The Stakes of the Election: The Leadership Question

This long campaign season ends tomorrow. Who is the leader we need for a better Philadelphia future?

The Stakes of the Election: The Leadership Question

This long campaign season ends tomorrow. Who is the leader we need for a better Philadelphia future?

Has it coalesced? Is Rebecca Rhynhart’s lead a done deal? Is Cherelle Parker’s lead deliverable? Does Helen Gym have it locked down? Can Allan Domb’s omnipresence be a difference maker? What is Jeff Brown thinking? Just a few open items in the final days of the city’s fascinating and historic political season.

I have loved watching. I haven’t enjoyed so many political conversations with old adversaries and new friends, well since ….

Why is this different?

Each campaign claims it knows who its voters are and are organized to bring them out. It is more than likely that several are wrong. The one who is right will be the primary winner.

Our collective aversion to risk has us all wanting to know the answer before the sprint is over. But are we asking the right question?

We’ve seen these candidates up close and repeatedly through the civic forums, debates, TV ads, mailings, lit drops — and yet we remain stuck on the essential question: Who will be the best leader for the city for the next eight years?

We need smarts and luck. Someone who has leadership qualities and can grow into a great leader and a great mayor. 2023 would be a very good moment for the best outcome.

A great mayor starts with people whose core values are foundational. We have been very fortunate in that regard. In our times, a great mayor will envision a Philadelphia of shared prosperity and drag us all along to implement enough of that agenda to start to bend the poverty curve. A great leader is a person who combines empathy and wisdom, is sensitive to the moment and her or his role in it, and executes leadership in the face of whatever needs it. And in the right doses.

We’ve had some good mayoral models.

Bill Green’s toughness and determination, his fiscal discipline, the smart people he brought into the City Hall, and the stuff he got done were good models. Green’s decision to walk away shines in the light of history.

Wilson Goode’s emergence from a series of high-profile roles in government and community development to become the city’s first African American mayor was dynamic. From graffiti to Mural Arts to Liberty Place, there was motion. And then there was M.O.V.E. Goode’s post government leadership has been as consistent and undeterred as always.

Ed Rendell with the creation of PICA and a new sales tax restored a fiscally troubled city, showed financial discipline and leadership and revitalized Center City by putting it on a culturally rich path. He made all of us feel better about our hometown. He exuded Philadelphia.

John Street felt in his gut what needed to happen in long disinvested communities, and he used the levers of power to execute his vision like few others. Neighborhood transformation had multiple consequences yet provided relief for the people who lived in forgotten Philadelphia.

Michael Nutter saw the stain and cost of corruption and changed the way the business of politics worked. He sharply moved the needle on ethics, a much-needed course correction. Fiscally, he established a mechanism to value real estate closer to its actual value.

In each case, the consequences of their leadership and decision had long-term impact. That’s exactly what a leader does.

Each candidate’s background in business, politics, government and life has qualified them and each in a different way.

But what about their capacity as leaders? What evidence have we seen that their vision, political skills, relationship building, persuasiveness, courage and strength of character will position them to provide Philadelphia what it currently lacks and most severely needs, that great leader?

Assessing leadership is risky business. So is predicting winners. But, I’m a risk taker.

As for leadership … 

Here is what I see.

Jeff Brown. Brown launched his candidacy on the strength of a truly impressive personal story. Building a business, even one learned from generations of family involvement, is a tough thing for anyone to do. Locating several stores in food deserts, implementing restorative justice in his employment practices, listening to his customers about what products they wanted the stores to stock all suggest a guy who puts his money where his mouth is.

In my conversations with Jeff, I found someone who really understood how to work with and relate to employees and their union leadership. He struck me as a realist and experienced. Where Jeff Brown failed, a disaster for leaders, is to recognize the field in front of him. This was politics, or to recognize his own vulnerabilities and weaknesses and be prepared to deal with them. Regrettably, Brown’s leadership skills in business did not translate to establishing credibility as a leader for the city’s future.

Rebecca Rhynhart. Rhynhart has been leading or tied for the lead in most polls taken by the campaigns. She has a clear path to victory. Trained in finance, experienced in the capital markets, recruited to the city to serve as Treasurer, then Budget Director, then onto Mayor Kenney’s leadership team, she knows a lot about city finances. But taking on the mayor as City Controller is not the same as leading an issue into execution. As mayor, that will be a transition and challenge for Rhynhart.

Through public appearances, she has often been underwhelming. Her “brilliant performance” at the Inquirer editorial board interview (and for which and other factors earned her their endorsement), Rhynhart’s smarts have mostly been on display in a wonky way, but rarely with great vision, persuasion or passion. Her messaging has evolved into slogans. That three former mayors love her is meaningful and may make her the mayor. But Rhynhart’s the leadership feels to be an open issue.

Helen Gym. Gym has proven her chops as an activist and advocate. She has shown her leadership style with remarkable consistency. Her voice is powerful, a great asset for a leader. Gym believes in taking on the most difficult issues — to her credit — but is rarely open to working out solutions that make room for other people’s points of view, too often demonizing them. That is a formula for a failed leadership.

Gym started this campaign with the best candidate skills and the only real discernable political base. That base may put her over the top, but it will not be because through this process she has exhibited empathy or wisdom. Her propensity for getting into a fight just to have the fight is exactly what we don’t need right now.

I believe in the power of the voice backed by the intellect to propel government forward. But in government, advocacy should be in legislative bodies, not executive ones. Going into the Union League — right after they stuck their finger in the city’s eye by honoring a man prepared to eliminate African American history from libraries and curricula — was boneheaded. For a person who so carefully curates her own symbols, failing to recognize the symbolism of her presence on that night is hard to reconcile. As mayor, Helen Gym will need to temper her passions and work on being a mayor for the entire city, not simply those who share her views. That feels risky to me.

Cherelle Parker. Parker comes from political pedigree, Marian Tasco. She is, to all who know the story, like a daughter to Tasco. Parker has a powerful personal story, which is being referenced as a “lived experience.” It qualifies her to better understand the plight of others. Leadership means bringing people together, and to Parker and her campaign’s credit, they have consolidated the political establishment, or what is left of it.

But at what cost? People I respect have great things to say about Parker, and some of city’s elite speak particularly loudly for her. But not too many weeks ago many of those same people were urging State Sen. Vincent Hughes to get into the race. Why? And what happened? Electing an accomplished experienced Black woman was not for some reason getting traction.

Ryan Boyer and a host of others turned things around. Parker has been the most enforcement-oriented candidate in addressing gun violence, but has her candidacy persuaded enough of us? And should we be concerned that so many coalesced inspired what appears to be a traditionally transactional style of politics? A Mayor Parker will need to rise to the challenge of attacking the big issues and straight arming the distractions that will constantly need her attention.

Allan Domb. From the outset, I never saw the qualities in Allan Domb that I felt most strongly were sine qua non for any mayor. Failing to dedicate 100 percent of his energy and time to public service during his years in Council left too little time for deep diving into the mechanics and internals of City government. His love and dedication to the city was admirable, credible and infectious. But in the period leading up to his candidacy, a huge change in seriousness, empathy, attention to others and evolution in thinking and comfort zones.

A mayor must sell others, literally everywhere. Domb is the best salesperson in Philadelphia. Despite his wealth and privilege, Domb has become a good listener and shown a perseverance in admitting what he doesn’t know closing the knowledge gap.

No AFSCME, Building Trades, PFT support. Why? That’s simple, Domb won’t be a pushover for any of them, including developers who desperately want to shape planning, zoning and development policy. He needs to recognize the value of effective communications and clarity. But he has come the farthest and grown the most during this campaign. His instincts are good and improving. If that trajectory continues, Domb has an excellent chance of becoming a great mayor if only he can get over the electoral hump.

If anyone is still reading, I think the race still boils down to the three women, all of whom face big uncertainties. Is Helen Gym’s base big enough to win, and will they all come out? Can Cherelle Parker’s campaign reverse the emotional trauma that many African American voters are experiencing and turn out bigger numbers at a moment when the political process has failed them? Can Rebecca Rhynhart turn out her base and perform to her polling expectations, or will Domb’s spending cut her growth and her prospects? Could Domb surprise?

I’ll take these odds:

Helen Gym 3:2

Cherelle Parker 3:1

Rebecca Rhynhart 4:1

Allan Domb 6:1

The house is bringing no money.

Sam Katz is a documentary filmmaker whose work has focused on the history of Philadelphia.  He spent his business career in municipal and project finance and venture capital.  He served as Chair of the PICA Board.  Sam was a mayoral candidate in 1991, 1999 and 2003.  His latest film, Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit, was the 2021 Winner of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film.


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