“That’s not an appropriate answer.”
That’s how Rebecca Rhynhart reacted during last week’s televised mayoral debate, when grocer Jeff Brown, asked to address complaints of pollution and environmental racism in Chester — where Philly dumps some of its trash — said: “Chester is Chester. I’m worried about Philadelphians and how their lives are.”
It was another rookie mistake by Brown, for a couple of reasons. For one: Does he not think that folks in Chester essentially breathe our same air? That there’s this thing called wind? Also, the question was teed up for a run-of-the-mill environmental answer — the kind that no doubt populates many of his debate prep notecards.
As a follow-up, Brown was asked: “So you don’t care about Chester?”
“I do care, but I don’t work for them if I’m the mayor,” he said. “I work for Philadelphia, and the trash has to go somewhere, and whoever gets it is going to be unhappy with it.”
That’s when former City Controller Rhynhart spoke up, but before she could explain why Brown’s answer was inappropriate, the moderator had zipped along to the next topic. So this week I reached out to her.
“It was inappropriate because Philadelphia should not be contributing to the environmental racism in Chester by sending our trash to be burned there,” Rhynhart said. “Our priority should be to reduce the level of waste we produce and lower our carbon footprint.”
That’s the smart answer Rhynhart would no doubt have given on the stage if given the chance, likely even plugging the sustainability plan on her website. But the next part of her response to me gets to one of the most critical issues the city faces; owing to its unsexiness, though, it’s one few candidates have touched upon in this campaign:
“Besides, the next mayor needs to work with our neighbors to lift the entire region,” Rhynhart said. “As Mayor, I’ll work with the county leadership in Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties to strengthen our partnership and position us all for success.”
It’s been an interesting, and uneven, 30 years for Philadelphia and regionalism — the idea that the city working in tandem with its surrounding counties amounts to a win/win for all involved. For decades, the strategy has been employed to some success, then inexplicably backed away from, time and again. In an increasingly globalized marketplace, it is regions — not states or cities — that are best positioned to compete economically.
So rather than competing against one another for jobs, talent, capital, taxpayers, and federal and state handouts, wouldn’t the Southeastern Pennsylvania counties be stronger together?
With a nearly $500 billion Gross Metropolitan Product (GMP), Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties — not to mention South Jersey — all working together would become an economic behemoth. But that would mean a level of cooperation we haven’t consistently seen. Remember when Philly was so excited by its Amazon pitch a few years ago? Well, maybe we would have stood a better chance had Bucks County been a partner in our pitch, instead of submitting its own?
“My first job,” Nutter used to say, “is to create jobs in Philadelphia. My second job is to create jobs in the region.”
Alas, “regionalism” is not an issue that is going to get voters excited; in fact, its mere mention is more likely to make an audience start to nod off. But after Election Day …
“On May 17, the winner of the Democratic primary will recognize she has a critically important regional leadership role,” says former State Rep. Mike Gerber, now in the private sector with FS Investments. [Full disclosure: The FS Foundation supports The Citizen.] “We can’t afford to be tribal or parochial. We need to think and act as one region, building relationships in the counties, Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., to attract needed resources for our transportation systems, healthcare systems and social services, as well as our regional educational and cultural assets. She’ll have to think and act that way.”
We’re likely further away from a comprehensive regional strategy than ever, thanks to the hunkering down of our disappearing mayor. In 2019, Mayor Kenney admitted that he rarely even speaks to the elected leaders of Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Bucks counties, or, for that matter, to those in South Jersey and Delaware. When he does chat them up, he told the Philadelphia Business Journal, it’s never about anything substantive.
Where’s the candidate who points out such political malpractice with a real plan to effectively grow the Philadelphia footprint by partnering with our neighbors?
It has been done
To be clear: It’s not that regionalism hasn’t been tried here. It just hasn’t always survived the political landmines in its way. Let’s walk through the recent history.
Back in the 90s, legendary Penn professor and public intellectual Ted Hershberg and other civic leaders convened over a thousand regional leaders at the Convention Center to map out a strategy. Hershberg had spent countless hours making the argument that a regional strategic plan, smartly done, would benefit both city and suburb. He had the data and the anecdotal case studies to prove it.
“The Mall of America in the Twin Cities at the time was the largest mall in the United States,” he told me in 2021. “Did you know that the retail taxes of the mall were shared by 170 different municipalities? Because they realized that working together meant everybody wins.”
Ultimately, though, what Hershberg calls “the stunning parochialism” of the region’s leadership doomed his vision from coming together.
Fast forward to the mayoralty of Michael Nutter. As a candidate, he picked the brain of then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who’d created something called the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus — a membership organization of the Chicago region’s 275 cities, towns and villages. Founded in 1997 by Daley and leading mayors from nine suburban municipalities, the Caucus has long been a way for Chicago area leaders to work together on common goals that transcend arbitrary geographic boundaries.
“On May 17, the winner of the Democratic primary had better wake up with a regional mindset,” says former State Rep. Mike Gerber.
Taking his cue from Daley, Nutter created the Metropolitan Caucus here, consisting of business, civic and elected leaders throughout the five-county region. He pressed the flesh in Ardmore and Marcus Hook. He’d govern by day and then hightail it out to Paoli for a rubber chicken dinner. It was at a time when much of the suburban leadership was Republican, and there Nutter was, establishing rapport.
“My first job,” Nutter would tell them, “is to create jobs in Philadelphia. My second job is to create jobs in the region.” Such cooperation not only resulted in greater job growth, but also led to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and greater transportation and police funding throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.
Meantime, Temple Professor Joe McLaughlin created a Center on Regional Politics, which launched a series of convenings and released reports, all evangelizing for the transformative power of bipartisan regionalism. Simultaneously, in the state house, Gerber found that there was a Philadelphia and an Allegheny County delegation, but no southeastern Pennsylvania delegation, so he and other lawmakers started one.
Significant divisions had to be overcome: Political, racial, geographic. Yet real strides were being made, until Kenney — no doubt seeing the strategy as belonging to his predecessor, chose to govern as though Philadelphia were an island unto itself rather than smartly make the policy his own. How’s that been working out for us?
The evidence is clear
What’s so frustrating is that the evidence is clear: Regionalism works. As former Philadelphia Business Journal editor Craig Ey laid out in a 2019 column, at one point Silicon Valley wasn’t even a thing; it was just a cluster of communities near San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. Entrepreneurs and political leaders created Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a kind of task force, and willed the entity into being, ushering in uniform permitting and licensing requirements throughout the region.
Ey also gives us the pro-growth story of Nashville, Tennessee, which he traces to a 50-year-old approval by voters of consolidating the city’s government with surrounding Davidson County. “From that point on, Nashville had no choice but to govern and act through regional consensus,” Ey writes. “Everyone in the metro area had a stake.”
Now, these examples might not be the exact roadmap for Philadelphia, which already is its own county. And I doubt any merger of government functions between Philly and its surrounding counties will be politically palatable anytime soon. But that there is utterly no discussion of a regional strategy is nothing short of political malpractice — on the part of both city and suburban leaders, both of whom do fine electorally under the status quo.
“The opportunity for regionalism is greater now that the counties have gone Democratic, and because of Governor Shapiro,” says Temple’s Joe McLaughlin.
City leaders are hooked on the crack cocaine of local politics — a regressive, worst-in-the-nation wage tax. And suburban leaders cry “taxation without representation” come election time to beat up on Philly.
Meanwhile, the Wayne businessman flies to L.A. on the job and, while downing a few at the LAX watering hole, doesn’t say “I’m from Wayne, Pennsylvania” when his new-found drinking buddy inquires as to his roots. He says he’s from Philly, and he says it proudly — so isn’t it high time Philadelphia’s leaders say to him that we’re going to treat you as more of a citizen than an ATM machine? The devil is always in the details, but wouldn’t that potentially be a smart way for Philly and the burbs to grow, together?
You won’t hear that conversation between now and Election Day, sadly. But at least we know that Rhynhart sees the question of sending our trash to Chester as antithetical to effective regional cooperation.
And we know that Cherelle Parker similarly gets it; during the debate, she pointedly responded to Brown’s “Chester is Chester” statement by referencing her close relationship with Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, and she’s been endorsed by Philly’s two U.S. Congress members, not to mention more state legislators than her opponents.
Whoever wins, it bears keeping in mind that regionalism might still have its day. “The opportunity for regionalism is greater now that the counties have gone Democratic, and because of Governor Shapiro,” McLaughlin, now retired, said when I caught up with him this week.
He’s right, the opportunity is right there. It comes down to this: Will a new mayor have the vision and skillset to pull together the city and suburbs into a powerhouse economic and civic engine?
It will require nuance and selling skills and a swagger and doggedness we haven’t seen in some time. But Jeff Brown and the other candidates whose first instinct when asked about Philly burning its trash in Chester was to pit neighbor against neighbor? They need to widen the aperture of their lens. You want to make inroads on the intractable problems — poverty, gun violence, anemic job growth — that continue to hold Philadelphia back? You do that with partners, not by dissing them.
MORE ON THE MAYORAL RACE FROM THE CITIZENJeff Brown in a a video still from Fox29's coverage of the debate