I was prepared to be depressed this week. First, on the eve of yet another public corruption trial, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his co-defendant wife held a kind of pep rally for themselves at their house of worship. They did the same prior to their previous day in court, which resulted in a hung jury. Again this time, a who’s who of elected leaders came by to show their support for a “Pre-Trial Victory Prayer Service.”
There was State Senator Tony Williams, Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Isaiah Thomas, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, and former Councilmember-turned-mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker.
Now, loyalty’s a laudable value. But there’s such a thing as misplaced loyalty. Shouldn’t an elected official be unwavering, first and foremost, to those who put him in office to begin with? Rather than to those accused of stealing from them? A jury will decide if Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, are guilty or not, but what is undeniable is that they’ve been part of a long and checkered insider culture in our politics that, time and again, seems to place undue value on mere transactionalism.
We are, on the one hand, a set of folks just trying to get by in a bullet-ridden, impoverished city, and, on the other, a collection of fiefdoms run by warlords in bespoke suits. But there’s another model of how a city can be run, as represented by our sports teams.
We’ve had a stunning litany of perp walks and just plain unethical behavior here in our little Moscow on the Delaware, but when is the last time you heard a public official express outrage over their colleagues’ misdeeds? Two recent reform-minded exceptions to the go-along-to-get-along status quo come to mind: State Rep. Jared Solomon and Councilmember-turned-mayoral candidate Maria Quiñones Sánchez spoke out forcefully against the crimes of labor leader John Dougherty and his Council lackey, Bobby Henon.
Other than that … crickets. When Dougherty was convicted, what did our mayor say? That he “disagreed” with the verdict rendered by members of his own electorate and that he felt sad for Dougherty, his longtime benefactor.
Philadelphia is awash in many epidemics all at once, but arguably our most stubborn is this scourge of municipal corruption — both of the legal (think councilmanic prerogative) and illegal kind. For the full context, check out our tongue-in-cheek Philly Corruption All-Star playing cards — trade ’em with your friends! You’ve got your Buddy Cianfrani — he once said of a U.S. attorney who was investigating him, “If he can’t get anything on me, what kind of investigator is he?” — and your Vince Fumo, who reportedly liked to crow about using “OMP” — “Other People’s Money” — to acquire luxury goods.
The pols who showed up to support Johnson and Chavous may have thought they were modeling personal loyalty. But they really were reminding us that there are two Philadelphias — one set of rules for the connected, and another for the rest of us. And that those on the inside have a pretty ho-hum attitude when it comes to bridging that divide.
Days after the Johnson/Chavous spectacle came another reminder of such out-of-touchness: the aforementioned Parker resigned from Council to run for mayor and promptly registered as a Harrisburg lobbyist. Seriously. The move immediately raised fundamental questions about her judgment.
Multiple close observers of local politics were left shaking their heads, noting that her clients, after all, could have just hired her as a consultant, which wouldn’t have required her to appear to be part of the revolving door political influence game. Now, the political ad against her writes itself. Can you get more tone deaf? (Well, maybe: Parker was once arrested driving drunk and the wrong way on a one-way street, which was bad enough; but then she claimed the cops made the whole thing up, before ultimately being convicted. And now she wants to run a 6,000-officer force.) Her spokesperson was quick to point out that she wouldn’t be lobbying Council, her former place of business, just the one prior to that: the statehouse, a fine moral distinction if ever there was one.
In these and countless other examples of late — again, the list is too voluminous to get into here; just go to the trading cards — our political system reminds us that we’re really not one city. We are, on the one hand, a set of folks just trying to get by in a bullet-ridden, impoverished city, and, on the other, a collection of fiefdoms run by warlords in bespoke suits.
There is another way
But there’s another model of how a city can be run, as represented by our sports teams. This week, the Phillies and Eagles exhibited a “We’re all in this together” ethos that our politics seldom reflects. Yes, both won — the Phils in the playoffs, the Eagles raising their record to a league-best 5-0.
But, at a time when civil society is frayed, when the glue that once held communitarian values together has eroded, when churches and newspapers and public officeholders and courts have all fallen into disrepute, when just sharing experiences with coworkers in an office is no longer a given … well, these unscripted dramas on our fields of play might be the last vestige of Enlightenment values. That one-time European football goalie Albert Camus had it about right: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned in the Racing Universitaire Algerios junior team.”
Bear with me here. I thought of this after the Eagles game, when Nick Sirianni talked about how teams either splinter apart or come together when times get tough. He had just been asked about Philly’s newest folk hero, Cameron Dicker — Dicker the Kicker — a baby-faced replacement plucked from obscurity only to kick last Sunday’s game-winner. Cinderella story. But Sirianni talked about how his guys enveloped this new, nervous kid — “they loved him,” he said. He credited Dicker, but also the power of oneness in his locker room.
That one-time European football goalie Albert Camus had it about right: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned in the Racing Universitaire Algerios junior team.”
Would it be so terrible to emulate that solidarity in our public life? To all be rowing in the same direction? Hell, thanks largely to councilmanic prerogative, we have different rules and customs in different Council districts; far from being one team, we’re a city with 10 different mayors, all with their own agendas, and many, if history is any judge, feeding at the public trough.
Politics has become the artful practice of division, as any ominous-sounding TV ad nowadays can tell you. Sporting events, on the other hand? That’s where we hug perfect strangers. It’s where, after 9/11, Red Sox fans burst out into a rendition of New York, New York. Sports can actually heal cities. Per Larry Olmsted’s Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Understanding, psychologists at the Minnesota and Memphis universities, respectively, have found that spectator sports bolstered mental well-being in regions hit by traumatic events over a 10-year span.
We don’t need a study to know that, though, right? We experienced the civic high of how sports teams can save cities in 2017, when the Eagles went on that improbable run to a Super Bowl victory. And it doesn’t even have to be a championship team that inspires a city to dream beyond its circumstances. The ’93 Phils and ’01 Sixers both came up just short, but fueled civic camaraderie in palpable ways.
But also, we need real political reform
Don’t get me wrong. We still need substantive reform. That’s why I’m a proponent of the American Anti-Corruption Act, which the nonprofit RepresentUs. has helped pass in over 100 municipalities. Among the Act’s authors are Trevor Potter, the former head of the Federal Elections Commission, and Harvard’s Larry Lessig. It’s a constitutional set of reforms aimed at curbing the corrosive influence of money in our politics. And here’s what I love about RepresentUs: They’re activists with a sense of humor. They’ve created a fake political candidate — Gil Fulbright — who, in parody, lays bare the offensive absurdity of our system.
“This campaign? It’s not about me,” Gil says in one SNL-like commercial. “It’s about crafting a message about me that will appeal to you. A version that visits random work sites with paid actors, pointing at things … Listening to my constituents, legislating. These are things I don’t do. What I do is spend about 70 percent of my time raising funds for reelection …”
And it’s why I’ve chronicled the efforts of Beth Simone Noveck, who directed President Obama’s Open Government Initiative and now heads Northeastern University’s Burnes Center for Social Change and its partner project, The GovLab. Through Noveck’s CrowdLaw program, which turns lawmaking into more of a two-way conversation with city residents, over 100 legislatures and city councils worldwide have been tutored on how to co-create lawmaking with their constituents by tapping into citizen expertise and feedback in real time.
For example, residents in Mexico City helped write their city’s new constitution. The mayor committed to consider any proposal with over 5,000 signatures; ones with 10,000 signatures were automatically put before the group of leaders charged with writing the document. Those that garnered more than 50,000 signatures got to present directly to the mayor. Ultimately, 14 citizen-led petitions were included in the city’s constitutional draft.
What does a coach do? Sometimes, as Sirianni attests, it means loving a player up. It means being clear, exacting, and true to a north star. It means being willing to stand on principle, even if that means running the risk of losing. And it means valuing the collective over individual interests.
Talk about everyone donning team colors, right? But to do that, it’s about more than passing laws. It’s about changing culture. And this is where we intersect with sports yet again. In the mid-’90s, then-Sixers head coach John Lucas allowed me to tag along with his team on a 12-day West Coast trip. They were a losing squad, but what he provided for me was a glimpse into what coaching really is, the mystery and mastery of it. Later, Larry Brown and Jay Wright — one of Sirianni’s mentors — similarly opened their inner sanctums to me for magazine profiles.
What does a coach do? Sure, he diagrams plays during timeouts. But, as Wright once told me, most of that is “filler.” The legendary hoops coach Phil Jackson defined coaching as coaxing a group to move “from me to we.” Lucas described the job this way: “I’ve got to find buttons to push to get guys to believe.” Sometimes, that requires being in a player’s face. Sometimes, as Sirianni attests, it means loving him or her up. It means being clear, exacting, and true to a north star. It means being willing to stand on principle, even if that means running the risk of losing. And it means valuing the collective over individual interests.
Sounds a lot like what a city needs, no? Next year, we’ll be hiring a new mayor. Is there a coach among our candidates? Someone with a stirring plan, someone who can hector the city into the best version of itself?
This isn’t some naive, idealistic rhetoric. There’s also a policy component to changing a city’s culture from one that values private gain to one that pursues the common good. Remember, the policies that have most moved the needle on, say, poverty have not been targeted safety net interventions; they’ve been programs meant for all of us, like Social Security and Medicare.
A “One City Agenda” today might call for the city – suddenly flush with $400 million of unspent ARP funds and a surplus of nearly $500 million — investing in narrowing the wealth gap by coming up with its own Baby Bond program. Just imagine the psychic payoff of staking every baby born in the city with a bond redeemable for, say, meeting the costs of higher education in 18 years or buying a home in 25. Through the miracle of compound interest, a whole generation of Philadelphians would be put on a pathway to middle class living, and your government would be sending a signal that every citizen, no matter their demography, is part of their city’s plan.
Cities can be cold, impersonal places. Those outside the connected insider crowd can feel invisible and uncared for. But cities can also be warm and inviting, places of surprise and belonging — if leadership makes it so. Just like that Eagles locker room, when a tentative kicker, wondering if he would fit in, was taken into a literal embrace. That, Sirianni let it be known, was not just an act of kindness, but of leadership. Imagine if we had elected leaders who let every one of us know that we belong.
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.
POSTS BY + ABOUT EAGLES PLAYERS WE ADMIRE