The latest mayoral race controversy had to do with Jeff Brown’s use of the word “lynch” in a private conversation captured on video. Now, perhaps I’m old school, but in matters of public import, I think context matters. So here it is:
“A lot of the insiders, they don’t want an outsider,” said Brown, addressing an unidentified White man in a video tweeted by Philadelphia Magazine’s Ernest Owens. “Because all the things they do, to me, some of them are horrifying, that they have their little deal amongst themselves, and if the citizens knew, they’d lynch them.”
Six of Brown’s opponents are Black, and the backlash swiftly came. Derek Green, one of Brown’s Black opponents, said Brown’s comments “disgusted” him.
“Jeff Brown, you cannot call Black people your ‘life’s work,’ then turn around and callously joke about people ‘lynching’ your opponents, multiple of whom are Black,” Green said in a statement. “Your comments are hurtful, dangerous, clueless, and they are a continuation of a pattern of problematic behavior.”
Brown quickly apologized, acknowledging that the word “lynch” is “hurtful to so many and has no place in public discourse…I think my record speaks for itself, and even though there was no racial intent, I understand that my words were offensive.”
“We’re being provoked all the time,” Rev. Bill Golderer said. “We’re either outraged all the time, or we’re fire-siders, standing by and watching the flames. You know what depresses participation in everything? Always being surrounded by cynicism and nihilism.”
It made for good campaign back and forth, and a no-doubt clicked-upon headline. But, really, wasn’t it much ado about not much? Does Derek Green, desperate to find a lane in this crowded field, really think Jeff Brown is racist? Or, in an unguarded moment, would the ultra-reasonable former city councilman, liberated from also-ran status, concede that Brown — who has fed and employed Black people throughout his adult life —may just have made a bad word choice?And is Brown really sorry for using the word lynch, clearly with no intent to insult or trigger?
This is politics, folks, which means that come campaign time — or what Barack Obama used to call “silly season” — a whole lotta people are either feigning outrage, playing at remorse, or trying to otherwise rile you up, all in service of selling you something.
But, in this case, all the playacting has obscured a very real issue. Just who was Brown talking about in that video? What are the “horrifying” misdeeds they’d, uh, be taken to the woodshed for — if only the voter knew about them? If Brown’s opponents are corrupt, why be cryptic about it?
Is he really an outsider?
Brown, positing himself as an outsider (a claim we’ll inspect), was no doubt referencing what we all know to be our local government’s insider, transactional nature. Yes, we have been among the league leaders in perp walks these last decades, but what truly sets Philly apart is its legal corruption, its ingrained traditions (councilmanic prerogative, anyone?) that create, in effect, two cities: One with a set of rules for insiders, and one for the rest of us.
I don’t have to cite chapter and verse again, do I? We saw it in the Dougherty and Henon trial, the Tony Soprano-like way of skimming off the top of local government. We saw it in the dissolution of Traffic Court, when it became clear that the politically connected could get their summonses magically disappeared. We saw it in the early aughts, when “pay to play” seemed to be standard operating procedure during the administration of Mayor John Street — who, it should be noted, was not corrupt, and whose public service never seemed to be motivated by personal gain.
But there is a longstanding system at work here. “Corrupt and contented” was not just a description of Philadelphia by the legendary journalist Lincoln Steffens in the early 20th Century; it’s actually still an apt lens through which to understand our politics today. It wasn’t that long ago that Mayor Kenney appointed the apparatchik and chiropractor of his political benefactor Dougherty to head the Zoning Board — before said chiropractor was sentenced to prison as part of the Dougherty and Henon probe.
If it’s that kind of malfeasance Brown is referring to, doesn’t he owe the voters some details? And a plan for cleaning up city government? Then again, is Brown a real reformer, as he’d have you believe?
Remember, as far as we know, there is only one candidate for mayor being investigated by the Ethics Board for campaign finance activities, and his name is Jeff Brown. When the Inquirer broke the story that the Ethics Board was asking questions about Brown, Green instantly, and correctly, called on the Board to not let any transgressions, if they exist, lapse into the category of simply being the cost of doing business in Philadelphia politics.
In the past, after elections had already taken place, candidates have been slapped on the wrist with fines. Green called for immediate transparency, though none was forthcoming, and Brown’s team oddly said “We’re precluded from commenting on the matter,” thereby seeming to confirm that a probe was underway.
I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of campaign finance law, lest you lose consciousness. But back in December, the Inquirer reported that Brown was tied to Philly Progress PAC, which raised much of its cash “from donations well in excess of Philadelphia’s campaign contribution limits.” It even had his son on its payroll, and which had paid his campaign manager roughly $200,000, presumably before the campaign officially started.
Truth be told, I’m not all that scandalized by these apparent fundraising end runs — I expect them. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the best-intentioned campaign finance rules will eventually be gotten around.
I was forwarded a message Brown sent to a $10,000 donor, reading, “Thanks for the contribution, please send it in with this form completed,” and the attached form was on Philly Progress PAC letterhead. That was from the first quarter of last year, well before Brown was an announced candidate, and so it may not have technically been in violation of the rules that preclude candidates from skirting campaign finance limits. (Individuals can contribute up to $3,100 annually to a candidate.)
Add to that the presence of pro-Brown TV ads being paid for by For a Better Philadelphia, a Super PAC, which can spend unlimited amounts of money so long as it doesn’t coordinate with a candidate.
To be clear, I’m not scandalized by any of this — it’s the way the game is played. It’s just that someone playing the game this way loses credibility when staking a claim as a reformer. Brown’s camp says that the Philly Progress PAC was, early on, the only way to assess whether his campaign would be viable. But that ignores what countless potential candidates do: They meet with people, they give their best pitch, and they line up pledges to be converted to donations once they announce a candidacy.
Don’t get me wrong. I know Jeff Brown and he’s a good man. But he chose another way. For example, his PAC got a $100,000 donation last year from Hotwire Communications, which is owned by developer and philanthropist Michael Karp. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that; Karp has contributed plenty to the city throughout his career. But he’s long been an inside power player in Philly politics. If you’re Brown, isn’t it a little hard to be an outsider claiming the system needs cleaning up while raising unlimited amounts of money from many of those long part of the usual suspects club?
Brown is not alone
Of course, many candidates have ethical blotches on their records. You’ve heard me on this one before: Cherelle Parker was convicted of driving under the influence in 2011, while a state representative. She was driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and the arresting officers testified that she smelled of alcohol; had no license, registration, or insurance card; had trouble getting out of her state-owned car; and, oddly, was transporting 12 fish platters in her backseat. Parker didn’t just take the case to trial; she accused the officers of making it all up. After losing her appeals, Parker spent three days in jail, paid a $1,000 fine, took a safe driving class, and went a year without a valid driver’s license.
Last year, Allan Domb was fined $2,000 by the Board of Ethics — he’d correctly disclosed a conflict of interest regarding a property he owned in his financial disclosure forms, and abstained from Council measures related to it. But he didn’t announce the reason for his abstention in a public hearing. Domb has since released a state-of-the-art ethics plan with the help of Penn’s Claire Finkelstein, an expert in the field.
In 2015, Helen Gym was the recipient of an $11,500 contribution from the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania PAC right after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers PAC, which had already maxed its contribution to the Gym for Council campaign, had donated the exact same amount to the AFT. It looked like the PFT used the AFT as an illegal “pass-through” in order to get around campaign finance limits; then-Committee of Seventy CEO David Thornburgh said the arrangement looked “suspicious,” and the Board of Ethics subsequently fined the PFT $1,500. A settlement agreement concluded that the Gym campaign was not aware of the illegal contribution.
Maria Quiñones Sánchez paid $8,500 in ethics code violations committed during the 2015 election. During that same election, Derek Green was found to have violated city ethics laws four times and paid a $1,200 fine.
Doesn’t Brown owe the voters some details? And a plan for cleaning up city government? Then again, is Brown a real reformer, as he’d have you believe?
Again, truth be told, I’m not all that scandalized by these apparent fundraising end runs — I expect them. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the best-intentioned campaign finance rules will eventually be gotten around. That’s why pundit Michael Smerconish is likely on to something when he argues that there should be no limits — just total and utter and immediate transparency. Imagine the power of a website that shows who gives — by name, occupation and amount shelled out — and that can maybe even cross-tab that information with a listing of City contracts or perks that have found their way back to the donor. Sunlight as disinfectant.
But if we’re going to have rules — not to mention agreed-upon baseline standards of conduct, like not going to jail before assuming the office of mayor — we should at least note who plays by them. And there is one apparently pristine mayoral candidate.
Rebecca Rhynhart has not had a single ethical allegation against her. (Her opponents have questioned the propriety of having Mayor John Street, who endorsed her, on her campaign payroll, but that was done transparently and Street’s is decidedly not a no-show job; he is intimately involved at Rhynhart headquarters every day).
In fact, Rhynhart often goes beyond the letter of the law when it comes to ethics. She made Kellan White, her chief of staff at the Controller’s Office, recuse himself from any audit of the Department of Behavioral Health because his father is a provider of mental health services — even though he was not required to. And Rhynhart preemptively recused herself from any audit of Mural Arts that might come up when she sat on its Board.
Why do ethics matter?
All of this begs the question as to why ethics even matter at all in our public life, right? Well, if you’re a progressive, let’s think back just a few years when Donald Trump was in office and shedding ethical norms left and right. Walter Shaub was one of the few to stand up to him. Shaub headed the Office of Governmental Ethics, and he tried time and again to instruct Trump through TV appearances — to no avail.
Finally, he penned one of the great resignation letters of all time, goading Trump. The dude went so far as to italicize: OGE staff, he wrote, were “committed to protecting the principle that public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gains.”
You ever wonder why, here in the birthplace of American democracy, we’re high-fiving when we hit 25 percent of voter turnout among registered voters? Those anemic numbers are the residue of public trust erosion, something clever accounting and multiple PACs do nothing to help alleviate.
Yesterday, I ran into the ever-nattily-attired Rev. Bill Golderer, and happened to ask him why ethics matter. “We live too much from the outside out rather than the inside in,” he said, ever the practitioner of Zen koans. “We’re being provoked all the time. We’re either outraged all the time, or we’re fire-siders, standing by and watching the flames. You know what depresses participation in everything? Always being surrounded by cynicism and nihilism.”
That’s it, I thought. This whole time, reporting on the issues, doing our Ultimate Job Interview series, posting policy solutions, I’ve been missing the hole in the heart of our city. This election is really about whether we can believe again — in each other, in our city, in fairness. In healing. That’s why ethics matter. Because there’s no commonality without it.
Perhaps our smartest modern philosopher, Sam Harris, had the Philadelphia mayor’s race in mind when he made this universal observation. “I think the greatest challenge facing our species is to build a global civilization based on shared values,” he said. “To do this, we will need to think about questions of right and wrong and good and evil in a common framework, purposed toward human flourishing.”
Human flourishing. As we hit the homestretch, which one of our candidates is going to make that their north star?
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MORE ON THE ELECTION FROM THE CITIZENHeader photo from The Citizen's Ultimate Job Interview by Sabina Louise Pierce.