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The Lost Art

Politics are in disrepute. But recent events reveal what we need most: Leaders with old-fashioned political skill

The Lost Art

Politics are in disrepute. But recent events reveal what we need most: Leaders with old-fashioned political skill


jeremyThe recent PGW debacle was our most recent glimpse into ineffective politics. Mayor Nutter structured the deal for the sale of the Gas Works.  It would not only have allowed us to get rid of a recurring liability to city government but would have contributed to a long-term solution to the pension fund problem.  It was what policy types like to call a grand bargain, a big deal that solves lots of problems and also demands lots of compromises.

But the Mayor could not count a single vote on city council, which itself played a shameful and non-democratic role. This, in a one party town where Mayors and City Council members are joined at the hip on mountains of public service requests and hence always need to be working together in one way or another.

The result was a failure of politics, not ideas. Mayor Nutter is best when he is painting a vision of urban sustainability, developing policy, and marketing the city; he struggles managing legislative relationships. In some sense, who can blame him? Except: This is the job description of Mayor. If you cannot do it, you are never going to be as effective as we need you to be.

As the new candidates for Mayor strut across the public stage, we should evaluate them on their effectiveness, not just their policy vision. It is easy to forget that an election is a job interview by citizens. Political voting blocks, limited choices, and rhetorical styles obscure this central fact. And yet in a nation that is more pragmatic than ideological, it is important to approach electoral choices in this way.

So here are some job interview questions. Have they run anything larger than a political district office? Have they had to balance different constituencies to arrive at solutions?  Will they know how to build a management team to run government?  What does it mean to have only legislated but never been an executive? What are examples of situations where they have enabled new solutions to existing problems?

Taken together, the answer to these questions reveal a candidate’s level of political skill, at a time when politics – the art of the deal – is in short supply. We have a president who is governing by executive action because he couldn’t achieve his goals by building political coalitions. Meantime, in our state, the political effectiveness of our new governor is about to be tested. Governor-elect Wolf is walking into office with a legislature dominated by the other party; a state budget with a significant deficit; pension fund liabilities; underfunded school districts, and declining energy prices (which changes the arithmetic of the gas tax).

Moreover, he enters office with the political claims of his supporters; all of them expect him to do what they think he promised and most of them are rank and file pols and activists (spoiler alert: this is not the innovation crowd).

And despite the fact that he was partially self-funded and always on top of the field enough to not have to be too specific during the campaign, some claims will have to be addressed.  Balancing political reality and the claims of supporters also is part of the job description.

We will find out a lot about Governor Wolf the politician over the next year. I know he wants to project himself as a different kind of politician (who doesn’t?) but reality is going to come a calling very quickly.

Friends that know the new governor describe him as a genuinely good man, extremely bright, capable of building and maintaining trusted relationships, and in it for the right reasons. I have heard that from too many people to think otherwise.

But relationships and smarts have to lead to good political deal making, particularly in the context of a divided government. The public interest rides along the rails of self-interested parties whose claims have to be negotiated. Wolf the negotiator is about to be tested.

If he wants to generate more resources for education, increase taxes, and balance the budget (in the short term and longer term), then significant bargains will have to be made.  The kind that Mayor Nutter might have wanted to make, but was unable to get done.

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