“Christmas hope may well fall in the psychological category of wish fulfillment,” wrote Michael Gerson in a moving Washington Post op-ed last Saturday, headlined This Christmas, Hope May Feel Elusive, But Despair is not the Answer. “But that does not disprove the possibility of actually fulfilling wishes. On Christmas, we consider the disorienting, vivid evidence that hope wins.”
Now, I’m the last guy—Jew, free thinker, Madisonian rationalist—to go all Christmas miracle on you. But Gerson’s doubling-down on the redemptive power of hope in the face of long and possibly tragic odds struck something in me. Last week, I was all “get off my lawn” when it comes to our city’s failing reaction to the soul-crushing scourge of gun violence, but I stand by the sense of urgency my grumpiness conveyed.
Between you and me, I’ve lately been wondering why it feels like few of our fellow Philadelphia citizens share a sense of moral outrage over the way our so-called leaders often just play us for suckers, from all those public official perp walks these last years from Dougherty and Henon to—outrage alert—the forthcoming federal corruption trial of Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife.
Hope, it turns out, is a muscle, and our nerdy little community does a lot of flexing.
The onslaught of bad news can get to be a bit much, which is invariably when this quirky community of public policy nerds we’ve recruited here at The Citizen comes to rescue the spirit. It’s why Rev. Bill Golderer got all choked up at our Ideas We Should Steal Festival a couple of weeks ago, thanking the crowd. You showed up, in community, to consider ways to make things better—the literal definition of citizenship. Hope, it turns out, is a muscle, and our nerdy little community does a lot of flexing.
So, yes, three retired military generals pen a Washington Post op-ed about how the January 6 insurrection was just practice, and how the existential risk for the future of democracy remains higher now than a year ago, and it’s easy to go down that rabbit hole of despair. But this citizenship thing? There’s always something you can do — like supporting election officials at the state and local level who actually have integrity. Not long after reading the Post op-ed, for example, there was this piece on Huffington Post, outlining the critical local races in a handful of states that will likely determine whether those who value the acquisition of power over representative government are able to declare 2024’s loser the winner.
This is not a partisan issue; regardless of party, in 2020 we saw firsthand the importance of electing voting officials with integrity right here in Philly, when Republican Commissioner Al Schmidt stood up to the seditionists in his own party and declared 2020 devoid of fraud.
So, as a year-end salve, what follows are some stories that, in these down times, make me think that maybe all is not lost, that we can lower the temperature of our public life, unclench our fists, and get back to the pursuit of what Rev. King once called our “beloved community.”
Enough with the dudes, already.
The 19th had this great piece on the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where all six city council seats will be represented by women starting next month.
“I think that I’m coming into it with this idea that, as cliche as it may sound, maybe this is going to be a space where leaders are more willing to listen to one another,” said Becki Graham, one of the newly elected nonpartisan councilors. “To take the time to consider things outside of the traditional power hierarchy, if that makes sense.”
Turns out that, nationwide, women hold 30.5 percent of municipal offices and all-female legislative bodies are a rarity. Since last year, Asheville, North Carolina, has been led by an all-woman council and a female mayor, who credited that gender makeup for the priorities in the city’s latest budget, which includes eight weeks of paid parental leave for city employees.
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Of course, Las Cruces has ranked-choice voting, which has been proven to result in more diverse, and more moderate, office holders. Here, in one-party Moscow on the Delaware, we’ve seen a testosterone-fueled, transactional political culture result in a stunning number of corruption convictions—most of them involving dudes, like Dougherty, Henon, and Seth Williams. Most of the reformers have tended to be women, whether Rebecca Rhynhart, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, or Jamie Gauthier.
Is there a good government biological gene? Kathleen Kane stands in stark contrast to the idea, but there’s no doubting the wisdom of the mayor-elect of Yoncalla, Oregon in 1920, after she and an all-woman city council were swept into power: “We intend to study conditions and do all in our power to give Yoncalla a good, efficient government. At the worst, we can’t do much worse than the men.”
Kansas City is stealing a Philly idea!
Here at The Citizen, we spend a lot of time looking for public policy ideas we can import, which is not to imply that Philly isn’t doing stuff worthy of emulation. Well, legislators in Kansas City, Missouri have been paying attention, as detailed recently in the Kansas City Star. They’re adopting legislation based on a law passed here last year that requires real estate wholesalers—the purveyors of those “buy your house for cash” fliers you see all over—to be licensed and that mandates homeowners be appraised of the value of their homes before entering contracts. From the Star:
Philadelphia City Councilman Allan Domb said residents, realty agencies, city organizations and advocacy groups alerted them to individuals who had signed contracts to wholesalers to sell their homes from $25,000 to $30,000. Within a month or two, those sellers would see their homes resell for $75,000 to $100,000 with little to no work completed.
“We felt that the homeowners who sold these homes didn’t understand the value of their homes and the wealth — which was really theirs — was being taken from their families,” he said. “We knew that wasn’t right.”
Like Kansas City, Philadelphia is dotted with signs that say things like “Cash for Your House.” Domb said most wholesalers “do a good job” there, but a few were taking advantage of residents. “We have generational wealth in a lot of the homes in Philadelphia. We didn’t want those families to lose that generational wealth,” he said. “We wanted it to stay with the family. We’d be happy to share the legislation with any member of the council in Kansas City.”
Leading the way on cutting evictions.
A letter went out in October from the Biden Justice Department to courts throughout the nation pointing them toward a Philly program that, throughout the pandemic, has demonstrated success in avoiding a wave of evictions. Our Eviction Diversion Program has become a national model, requiring landlords to confab with tenants and a mediator before filing for an eviction and leading to a reported 90 percent of some 2,300 cases reaching resolution without eviction.
The program’s driving force has been Councilwoman Helen Gym; I’ve often derided Gym for being more show than workhorse, but in this case, Gym helped bring about a practical solution, which became clear earlier this month when, during hearings to consider a bill that would give Council the power to continue the program without state supreme court approval, none other than The Pennsylvania Apartment Association, a group representing landlords across the state, testified in support.
That’s key; if government is going to intervene in private contracts, both sides need to come to the negotiating table in good faith. When policymakers act as conveners to that end, they go from headline-seeker to problem-solver.
Making inroads on the digital divide.
Remember how, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, the scramble was on to get Philly school kids internet access? It wasn’t a good look at first; at one point, a plan was floated to have parents without broadband access at home drive their kids to school parking lots so they could take advantage of WiFi.
It quickly became clear that this was a logistical challenge above the pay grade of just the school district. So, as we wrote about in August of 2020, a coalition of partners stepped up to form PHLConnectED, a collaboration to connect some 50,000 low-income K-12 student households with internet services and devices. Led by Comcast Corporation (which ponied up $7 million of the projected $17 million cost), the coalition included: Philadelphia School Partnership, Lenfest Foundation, Neubauer Family Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the city and school district. (Full disclosure: Comcast NBCUniversal is the presenting sponsor of The Citizen’s annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival.)
Well, how’d they do? In an Inquirer op-ed this week, Comcast Senior Vice President of External and Government Affairs Bret Perkins, a Citizen board member, cites a new study conducted by the city, Wilco Electronic Systems, and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society which finds that 84 percent of Philadelphia households now have a broadband connection— up from 70 percent just two years ago. More important, over nine in 10 Philadelphia households with school-age kids now have a home connection.
But in our ever-silo’d town, what may be just as impactful is what the PHLConnectED experiment says about the potential for cross-sector collaboration. As the pandemic dawned, leaders from government, the private sector, and the nonprofit realm all convened for weekly Zoom calls to try and address a social problem. Critically, Accenture joined in a pro-bono consulting capacity, to help with program management and logistics. When PHLConnectED was announced, we wondered if this coalition could be a case study for addressing other seemingly intractable problems.
“Not only is it a case study, I think it will make it easier for us to continue to collaborate when the city has a big problem like this,” Dalila Wilson-Scott, Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Comcast Corporation and President of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation, said at the time. “This is an idea that other cities will be able to take from Philly, hands-down.”
A bipartisan success story.
Last week at our Ideas We Should Steal Festival, Robert Rooks, the CEO of REFORM Alliance, the criminal justice reform vehicle founded by Meek Mill and Michael Rubin, was asked about Senate Bill 913, which had been making its way through the Pennsylvania Senate. It’s a bill that addresses the stark inequities of the probation system; Pennsylvania has the nation’s second highest percentage of citizens caught up in the system, and more than half of the commonwealth’s inmates are incarcerated due to technical violations of it. That which was meant to be an alternative to incarceration has actually fueled it.
But, to some activists, Senate Bill 913 didn’t go far enough. The ACLU opposed it, which Rooks was asked about at our Festival. His answer was a master class in how to get shit done, a testament to the power of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
“I think it’s 100 percent right to support the ACLU,” Rooks said. “I used to work for the ACLU. SB 913 addresses the harm and financial cost of Pennsylvania probation. It’s a bipartisan bill supported by Senators Williams and Baker. They actually define ‘technical violation,’ which is currently loosely defined and pretty much everybody gets caught up in that loose definition. By narrowly defining it, we believe it’s going to have impact. It also addresses some of the jurisdiction issues. Right now, if you’re on probation in Pennsylvania, you automatically inherit that you can’t go to certain jurisdictions —that is not the case in this current bill.”
Rooks went on to do what is so seldom done these days: He talked straight about the shortcomings of a bill he’s advocating for, and he’s transparent about his strategic thinking.
“The part I like least about the bill is that it brings probation down to three years for misdemeanors, five for felonies,” he said. “I like that least, because it needs to be more like two years, that’s more the national average. It’s not ideal, but currently it’s unlimited. So you go from unlimited to 3 to 5. So what am I saying? You need advocates on all parts of the continuum. They’re good people over at the ACLU, they’re holding the line on their side of the continuum, but we’re negotiating statewide. We’re negotiating outside of Philadelphia with DAs and others that would not allow the ideal bill to pass. I’ve been a part of this before, where you have to get what you can get today so you can build momentum and power so you can get more tomorrow.”
That, my friends, is the art of practical problem-solving. Rooks has a choice: He could be the performative activist, or he could help a sizable number of predominantly young Black and Brown caught up in a never-ending swirl of punishment and control now—and come back later to try and rescue some more.
Two days after Rooks appeared at Ideas We Should Steal, the PA Senate passed Bill 913 on a bipartisan basis. Is it perfect? Of course not. But at a time when Democrats and Republicans agree on so little, any bipartisan agreement is a welcome step forward. That’s not pollyannaish to say—it’s actually extremely practical, in keeping with the best definition of bipartisanship I’ve seen: “I understand that one of the purposes of bipartisanship is to cram something difficult and necessary down the American people’s gullets for which neither party has the fortitude to assume full responsibility,” wrote cultural critic James Wolcott. “It’s a way of turning a possible gangplank into a teeter-totter.”
A bipartisan success story, part deux.
When the two top executives of the state’s largest pension fund—the Public School Employees’ Retirement System, or PSERS—stepped down last month, it was a win for a dissident group of fund board members that included a couple of strange bedfellows: Current state treasurer Republican Stacy Garrity and the incumbent she narrowly defeated last year, Democrat Joe Torsella.
The Fund, with a $44 billion deficit, hasn’t provided a benefit increase to retirees in nearly a decade. As treasurer, Torsella, and a group of good governance types that included State Senator Katie Muth and state banking commissioner Richard Vague, was a critic of the fund management. You’d think his Republican replacement would almost by rote take the opposite tack.
Instead, Garrity and Torsella—nominated to remain on the Board by Gov. Wolf even after losing his reelection bid—have formed an unlikely alliance. With the findings of a damning report from an outside law firm looming on the fund’s management, the top two executives—one of whom was the highest paid state employee in the commonwealth, his salary doubling that of the governor’s—stepped aside.
Imagine that—former political foes locking arms to protect taxpayers and public employees. Both deserve kudos for putting their egos aside. The inroads on reform finally being made by Garrity, Torsella and the others are an encouraging sign of what can happen when the focus of public officials is on customer service rather than the acquisition and distribution of power and the lure of personal enrichment.
That said, for all the good governance reforms being undertaken, the pension fund remains 40 percent unfunded; left untreated, it will continue to swallow up much-needed long term investments in education and infrastructure. Torsella and Garrity can’t do much about that, save for the fact that their alliance points the way for lawmakers toward a new ethos for cooperation against moneyed interests that contravene the public good.
The ultimate mic drop.
I’m a sucker for great exit lines. There’s that likely apocryphal tale of the murderer in Texas, who, upon being strapped into the electric chair, uttered his final words: “I guess this will show me.” And there’s Oscar Wilde’s last line, on his deathbed: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he said, just before expiring. “Either it goes or I do.”
Well, did you see the obituary that went viral about 10 days ago from the Fayetteville, North Carolina Observer? It was a mic drop supreme and did what great stories of our last breaths do: Actually instruct us on how to live.
The deceased in this case was Renay Mandel Corren, 84, “the bawdy, fertile, redheaded matriarch of a sprawling Jewish-Mexican-Redneck American family,” in the words of her son:
There will be much mourning in the many glamorous locales she went bankrupt in: McKeesport, PA, Renay’s birthplace and where she first fell in love with ham, and atheism; Fayetteville and Kill Devil Hills, NC, where Renay’s dreams, credit rating and marriage are all buried; and of course Miami, FL, where Renay’s parents, uncles, aunts, and eternal hopes of all Miami Dolphins fans everywhere, are all buried pretty deep.
Renay was preceded in death by Don Shula… Yes, Renay lied a lot. But on the plus side, Renay didn’t cook, she didn’t clean, and she was lousy with money, too. Here’s what Renay was great at: dyeing her red roots, weekly manicures, dirty jokes, pier fishing, rolling joints and buying dirty magazines. She said she read them for the articles, but filthy free speech was really Renay’s thing. Hers was a bawdy, rowdy life lived large, broke and loud. We thought Renay could not be killed. God knows, people tried. A lot.
Renay has been toying with death for decades, but always beating it and running off in her silver Chevy Nova. Covid couldn’t kill Renay. Neither could pneumonia twice, infections, blood clots, bad feet, breast cancer twice, two mastectomies, two recessions, multiple bankruptcies, marriage to a philandering Sergeant Major, divorce in the 70’s, six kids, one cesarean, a few abortions from the Quietly Famous Abortionist of Spring Lake, NC or an affair with Larry King in the 60s.
Wow. There will be a “very disrespectful and totally non-denominational memorial on May 10, 2022, most likely at a bowling alley in Fayetteville, NC”—I smell a Citizen road trip.
If the eloquent example of Renay doesn’t make you want to live out loud, you’re already flatlining, right? But her son’s tribute to Renay is only the latest in a long line of obits that inspire.
There’s Margaret Marilyn DeAdder, “professional clipper of coupons, baker of cookies, terror behind the wheel, champion of the underdog, ruthless card player, and self-described Queen Bitch,” who died last January. As her offspring wrote:
Marilyn loved all children who weren’t her own and loved her own children relative to how clean-shaven they were. She excelled at giving the finger, taking no sh!t and laughing at jokes, preferably in the shade of blue. She did not excel at suffering fools, hiding her disdain, and putting her car in reverse. A voracious reader, she loved true crime, romance novels and the odd political book.
Or how about Randall Jacobs, aka “Uncle Bunky,” according to his obit in the Arizona Republic:
He spoke in a gravelly patois of wisecracks, mangled metaphors and inspired profanity that reflected the Arizona dive bars, Colorado ski slopes and various dodgy establishments where he spent his days and nights. [His life was one] that would have sent a lesser man to his grave decades earlier…For all his chaotic energy and hysterical charm, he had a gentle soul. A night out with Bunky could result in a court summons or a world-class hangover, but his friends and family would drop whatever they were doing to make a trip out to see him. His impish smile and irreverent sense of humor were enough to quell whatever sensibilities he offended. When the end drew near, he left us with a final Bunkyism: “I’m ready for the dirt nap, but you can’t leave the party if you can’t find the door.”
Ya gotta love Harry Stamps, of Gulfport, Mississippi. His daughter wrote:
He despised phonies, his 1969 Volvo (which he also loved), know-it-all Yankees, Southerners who used the words “veranda” and “porte cochere” to put on airs, eating grape leaves, Law and Order (all franchises), cats, and Martha Stewart. In reverse order. He particularly hated Day Light Saving Time, which he referred to as The Devil’s Time. It is not lost on his family that he died the very day that he would have had to spring his clock forward. This can only be viewed as his final protest.”
You get to a certain age, and you find yourself eulogizing loved ones: Parents, friends, hopefully no one younger than you. You try and find something in their lives you can take with you, some prescription for your remaining days, a way to make those who have left us kind of immortal. None did this better than the artist Laurie Anderson in her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to her husband, the great Lou Reed.
I read it every now and then when I need reminding of what’s really important on this mortal coil, and it strikes me now as a helluva way to close out 2021, particularly for its three pillars of advice:
Lou taught me a lot about love and I found out what it is to love and to be completely loved in return. This will be a part of me for the rest of my life. It’s also something that changes you forever to have the love of your life die in your arms and when Lou died in mine I watched as he did tai chi forms with his hands. And I watched the look of joy and surprise that came over his face as he died and I became less afraid. One more thing he taught me…I’m reminded also of the three rules we came up with—rules to live by. And I’m going to tell you what they are because they come in really handy because things happen so fast it’s good to have a few catchwords to fall back on when there’s not enough time to think.
The first one is don’t be afraid of anyone. Now can you imagine living your life so that you are afraid of no one?
And second is get a really good bullshit detector and learn how to use it.
And third is be really, really tender.
For people whose partner has died it’s a great shock. You’re propelled into a magic world where you finally understand many things that were complete mysteries up to that point.
And so finally I see how people turn into light and turn into music and eventually into other people. And how fluid the bones really are. They say you die three times. First when your heart stops. Second is when you’re buried or cremated. And third is the last time someone says your name.
I am so happy that Lou’s name is added to the list of people who will be remembered for the beautiful music they made. Lou, my sweet one, I love the last song you wrote, The Power of the Heart:
You know me I like to dream a lot/
Of what there is and what there’s not/
But mainly I dream of you a lot/
The power of the heart.
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