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Inside the Last Days of the Election

Some final thoughts on the mayor’s race as it comes to a close. Are we about to meet a new boss who is the same as the old boss?

Inside the Last Days of the Election

Some final thoughts on the mayor’s race as it comes to a close. Are we about to meet a new boss who is the same as the old boss?

Let’s start by reiterating what we should all be thankful for in this mayoral election: A lineup of candidates, including early drop-outs Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Derek Green, who are smart, driven by a love for this maddening, beautiful city, and — most importantly — willing to put themselves in the arena, to borrow from Teddy Roosevelt … unlike us yappers who are content to just critique. We really do owe them our gratitude — even Amen Brown, who just wasn’t ready yet but has a story to tell.

That said, let’s do a final round of yapping. This is a precarious time in our city’s history; we teeter on the precipice of either becoming Detroit circa 2010, with its unanswered 911 calls and barren streets, or Boston circa 2019 (before its current uber-progressive mayor), with its feet on the street and surplus of good-paying, family-sustaining jobs.

Who has a vision, and the ability to implement it, that gets us closer to the latter in the next four years? Shouldn’t that be the animating question of this election?

Post-Covid and post-George Floyd, we’re a traumatized metropolis, with a historic murder epidemic, the worst poverty in the nation, and anemic job growth compared to peer cities. So: Are we going to channel Einstein’s definition of insanity and keep doing what ain’t been working, or harken back to FDR’s long-ago call for “bold, persistent experimentation”?

So, herewith, some final thoughts — a couple of red flags that the old ways are still stubbornly hanging around, as well as some musings that maybe the times they are a-changin’:

The ballot measure from hell

Your ballot calls for you to vote on four amendments to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter — our city’s Constitution. Now, as we’ve covered before, all amendments to the Charter are asinine. Over the years, we’ve codified our opposition to the Iraq War — in the Charter! — and called for universal health care. Some amendments are worse than this silliness; some actually harm local governance itself.

Such is the case with retiring Council President Darrell Clarke’s final middle finger to the power of the office of the Mayor, which he has steadily eroded, given this question: Should The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to create the Office of the Chief Public Safety Director and to define its powers, duties and responsibilities?

This position would coordinate city resources across departments, oversee violence prevention programs, and study and report on the city’s public safety operations. At first blush, it might sound reasonable, given our crisis of crime and violence, to codify in perpetuity the hiring of a top cop to oversee our top cop, as Charles Ellison put it.

Think again. First, it is utterly impractical: No credible police commissioner candidate would come here to, in effect, report to a more senior police chief. (Clarke has said that the position would be filled by someone with law enforcement experience.) At the very least, any serious candidate would deem it a red flag to have to go through City Council confirmation in order to be hired for a job that few would want in the first place.

The most encouraging development of this campaign was the degree to which business and civic leaders stepped up and got engaged.

Besides, under our “Strong Mayor” system — unlike the co-equal branch, checks and balances set-up of the federal government — such personnel decisions are the mayor’s to make. The Charter designates the overseeing of law enforcement to the mayor and police commissioner. That we have a checked-out mayor and a disappearing commissioner makes that no less true. More and more of late, when Council is unable to convince the mayor through the regular political process to do something, it reverts to a Charter amendment to get it done.

That is not responsible governance, and in this case, it’s especially a reversion to the old way of doing things. In particular, it stands in the way of the type of wider civic collaboration that’s making real inroads elsewhere. Here, a group of civic patriots, dubbing themselves the Civic Coalition to Save Lives, dove in, engaged one of the nation’s preeminent innovators when it comes to combating gun violence, hired an esteemed executive director, and has advanced a plan that would include standing up a coordinating center charged with aligning all the (warring) law enforcement and ancillary agencies in common mission. They run the risk of being, uh, cop-blocked by this measure, which is a testament to Darrell Clarke’s old-school way of thinking that there’s only a government, rather than a cross-sector, solution to every problem.

Kenney 2.0?

Did you see Jim Kenney’s non-endorsement endorsement of Cherelle Parker this week? He said it wasn’t an endorsement, but then proclaimed that he voted for her. Sounds kinda like an endorsement, no? What is an endorsement other than an announcement of who you’re voting for? Tellingly, her campaign staff wanted no part of it. But it raises the question: Does Parker represent change from the last eight years, or would a Parker mayoralty be a de facto third Kenney term?

After all, much of the Kenney coalition has — belatedly — coalesced around her: Congressman Dwight Evans, State Senator Vincent Hughes, the Building Trades. (After much of said coalition failed to convince Hughes to run himself).

Here are the distinctions between a potential Mayor Parker and Jim Kenney:

    • She actually wants the job. This sounds kind of baseline, but it’s actually pretty big: Cherelle Parker is a fighter and it’s unfathomable that she’d ever quit on her city.
    • As a state legislator she’s exhibited bipartisan chops. Jim Kenney boasted in 2019 that he never spoke to the elected leaders of Philly’s surrounding counties. Parker has had good working relationships with pols of both parties throughout the state; might a Mayor Parker resurrect Mayor Michael Nutter’s strategy for leading regional growth?
    • She projects joyousness. During the campaign, I know of two instances when Kenney, Nixon-like, seemed to stew in his resentments and sent ugly, mean-spirited texts to Domb and Rhynhart, respectively. By all accounts, Parker doesn’t practice passive-aggressiveness.

That said, there are two potential similarities. I’ve surfaced before questions about Parker’s judgment, particularly when it comes to whether she takes responsibility when she’s found to be in the wrong. Kenney has also resisted acknowledging that the buck stops anywhere near his desk, often pointing fingers instead of owning his own missteps. (See: His doubling-down on millions in ineffective gun violence prevention spending).

Second: Should Parker win, she’ll be beholden to some of the same forces that held sway over Kenney. The difference will be that Ryan Boyer, head of the Building Trades, is no John Dougherty: He believes in equity, and, so far, seems to eschew Svengali-like control solely as a strategy for capturing and exercising power.

Is Helen Gym a serious candidate?

Helen Gym and I have agreed that we want the same thing: A more just, equitable city. We just have different philosophies about how to get there: She’s a Movement Progressive, which, to me, is mostly about shouting into a bullhorn and calling that change. I subscribe to the burgeoning Abundance Progressive theory of change, which holds that increasing the supply of public goods like housing, healthcare, and higher education makes them more abundant and, thus, affordable.

That said, a recent proposal of hers has to make you question if Gym is even serious about governing. Gym proposed a $10 billion — that’s billion with a B — Green New Deal for the city’s schools. The annual schools budget is $4.5 billion. Vaguely, Gym has said she’d borrow to fund her policy, and she’d favor dedicating more than the current 55 percent of property tax revenue to the School District. (Which would, in effect, be taking from the city’s General Fund.)

Nowhere on her website is this plan spelled out in a way that serious candidates are obliged to do. In an editorial, the Inquirer rightly took her to task for all this policy sleight of hand. All those groups airing ads calling Gym a hypocrite? I don’t think the message resonates. (News flash: A politician is hypocritical.) How about taking her on, on this, a type of intellectual theft of services?

Can Rhynhart close?

After I wrote about Cherelle Parker’s long-ago DUI and three-day jail sentence, one prominent politico told me it was a “hit job” (even though it was based solely on court transcripts without editorializing from me) and another said I should just get it over with already and endorse Rebecca Rhynhart.

First, we don’t endorse. We report, analyze, and hopefully provoke some thought. Trust, me, if Rebecca Rhynhart — or any candidate — were arrested and convicted of a crime, hells yeah I’d write about it.

This is a precarious time in our city’s history; we teeter on the precipice of either becoming Detroit circa 2010, with its unanswered 911 calls and barren streets, or Boston circa 2019, with its feet on the street and surplus of good-paying, family-sustaining jobs.

But the question about Rhynhart is far more subtle. It remains the one that Michael Nutter — who has endorsed her — brought up to her in our Ultimate Job Interview series. Everyone, he said, describes you as smart. But are you tough enough? Said another way: Can Rebecca Rhynhart lead?

Allan Domb has made leadership — particularly in contrast to Kenney’s no-show style — the dominant theme of his campaign, and Parker certainly has lead singer swagger. There’s no question Rhynhart is an able technocrat and reformer. But does she give voters that thrill up the leg that Chris Matthews famously — and breathlessly — ascribed to then-Senator Barack Obama? And should that matter?

I’ve had women complain to me about Rhynhart’s “vocal fry”; others just can’t quite put their finger on why she hasn’t sealed the deal with them. (Though, it should be noted, she won our ranked choice poll hands down, 55 to 45 percent over Parker, which means, combined, she is the first and second choice of more voters than the other candidates — not a bad place to be in a campaign’s waning days.)

One engaged female voter tells me that this question about leadership itself is a gendered one; that is, there are different ways to lead, and Rhynhart is more collaborative. That may be true, and a more collaborative City Hall might just be what the body politic ordered. But why not say that? Why not close the deal this weekend by arguing for a new, more understated, more thoughtful style of leadership? Till now, Rhynhart hasn’t always seemed comfortable in her own skin.

Many of us obsessed with this stuff are under the delusion that voting is solely a rational act. It’s actually an emotional one. Rhynhart hasn’t made that visceral connection, as evidenced by her commercials; She’s not even the star of them. Nutter, former Mayor John Street and even her own (adorable) daughter upstage her. She needs to look into the camera herself and summon Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos from the West Wing:

Reasons To be hopeful

There are two. One is that, cities almost mystically tend to take on the personalities of their mayor. If you get the sense the city is depressed, maybe a new voice on the second floor of City Hall — combined with James Harden’s heroics — will reinvigorate our collective spirit.

But, finally, maybe we shouldn’t be imbuing the office of the Mayor with so much power over the state of the city. The most encouraging development of this campaign was the degree to which business and civic leaders stepped up and got engaged. I was privy to a series of off-the-record meetings candidates had with leaders of some of our most important institutions, and it was thrilling. In the past, we’ve outsourced leadership to a sclerotic, and often corrupt, political class. To the degree that there was constructive engagement, so much fell to just a select few, like the legendary David Cohen (now Ambassador to Canada) and Dan Hilferty — both Philly patriots.

This cycle, we saw groups like the aforementioned Civic Coalition to Save Lives, the Equity Alliance, and others put reputational risk on the line, all pushing candidates — interviewing them as if for a job — toward solutions. Cities regenerate, yes, but it’s not automatic. It’s not enough to be new; you have to also think anew. Here’s hoping that the level of business, nonprofit and civic engagement during this campaign was the start of something beyond just one election. Moving forward, perhaps our elected leaders will take their cues from a diverse network of civic-minded doers determined to take their city back from the usual political suspects.


Philadelphia City Hall. Photo by Theo Wyss-Flamm.

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