So, if you didn’t see it by now, check out the inaugural interview of mayoral candidate State Rep. Amen Brown by Fox29’s Jeff Cole. It’s one of the most jaw-dropping advertisements of unfitness for office since Teddy Kennedy was flummoxed by Roger Mudd’s hard-hitting “why do you want to be president” question in 1979.
Have you ever seen a candidate less worthy of prime time status? Brown has been a promising state rep for two years, but if recent past experience and the early stages of this mayoral election should tell us anything, it’s that we collectively have to raise the bar on what it takes to be mayor. Not just anyone can do it.
To be clear, Brown ought not to be disqualified because he didn’t know the size of the City budget — though he should have; no, he robbed himself of any perception of gravitas by pretending that he knew the answer, by trying to fake his way through, like a panicked school boy on an oral exam.
And then there was this: “Okay, so can you ask that over?” As though the problem he faced was simply a matter of editing; to Brown, Cole was not an interlocutor in search of the truth, but a fellow actor running lines from a script.
Brown’s attempt to walk back the disastrous interview also fell flat. In a statement later, he said he wanted to own his mistake and had “been thrown off,” but then doubled down on ridiculousness: “In my time as a State Representative and being a part of budget hearings and talks, we dig deep into the breakdown of City operations. The City of Philadelphia sees and spends significantly more than the $5.8 billion budget that was approved.”
I assume Brown and his braintrust — presumably including convicted felons and former officeholders Vince Fumo and John Perzel, who were at his side in a literal smoke-filled room during PA Society — are badly playing some sleight of hand here, like including the $4 billion school budget into his calculations, to make his ignorance seem less egregious.
Then Brown asked “Okay, so can you ask that over?” As though the problem he faced was simply a matter of editing; to Brown, Cole was not an interlocutor in search of the truth, but a fellow actor running lines from a script.
What should his statement have been? How about: “It’s clear I have more to learn before running for mayor. But I am committed to public service. That’s why I’m announcing today my candidacy for City Council, where I pledge to master the City’s finances and improve its services for all Philadelphians.”
Eight years ago, Allan Domb wanted to be mayor. But experienced advisers like Dan Fee and Neil Oxman told him that running a then-$4 billion city is nothing like running a real estate empire, and that he’d have to roll up his sleeves and learn how government really works in order to ultimately change it. So he did just that, and now, with seven years on Council under his belt, he’s a credible candidate for mayor.
Well, two years as a state rep offers little in the way of prep, either for the rigors of a mayoral campaign or for the job itself; one’s personal narrative of struggle — and Brown has a compelling one — only goes so far. Apparently, Brown had no one around him telling him he wasn’t ready, and that it would be a slap in the face to those he wants to help to act like he was.
But let’s not beat up on Amen too much. If he handles this debacle with aplomb, he could still have a meaningful political future. His gaffe was just the latest episode in this nascent campaign that underscores just how much we need a new way to think about hiring a mayor. (That’s why we’re framing this campaign as the Ultimate Job Interview: Help us hire the best mayor for the job.)
Here, some of those pressing questions:
Whither campaign finance laws?
When Brown and some New York real estate developer stood side by side in a cigar bar during PA Society to effectively announce his candidacy alongside Fumo and Perzel, it felt like we’d entered a time warp. Worse, given that said developer, Marty Burger, is reported to be behind a Super PAC seeded with $5 million intended to help fund Brown’s campaign, questions could be raised as to whether it represented a flouting of the City’s campaign finance rules.
Individuals can contribute up to $3,100 annually to a candidate, but Super PACs are exempt from those limits as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate. In fact, they’re not supposed to even talk to him or her. Brown was not yet an official candidate — though Burger all but made his announcement for him — so it’s doubtful this was a violation of City campaign finance rules, but the sight of Brown side by side at PA Society with those who might be directing a Super PAC created to support him certainly seemed not in keeping with the spirit of our rules.
Ditto the actions of candidate Jeff Brown, who, as the Inquirer has documented, is tied to Philly Progress PAC, which has even had his son on its payroll. I was forwarded a message Brown sent to a donor, reading, “Thanks for the contribution, please send it in with this form completed,” and the attached form was on Philly Progress PAC letterhead. That was from the first quarter of this year, well before Brown was an announced candidate, and so it also may not have technically been in violation.
Pundit Michael Smerconish is likely on to something, when he argues that there should be no campaign finance limits — just total and utter and immediate transparency. Sunlight as disinfectant.
Truth be told, though, I’m not all that scandalized by these apparent fundraising end runs — I expect them. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the best-intentioned campaign finance rules will eventually be gotten around. That’s why pundit Michael Smerconish is likely on to something, when he argues that there should be no limits — just total and utter and immediate transparency. Imagine the power of a website that shows who gives — by name, occupation and amount shelled out — and that can maybe even cross tab that information with a listing of City contracts or perks that may have found their way back to the donor. Sunlight as disinfectant.
Either way, let’s not kid ourselves. The current system is inherently anti-democratic; it is, for example, a little hard to be an outsider claiming the system needs cleaning up while raising unlimited amounts of money in the shadows from many of those long associated with Philly’s inside game.
Where’s the reform candidate willing to challenge every candidate in the race to tell any group raising money in their name to stop doing so and immediately release all their donor information? We’ve covered this before: Politics in Philly isn’t about Left versus Right; rather, it often comes down to Progressive versus Reformer, and now I’d add a third category: Insider. Just who is seeking to fill the Reformer lane this time around is still unclear.
Law breakers, Law makers … po-tato, po-tahto?
Really sorry to be taking a two by four to Amen Brown, but the dude has been accused of a lot of shady dealings in the past. Like, a lot. Nothing illegal, per se, but just … shady. A troubling deed fraud charge was ultimately thrown out of criminal court eight years ago. And, Billy Penn documents a slew of civil lawsuits that, taken together, makes you wonder who vetted this guy. Defaulting on a $50,000 Escalade? A Department of Revenue lien for $10,000 in unpaid income tax? Whatever Brown’s side of those stories, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that he’ll be able to fiscally manage that budget he has no idea about, does it?
Then there’s Cherelle Parker, whose judgment came into question when she registered as a Harrisburg lobbyist after resigning from Council to run for mayor. She was convicted of DUI in 2011, while a state representative. She was driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and the arresting officers testified that she smelled of alcohol, had no license, registration, or insurance card, and had trouble getting out of her state-owned car.
Parker didn’t just take the case to trial; she accused the officers of making it all up. After losing her appeals, Parker spent three days in jail, paid a $1,000 fine, took a safe driving class, and went a year without a valid driver’s license. Not only does the negative ad from an independent expenditure group write itself, but it raises the question: Can someone who spent four years essentially claiming the cops who had busted her were liars now credibly be in charge of their 6,000-member police force?
I’m all for redemption and growth and forgiveness. But, again, isn’t it time we raise the bar for what qualifies one — or not— to run the sixth largest city in America?
Does anyone know anyone?
I haven’t seen it, but I’m told a recent poll reveals that hardly anyone knows any of these candidates. Helen Gym leads with 13 percent, followed by Allan Domb at 9 percent. Everyone else is hovering in the low single digits. Fact is, most people are busy with their lives and don’t think about this politics stuff like you and I do. We’re the outliers.
So, in keeping with the advice of legendary political consultant Neil Oxman, look for candidates to start trying to define themselves, define their opponents, and define the stakes of the election. That’s what Derek Green did when he went uncharacteristically negative in accusing Helen Gym of pushing “a socialist agenda to raise taxes” shortly before she announced her candidacy in November. And it’s what Jeff Brown is doing in his latest ad; same for Parker.
I’m told that many in the business community are already getting antsy about this crowded field, and the lack of clarity around which lane belongs to which candidate. Who cannibalizes whom? Which alliance narrows the field?
Donors are already tiring of hearing from candidates, and of having to hedge their bets by giving to multiple contenders at once. Some have reached out to State Senator Vincent Hughes, trying to get him to run, thinking he could clear the field. The ultimate field-clearer, of course, would be Michael Nutter, who I’m told has also taken calls. (When I reached out to him, he said he had concerns about the state of the race and the city, but was coy about whether he’d really entertain any overtures to ever run again.)
Should we look to New York?
In 2015, progressivism was on the rise, and then-Councilman Jim Kenney smartly adopted the platform of New York’s Bill DeBlasio, who had captured that city’s mayoralty the year before. Last year, New York again signaled an opportunity in the form of Eric Adams, who ran on a platform with tough on crime, criminal justice reform, and pro-growth planks. “New York is open for business,” he proclaimed early in his tenure.
There’s an Adams lane to be filled in Philly this year, and it’s unclear who is angling for it. Yes, Adams’ poll numbers are down a year into his mayoralty, but there’s much to be learned from both his campaign and his governance. He has brought swagger back to a city that had taken some serious body blows. Sound familiar?
Adams has gotten grief for his late, partying nights, but at least he’s showing up for work. He’s named a public safety czar, revived an anti-gun police unit his predecessor had abandoned, deployed more officers to the subway system en route to lowering violence there by 20 percent, and announced a gun prevention task force.
Not only did Adams’ campaign point a way toward practical problem-solving as a political asset (though ranked-choice voting sure helped), the way he’s governing makes the case that, at the very least, a mayor has to find ways to convey that he’s on your side, even in the face of glacial progress.
Last week, he and Governor Kathy Hochul — imagine that, elected leaders playing on the same team! — released a 159-page plan for New York’s resurgence called Making New York Work For Everyone. The brainchild of Daniel Doctoroff, a former executive at the urbanism company Sidewalk Labs and a deputy mayor under Mike Bloomberg, and Richard Buery, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, you can feel the urgency jumping off each page. Its ideas run from the building of 500,000 new homes over 10 years to increasing bus lanes, adopting congestion pricing, and accelerating electric-vehicle charging stations.
Voters may be frustrated by the pace of change in New York, but they see the mayor plugging away at it everyday, as when he recently convened a summit to crack down on the scourge of Price Is Right-like retail theft, in which shoplifters, knowing that progressive DAs won’t prosecute theft over a certain monetary threshold, act like they’re on Bob Barker’s old game show, trying to grab as much as they can without going over.
Hell, how’s this for being on the job: Recently, Adams’ administration posted a job listing for a director of rodent mitigation, which a City Hall spokesperson described as a “rat czar.” It’s a six-figure gig, and tell me this job description doesn’t channel Adams: “Swashbuckling attitude, crafty humor, and general aura of badassery” are listed as qualifications, as is a “virulent vehemence for vermin.”
The point is this: Not only did Adams’ campaign point a way toward practical problem-solving as a political asset (though ranked-choice voting sure helped), the way he’s governing makes the case that, at the very least, a mayor has to find ways to convey that he’s on your side, even in the face of glacial progress.
Do you feel anyone in Philly has your back? That’s what this mayor’s race ought to be about, once we clear the field of pretenders.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE IN THE NEXT MAYOR OF PHILADELPHIA?
Header photo: State Rep. Amen Brown, via Wikimedia Commons