Ever since 1905, the phrase has stuck to Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented. That’s how journalist Lincoln Steffens described our town in his groundbreaking book, The Shame of the Cities, in the early 20th Century. Steffens’ reporting showed that there really were two Philadelphias—one with a set of rules for prosperous, connected insiders, and one where the rest of us toiled, struggling to make ends meet. And he also gave us the contented class—the political apparatchiks and civic bystanders who saw the double-dealing, illegality, and back-room chicanery of the political crowd…and looked the other way.
Well, in the aftermath of the federal corruption convictions of labor leader John Dougherty and City Council Member Bobby Henon, we’ve once again made ol’ Lincoln something of a prophet. You can’t listen to the wiretap recordings that were played in court—it was like eavesdropping on Tony and Silvio; one juror called them “appalling”—and not conclude that it’s always 1905 in Philadelphia politics.
You may have heard the crickets chirping from our political and civic leaders after the Dougherty conviction. Where are the mayoral wannabes, or most of Council? Or, for that matter, the business leaders, saying that now is finally the time to pivot and make our politics more about serving the taxpayer instead of the connected insider?
Rather than write another screed about how to clean up our town, I reached out via Zoom to three local Philadelphians to help us understand this moment and chart a way forward. First up is Sam Katz, the three-time Republican mayoral candidate who has spent much of his life trying to make Philadelphia better. Now an award-winning documentarian—his Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is the definitive history of the city—I asked Katz to walk us through our longstanding culture of corruption.
You may have heard the crickets chirping from our political and civic leaders after the Dougherty conviction. Where are the mayoral wannabes, or most of Council? Or, for that matter, the business leaders, saying that now is finally the time to pivot and make our politics more about serving the taxpayer instead of the connected insider? In a town that prides itself on its toughness, they’re all afraid, waiting to see how this shakes out, still fearful of being tarred as “anti-union.”
The mayor did speak, implying he had a different “opinion” than that rendered by the jury, and he struck at Trump-like whataboutism by petulantly complaining that corporate donors have not been held to the same level of scrutiny as his buddy Dougherty. It was a slap in the face to the jury and, by extension, to every citizen of Philadelphia; it is the most reprehensible thing Jim Kenney has ever said or done.
In contrast, only two elected officials have long spoken out against the tyranny waged on Philly’s body politic by Dougherty and his enablers: State Representative Jared Solomon and City Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez. They both join me, below, for a discussion about how we fix this mess.
A lot of that will depend on you. Corruption in Philadelphia costs every one of us. A 2014 study by Indiana University and the University of Hong Kong found that corruption in Pennsylvania costs the average citizen of the Commonwealth $1,300 per year. No doubt, that’s much higher in Philly, where government is so often hijacked by private interests. You want to keep being an accomplice in your own victimization, citizen of Philadelphia? Keep on turning a blind eye to bad actors like Dougherty and Henon.
Or you can take in what Katz, Solomon and Quiñones Sánchez lay out above, and maybe get in the game of defibrillating local democracy yourself.
The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.Header photo shows (L-R) John Dougherty and Bobby Henon