Can the Committee of Seventy Clean Up Philadelphia Politics?

The Committee of Seventy used to be a watchdog for Philadelphia elections. Now it's trying to reform Philadelphia politics. (Good luck with that.)

FOR A FREAKISHLY LONG 20-YEAR RUN before he arrived at the Committee of Seventy, Stalberg was the beloved editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. Some staffers wept when he announced he was bowing out, and for those who know him, it’s easy to understand why. Modern newspaper editors tend not to be the huge personalities of the past, but Stalberg was a throwback,­ a five-foot-nine-inch Groucho Marx doppelgänger­ who wore cowboy boots in the newsroom and somehow didn’t look like an ass while doing so. Then as now, his office was a showcase for carefully selected­ manly memorabilia: Army gear, model cars, movie posters. (“All crap, none of it worth anything,” Stalberg says.) He’d go around quoting 1950s reform mayor Richardson Dilworth: “Yes, I am an emotional man, and a fighter. Do you think there would be any cities if there were not men like me to fight for them?” As a reporter, he convinced Mayor Rizzo to take a polygraph test after Hizzoner was accused of offering a rival a bribe. The resulting headline: RIZZO LIED, TESTS SHOW. As editor, he made the Daily News vital, and most importantly, he kept the tabloid afloat. But that job was getting harder, and Stalberg didn’t want to manage the paper’s decline. Anyway, after 20 years, he’d outlasted even the Inquirer’s venerated Gene Roberts: “I had sucked his fumes for so many years. All those fucking Pulitzers … So I figured, ‘I can at least beat him on longevity.’”

The very day he quit the Daily News in 2005, Stalberg got a call from city power broker and executive-search pro Judee von Seldeneck, who wanted to know if he’d be interested in running the committee. At the time, Seventy’s president was Fred Voigt, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of election law but little stomach for battling City Hall. (Indeed, a few years after he was ushered out of the Committee of Seventy, Voigt went to work for city commissioner and DROP poster child Marge Tartaglione.) The point is, it was far from obvious back then that an old-fashioned newspaperman who got off on candor and confrontation would consider the Committee of Seventy. But the board wanted to make a change. Funding was drying up, because nobody could figure out why the committee mattered anymore. Stalberg credits the late Kathy Engebretson, a former city treasurer and president of the William Penn Foundation who died of cancer a few days before he took the job, with pushing the Committee of Seventy to adopt a broader mission.

Inevitably, Stalberg’s weapon of choice was the press. He knew exactly what reporters were looking for: someone with the profile, knowledge and sharp tongue to say the obvious things that, in this town, too often aren’t said in public. So when the Inquirer needed somebody to acknowledge that the Board of Revision of Taxes was a madhouse, Stalberg was there. And when the Daily News needed a critique of the Sheriff’s Office, Stalberg was there. It wasn’t long before he’d branched out into more generalized commentary on political matters that had nothing to do with ethics, transparency or the mechanics of voting. Indeed, over the past five years, Stalberg has become the most quoted pundit in the Philadelphia press, besting even voluble lobbyist Larry Ceisler. (It helps that he has a knack for issuing succinct judgments on big, complicated matters. Of Nutter, he says offhandedly during one of our interviews, “You can almost see his ambitions for the city shrinking right before your very eyes.”)

But all of this has led to something of an overexposure problem for Stalberg. His voice is in so many stories that at times he can fade into the background, as routine a part of the 15-inch-news-article formula as a byline. But faulting Stalberg for talking too much doesn’t make sense. The real problem is that he’s one of the only ones talking at all.

Philadelphia likes to imagine itself as a blunt, in-your-face city, a place where people say what they mean and mean what they say. But that street-corner candor­ is largely missing from the broader civic dialogue. Sure, pols will fight openly amongst themselves, but those outside of City Hall—including powerful business executives,­ nonprofit leaders and high-profile­ attorneys—­generally prefer to do their grumbling in private. It’s a condition commonly blamed on Philadelphia’s Quaker tradition of modesty, a theory so idiotic that it only tells you nobody knows the real source of the civic aversion for loud and open.

Either by design or happenstance, the code of public silence extends even to the city’s official ethics watchdogs. Getting a juicy quote from Shane Creamer, the painfully circumspect executive director of the Board of Ethics, is a futile endeavor. Nutter’s internal watchdogs, a pair of former Assistant U.S. Attorneys, are eminently capable but allergic to public pronouncements.

But piping up when public officials screw up is what Stalberg does best. In a lot of ways, he approaches this job as he did his old one, keeping an eye out for good angles and hot stories that will capture the public’s imagination. DROP is the best example of this. Stalberg sensed early on that it was a classic case of how politicians “rig the game in order to benefit themselves.” That outrage directly contributed to the biggest turnover in City Council seats in many years, and displaced Marge Tartaglione from the City Commissioner’s Office. But in the end, DROP survived the combined assault of the Committee of Seventy, the press and Mayor Nutter, albeit in a diminished form. In Philadelphia, outrage only gets you so far.