Over the last several months, Americans have watched — some with horror, some with glee — as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has systematically attacked the founding principles of our country, a long term project that prompted Vox last year to say in a headline that he “is following a trail blazed by a Hungarian authoritarian [Viktor Orbán].”
Just take a look at a few of DeSantis’ moves: He toured the country last year stumping for election deniers and insurrectionists (including Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano); pushed through legislation that makes it harder for people in his state to vote; gagged public school teachers from talking about gender identity; banned the teaching of AP African American studies.
One of his latest moves hits particularly close to home for me: The governor’s determined efforts to dismantle the law protecting journalists’ First Amendment rights. “DeSantis has said that targeting ‘legacy media outlets is a priority in the current state legislative session,” another Vox article laid out last week. “DeSantis’s proposals should alarm anyone in media, and, indeed, anyone who believes that the government or other powerful public actors should not be allowed to target individuals who criticize them.”
To be clear: I am alarmed. Venture capitalist/lawyer/civic leader Osagie Imasogie is alarmed. We all should be alarmed. This should not be a matter of political leaning. There is no middle ground on democracy; there is certainly no middle ground on insurgency.
But to the powerful and connected leaders of the city’s most storied social club, the Union League of Philadelphia, DeSantis is a hero. In January, as you may recall, the League awarded DeSantis its highest honor, their Gold Medal. They did this over the objections of hundreds of members, including Imasogie, who rightly objected to the Florida governor’s anti-American policies and his downplaying of the January 6, 2021 insurrection on the Capitol.
Imasogie was a member of the League for over 19 years before he publicly resigned in late February. I caught up with him last week to try to understand how a Philly institution founded to support the United States — the Union — in the Civil War could turn against its own values; how members like him tried to hold the League to its own stated, founding principles; and who was ultimately responsible for deciding to honor DeSantis.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Roxanne Patel Shepelavy: First, tell me, why did you join the Union League?
Osagie Imasogie: I liked the fundamental ethos. Its history is fascinating. It was really remarkable supporting the Union, supporting Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement, supporting Octavius Catto, who was murdered in Philadelphia when he was trying to register African Americans to vote. It was truly a progressive, forward-thinking establishment at that time.
It has great facilities, and I liked the fellowship of the members I knew, and spent time with for almost 20 years. In a way, I may be the typical Union League member. There are 4,000+ members. The vast majority of them joined a social club, not a political party. The vast majority are not in any way interested in running for leadership positions within the club. That means that it’s a subset of members who are much more motivated by political considerations and therefore are more inclined to run for positions to lead the League.
Over time, there’s this disconnect between the majority of members who are ambivalent as to who are in positions of authority in the League, and those who are in positions of authority who feel comfortable that they could do whatever they wanted to do without the majority of members caring. On a practical basis, the political related actions the League’s leadership took did not impinge on our lives, as League members.
How did you learn about the League’s intention to give Ron DeSantis the Gold Award, which then President Craig Mills said in a letter to members goes to public figures who embody the League’s core values: “support for the Constitution and the free enterprise system, limited government, individual rights and responsibility, and support for our military and law enforcement?”
We as members of the League got a notice in the normal course of things saying this award would be given to this person. For most people, this was their first time hearing about it. A couple of us read about it and said, Whoa whoa whoa — what did you say you were planning to do? That’s when the Concerned Members of the Union League formed.
We could not do an email blast to all the members because it was prohibited, so it was only made up of people we all personally knew. It grew to about 150-200 people. But I’m not quite sure that most members of the League even were aware it existed.
What did you do?
We had dialogue with the League’s leadership, mostly on a one-to-one basis, and some collective. There were three core issues that animated the group:
One, the absolute conviction that the leadership’s selection of this individual was inimical to what the institution stood for. The first article of the bylaws of the League — the very first — says:
Every member shall support the Constitution of the United States and the free enterprise system. A member shall discountenance by moral and social influence all disloyalty to the Federal Government, encourage and maintain respect for its authority, compliance with its laws and acquiescence in its measures for the enforcement thereof, and the suppression of insurrection, treason and rebellion, as duties obligatory upon every American Citizen.
And you give an award to someone who came to Pennsylvania to campaign for Doug Mastriano, who funded buses to take people to the insurrection, and who was there himself?
I’ve heard people say what happened on January 6 was nothing. But almost 1,000 people have been arrested and charged. There are people who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy. This is the very thing that the first article in the bylaws of the Union League says you cannot do. It is the absolute antithesis of what this organization states it is about.
This is the very thing that the first article in the bylaws of the Union League says you cannot do. It is the absolute antithesis of what this organization states it is about.
The second issue was the undemocratic manner in which that decision was made. That, in part, is because of the concern I expressed at the beginning: People are disengaged, they’re not there to get involved in politics, they’re there to enjoy the club. A small group of individuals have been making these decisions and having it rubber-stamped by another group of individuals. Most members never focused on this, so it became the norm.
So, there was a concerted effort to fix this issue. We had discussions to provide multiple off-ramps. We said, if you think this is the right decision, no problem, cover your own posterior — poll the membership. Then you could legitimately say we’re doing this on behalf of the club. There was this steadfast resistance to doing that. They said, We don’t need to because when we announced the event, we got sold out very quickly and had a waiting list, so that indicated strong support for the award.
But how many people would be seated for the event? Three hundred? Four hundred? Most people will bring a guest. So you’re saying 150 to 200 members out of 4,000+ — and from there, you extrapolate that you have overwhelming support? If that was indeed the case, then they should have been very comfortable polling the League’s membership to confirm what the leadership believed was the members’ overwhelming support for the award.
The third issue came out of the attempt to give off-ramps to avoid controversy. I’m a passionate small “d” democrat. Everyone should be able to express their political desire, or none at all. We said, you don’t have to bring the League into it at all. If they gave the award in their name, or in the name of their group, it would have been uncontroversial. They refused to do that.
They gave it, in effect, in my name, which implied I was supportive of that, which I was not.
Who were the people who made the decision to award DeSantis?
There’s a group of former presidents of the League, and under the bylaws, that group has an advisory role at most. But over the years, the norm has been that they were the ones who gave the selection to the existing board, and the board would rubber stamp it. In this case, approximately 10 people made this selection, and a majority of the board affirmed it.
One of the things that’s important in a participatory democracy is for you to know who’s making the decisions. In this situation, the narrative is that the Union League did this — and that’s accurate, what was done was done in the name of the Union League. But a large number of League members, and certainly the public, are not aware of who actually made that decision.
It’s important that the citizenry of Philadelphia knows who made those decisions. [See list below.]
I’m a passionate lover of the American story, of Philadelphia, of the pivotal role, the determinant role Philadelphia plays in the American story, of the power of the Constitution. Those are things that I hold very passionately. This is not about me. This is about the principles that are involved.
This is an institution that is not only in the city, but it also benefits from the resources of the city. These individuals in their professional lives are all leaders of major institutions in Philadelphia that espouse extensive statements about diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. These individuals as leaders hold their employees to those standards.
And yet, in their personal lives, when they have the prerogative to make decisions, this is what they do. From my perspective, this reflects a level of hypocrisy and internal moral conflict.
Which one is it? Do you seriously believe in the things that you say in your professional life? Or you don’t?
In your public resignation, you said it would be a “personal moral conflict for me to remain in, and financially support, an institution whose leadership is comfortable supporting someone whose views directly defy my own.” Can you elaborate a bit?
A lot of people rationalize this kind of situation, saying, This is less than one percent of what I care about when I’m using the facilities. I’m not happy about it, but I look the other way. I don’t know how much you can ignore and still remain morally-centered. I almost envy them their ability to do that. For me, the conflict was too intense.
To paraphrase what Edmund Burke was supposed to have said: All that you need for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
This isn’t a political issue; nor is it a racial issue. The same award was given to [former U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions. That wasn’t something I was enthusiastic about, but it wasn’t odious. This is odious, and it’s contrary to what the organization claims it stands for.
Will you miss the club?
The good news is that, the philosophical and moral reasons for which I joined I won’t miss because the League has not lived up to those ideals. On the fellowship side, which I really value, these are my friends, whether we’re in the League or not. The only thing I won’t have access to are the facilities, but the good Lord is kind, and I have multiple alternatives.
Of course, I will miss the League in general. I enjoyed the League for almost 20 years. I liked what I thought it stood for.
But I’m a passionate lover of the American story, of Philadelphia, of the pivotal role, the determinant role Philadelphia plays in the American story, of the power of the Constitution — it’s an extraordinary document, even with all its flaws. Those are things that I hold very passionately. To that, I’m willing to use my voice. This is not about me. This is about the principles that are involved.
A source told us at The Citizen last fall that approximately 30 people in League leadership approved giving DeSantis the Gold Medal. Among the decision-makers were the former presidents and current board members of the League. I reached out to each of them, but — in accordance with Union League rules, which prevent talking about League business with outsiders — no one agreed to comment.
- Greg Montanaro, vice president of federal affairs and senior advisor, office of government and community relations, Drexel University
- Tom Lynch, former vice president and portfolio manager, The Haverford Trust Company
- Dan DiLella, president and CEO, Equus Capital Partners
- Joan Carter, co-founder and president, UM Holdings, Ltd.
- Frank Giordano, former president of Philly Pops and executive director of USA250
- Tom Pappas, director of asset management at City Office REIT
- Charlie Davidson, associate professor of the practice, finance & real estate, Villanova University School of Business
- Jack Zook, founder, Zook Dinon PA
- Admiral Tom Lynch, executive chairman of the board, NewDay USA
- Jim Dunigan, independent director, Provident Bank
- Craig Mills, executive shareholder, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney
- Chellie Cameron, president/CEO, Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia
- James F. Dever, president, Bank of America Philadelphia
- Timothy E. Gillespie, vice president/director of client management, The Haverford Trust Company
- Harry Hill, president, Empire Abrasive Equipment Company
- Thomas Holt Jr., owner, Holt Logistics Corp
- Tim Hughes, president & CEO, Movers Specialty Service
- Christopher Topolewski, founder and managing member, Wick Capital Partners
- Peter Madden, founder/CEO, AgileCat
- Elaine Marquardt, managing director, Savills North America
- Thomas McGarrigle, partner, Reed Smith
- Patrick McGrory, CEO/private wealth advisor, Liberty Point Advisors
- Jordan Mersky, vice president, chief mergers and acquisitions counsel, American Water
- Arlene Yocum, director, Cleveland-Cliffs, Glenmede, and Hamilton Lane Alliance Holdings
Correction: This article has been updated to remove a name of an individual erroneously listed as a board member.
MORE ON DEMOCRACY FROM THE CITIZENStatue of a Union soldier outside The Union League of Philadelphia. By D Campolongo for Flickr.