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What Change Feels Like

Three months out from mayoral and council elections, is Philly’s political establishment heading for a reckoning?

Three months out from mayoral and council elections, is Philly’s political establishment heading for a reckoning?

We’re all Phil Connors, you and I. You remember Phil. The TV weatherman who rises each day to Sonny & Cher’s “I’ve Got You, Babe” and finds himself in an endless time loop, living the same day, day after day? Well, when it comes to Philly politics, everyday is Groundhog Day: The perp walks. The indictments. The shady development deals. Our shrugging acceptance.

I felt it most acutely after the Dougherty and Henon indictments, as I’ve written, Do Somethinger, ranted. Reading the indictment’s charges that a City Councilman had been weaponized in service of the interests of one powerful man, I wondered: Where’s the outrage? And, more to the point: How do we put public corruption on the ballot three months from now, in the Democratic primary for mayor and city council?

Well, lately, I’ve started to wonder if the outrage is already there. Maybe—just maybe—the establishment, so long ensconced here, is on the run. This may be nothing more than a pollyannish pep talk to myself, but, given recent events, I find myself entertaining the possibility that this moment in Philadelphia is actually what change feels like.

Let’s walk through the exhibits that have me newly (naively?) hopeful:

Change Is In The Air. During the 2017 campaign, The Citizen hosted a debate for City Controller between then-incumbent Alan Butkovitz and then-challenger Rebecca Rhynhart. In the back of the room, a public official leaned over and whispered in my ear:

“Alan’s a good public servant. But you know what I see on that stage? New versus old.” So, ultimately, did the electorate, voting for Rhynhart by a large margin. In the same election, Larry Krasner swept to power on a radical platform of change.

Last year’s mid-terms followed a similar script. Might the electoral stage be set to confront the two local offices that have historically been the most allergic to change, Council and the Mayor?

New Blood. It may seem counterintuitive, but, owing to the corrosive power of Councilmanic Prerogative, district council members wield significantly more power than those elected At-Large. Which is why they usually run unopposed; you take them on at your peril.

But something different is happening this time around. Now, every district council member is facing primary opposition. And we’re not talking token opposition. Real candidates with real resumes and actual ideas  have stepped up, folks like Jamie Gauthier, the former Executive Director of the Fairmount Park Conservatory, who is taking on Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell in the 3rd District—which has been represented by someone with the Blackwell surname for no less than 45 years.

Maybe—just maybe—the establishment, so long ensconced here, is on the run. This may be nothing more than a pollyannish pep talk to myself, but, I find myself entertaining the possibility that this moment in Philadelphia is actually what change feels like.

Then there’s Lauren Vidas in the 2nd District, a one-time Council staffer and Nutter administration policy geek, who has her sights set on Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who reportedly steered city land to a friend and campaign contributor in a sweetheart deal. And let’s not forget Omar Woodard, the 35-year-old North Philly native and former aide to State Senator Tony Williams who most recently ran the Philadelphia office of the Greenlight Foundation, a nonprofit venture capital firm that invests in anti-poverty programs. Last week, he filed to set his sights on none other than Council President Darrell Clarke in the 5th District.

There are others, too—there hasn’t been a better class of challengers in recent memory. Change can be viral, and it appears that we may be coming down with a case. But it seldom just happens. There are also carriers of the bug, which gets us to…

The Philly 3.0 Effect. In the last two months, I’ve had numerous conversations with local politicos and City Hall insiders who were all nervously fretting over what Philly 3.0 would be doing in this year’s election. “I heard they’re going after every incumbent,” one local pol worriedly observed.

3.0 is the 501(c)(4) Political Action Committee run by Ali Perelman, a rising star in her own right, that is committed to infusing Council with new blood. (Full disclosure: We publish insightful dispatches from the group’s engagement director, Jon Geeting.) 3.0 holds its cards close, but, judging by how many pols have been talking about the group, I suspect the PAC has had a lot to do with fielding this year’s lineup of challengers.

That’s given some progressive good-government types pause, since we don’t know where 3.0’s funding comes from. But those concerns actually amount to an unwitting endorsement of the status quo by drawing a false moral equivalency between a reform group and a political machine desperate to hold on to power for power’s sake. The truth is, in a corrupt, one-party town, the ends justify the means when it’s for a good cause.

Mayors in Philadelphia tend to get easily reelected. As with our Council races, wherein, over the last 35 years, only 13 incumbent Council members who had served a full four-year term have lost their seats to a challenger. We don’t have elections. We have coronations.

Yes, in an ideal world and a functional democracy, those who work to influence government for the better ought to do so in the light of day. But that ain’t us. Why don’t those who contribute to 3.0 do so publicly? Because they saw what happened to those who did. When 3.0 first attracted attention a few years ago, it was reported that it was the doing of Joe and Rob Zuritsky, the parking magnates. After the group endorsed a slate of reform-minded challengers to Council incumbents and publicly made the case for term limits, the jobs-for-life political class reacted as if a political fatwa had been issued. Lo and behold, sending a message, Council raised parking taxes.

The Zuritskys are no longer a part of the group, I’m told. But good for 3.0 for not folding back when Darrell Clarke et al tried to flex their muscles. Clarke has still not announced that he’ll be seeking reelection. Now that he and others on Council have credible challengers, it will be interesting to see how many incumbents turn out to have been paper tigers all along.

The Establishment…In Denial. The great former heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb, he of the granite chin, once explained to me that knockouts tend to only happen when you don’t see the punch coming.

Well, the same can be said of sweeping political change: It’s only seen as inevitable in retrospect. In real time, those in power rarely can envision themselves being thrown out of it. That’s why the local Democratic party endorsed Chaka Fattah after he’d been indicted and why, after the Dougherty and Henon indictments, we heard not a word of moral condemnation from any party leader or public officeholder—until yesterday, when State Rep. Jared Solomon held a press conference at City Hall calling for the Councilman to resign. “Nobody has asked me to step down,” Henon said last month, in a line that should become a bumper sticker slogan: Philly, Where No One Asks You To Step Down.

Read MoreAh, the arrogance of power. Last week, when a series of violent threats and an alleged attack broke out between activists and staffers of Councilwoman Blackwell’s at her reelection kickoff event, in attendance were State Senators Tony Williams and Vince Hughes, as well as Bob Brady, Democratic party chair. Lo and behold, an oldie but goodie made a return appearance. Michael Youngblood, the former Blackwell aide who was convicted of 34 counts of extortion, bank fraud, tax evasion, and failure to file tax returns back in the 90s, was reported to direct rape threats at the activists. Was there a statement later released by any of the elected officials in attendance, condemning such behavior and striking a note for civility? What do you think?

A Competitive Mayoral Re-Election? Here? Back in 2011, Michael Nutter cruised to reelection with 75 percent of the vote against the ever-entertaining Milton Street. That was with all of 20 percent of registered voters showing up at the polls. Sadly, this lack of competition was no outlier. Mayors in Philadelphia tend to get easily reelected. As with our Council races, wherein, over the last 35 years, only 13 incumbent Council members who had served a full four-year term have lost their seats to a challenger. We don’t have elections. We have coronations.

But this year, Mayor Kenney already has one official challenger—the aforementioned Butkovitz—and Tony Williams is gearing up a challenge and has former Mayor John Street in his corner. As I wrote last week, there’s some speculation that City Councilman Allan Domb might throw his hat in the ring, too.

The Domb scenario is significant, because the Condo King has the wherewithal to be a self-funder, at a time when Williams is already trying to shame Mayor Kenney into forsaking any Local 98 campaign contributions. The whispers about Domb was given new life this week when an ad debuted on local TV.

The Domb scenario is significant, because the Condo King has the wherewithal to be a self-funder, at a time when Williams is already trying to shame Mayor Kenney into forsaking any Local 98 campaign contributions.

Granted, it’s an “Allan Domb for City Council” ad. But doesn’t it feel a bit, I don’t know, mayoral? And no one else running for Council is on the air yet—we’re still three months out. Could Domb be testing the waters, trying to raise his name ID, particularly among African-American voters?

Domb has struck a nerve. After he introduced a term limits bill in Council, I heard some rumblings criticizing him for having been opposed to term limits when he ran four years ago. Flip-flop, or evolution?

From the perspective of civic health, I wonder if it matters. What does matter is that we have a chance to have a campaign for Mayor in Philadelphia that might be characterized by, like, debates and ideas. Tragically, a mayoral campaign in which an incumbent is challenged to defend a record and lay out a vision—beyond the pavlovian phrase “soda tax”—would be quite novel for Philadelphia.

Look to Chicago. Is it possible that there could be an anti-establishment bump at the polls courtesy of the Dougherty indictment? There may be a precedent for that.

Just weeks before the Dougherty and Henon indictments rocked Philly, the feds indicted Chicago Alderman Edward Burke on fraud charges. Tell me if this sounds Philly-like: Powerbroker Burke was charged with extorting legal work for his law firm and a campaign contribution for Cook County Board President and mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle from the owners of a Burger King franchise who needed permits for their planned renovation.

We have a chance to have a campaign for Mayor in Philadelphia that might be characterized by, like, debates and ideas. Tragically, a mayoral campaign in which an incumbent is challenged to defend a record and lay out a vision would be quite novel for Philadelphia.

Well, fast-forward to last week, when the mayoral primary resulted in a stunning upset of William M. Daley, a brother of the city’s longest-serving mayor and a son of the second-longest-serving mayor. Qualifying for the runoff, instead, were two African-American women: the aforementioned Preckwinkle, clearly a part of the political establishment—and the intriguing Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who ran against machine politics and Burke’s type of insider cronyism. No one expected her to do so well. “So what do you think of us now?” she called out to her supporters on election night. “This, my friends, is what change looks like.”

What Next? Let’s say this is what change feels like, and Philly, like Chicago, undergoes an interesting realignment come election day. Job done?

Hardly. We don’t just need new office holders. We also need structural change in the way we practice our politics. Which is why any new Councilperson or Mayor will have to be held to account on issues like term limits and other reforms.

In Philadelphia, after all, fresh and young has a way of becoming old and incarcerated. We don’t want to end up repeating past failed narratives. Remember, Chaka Fattah and Seth Williams were both once widely praised as refreshing reformers. Today, both wear orange jumpsuits on involuntary vacations. One election won’t change that story. But it could be a start.

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