helen Gym’s enthusiastic endorsement of a non-party candidate, it worked out.
Otherwise, in Philly, it was low turnout, depressed voters and party hack hangouts. Absolutely nothing to dance home about. There was no change in the air. Political traditions that should die by now will die hard in Philly. City politicos can’t wait to get their food, drink, back-slapping and elbow-rubbing on at the ritual Election Day watering holes like Relish and 4th Street Deli when their collective asses should be sneakered up, hitting the pavement and making sure Philly residents make it to polls.
No wonder disenchanted locals continue to roundly bash City Hall elites, most exhausted from generations of neglect, corruption and procured politics-as-usual. Elected officials, strangely, get indignant in their response to the sentiment.
Meanwhile, amid ongoing crisis, incumbent Mayor Jim Kenney just strolled into re-election. That residents allowed that, without any demands on him to—at a bare minimum—campaign and thank residents door-to-door, is telling. That’s not so much commentary or pox on Kenney; that’s rueful commentary on Philly residents themselves, quick to condemn “the politicians” for this or that, but not so quick to get to the polls and change that. Still, incumbents share much of the blame, too.
Visit Philly banners and TV ads beckon tourists along the Amtrak corridor to come to Philly for overnight stays, while the list of things Kenney has sitting on his desk grows, with little to point to in the form of major accomplishments.
Okay, you (1) took the school system back from the state, (2) put Kwanzaa lights on the Schuylkill and gave Black Philadelphians a very nice Octavius Catto statue (which, granted, did pull a few tears), and (3) you rolled out a Rebuild program by finding new ways to tax folks that get taxed enough as is.
But Kenney has been decidedly comatose on Philly’s rising gun violence problem, overseeing a police department that loves to flex its blue, yellow and white muscle, but can’t fix a 40 percent homicide closure rate.
City air quality is some of the most unhealthy in the nation, while the mayor equivocates and quietly looks for ways to resurrect the shutdown PES refinery—the city’s largest and most dangerous air polluter. He globe trots a show that he is the nation’s greenest mayor—while overseeing the expansion of two natural gas plants posing public health threats to Black neighborhoods.
He allows his schools Superintendent William Hite to casually lie to the public that there are “acceptable” levels of exposure to asbestos as a crumbling, under-performing Philly school system aches from bad metrics and toxic buildings.
No one knows if Kenney has an affordable housing plan, and a place where nearly half the city rents still reel from some of the highest eviction rates in the nation. Oh, and then there’s the bedbugs: Philly has the worst urban bedbug infestation in the country—but, no regulations on the books to battle it. (City Council has finally taken up the issue this fall.)
But we can’t keep crying over spilled milk. We can’t get too mad because we all dropped the ball on that. We all missed the window. And, now, Kenney throws out an early Elizabeth Warren endorsement from his magic political hat to make it seem like he’s New Progressive. The next four years will be more of Kenney caring even less because we set the bar low; he’ll look as miserable as he usually does about governing, yet he’ll (potentially) plot a run for governor.
Philly missed yet another chance to usher in real change. We need to ask: How exactly is the city gauging progress? How is it grading itself? What are the milestones and goals? Few can or will say when all they have to do is listen to the residents living through it.
Ideally, it should have been an election used to probe what can make registered voters tick, what can draw a distressed and vulnerable population to the polls. That didn’t happen. Instead, it took a much longer time Tuesday evening to count votes—because of glitches in new voting machines—than it took to procure the machines in the shady way the Commissioner’s office did it (and that’s not just us saying that, that’s the City Controller even looking into it).
And in a move that may have had the effect of voter suppression, the City Commissioners office changed 89 polling locations (about 5 percent of the city’s 1,700 locations) just several days before the election and with scant (if any) notification to voters about it.
Observers and journalists spent a whole evening clowning the process and the city’s slow, laborious counting of votes, as if Philly was Broward County, Florida circa 2000. More than a full day after polls closed, and the city has yet to release an official turnout count. Really? Instead, most of us are relying on hobbyist Jonathan Tannen, from SixtySixWards.com, to keep us abreast through estimates—we appreciate that, but that’s not how it’s supposed to work. He estimates that a little under 18 percent of the city’s population just made life-altering decisions for the remaining 82 percent.
Talk about tyranny of a minority. Everything stayed just about the same in Philly, a city that loves to celebrate how different it is from everywhere else.
Charles D. Ellison is executive producer and host of “Reality Check,” which airs 4 to 7pm Monday through Thursday on WURD Radio (96.1FM/900AM). Check out The Citizen’s weekly segment on his show every Tuesday at 6pm. Ellison is also principal of B|E strategy and the Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune. Catch him if you can @ellisonreport on Twitter.Photo by Josh Carter / Unsplash