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.)

A WEEK AND A HALF AFTER THE NOVEMBER ELECTION, in the grand ballroom of the Bellevue Hotel, Stalberg and his mob met for breakfast. It was the Committee of Seventy’s annual fund-raiser, and about 650 people turned out. The keynote speaker was loudmouth political commentator James Carville, who was introduced after a zydeco band performed a Creole rendition of the national anthem, presumably in honor of the Ragin’ Cajun. Attendees sat at tables that had been purchased by the biggest corporations in town: Comcast, Vanguard, Liberty Property Trust, Citizens Bank, Independence Blue Cross and dozens of others. Early in his address, in the middle of a crack about the sorry state of the Republican presidential field, Carville looked out at the room of mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle-aged-and-up attendees, checked himself for a moment, and observed, “I’m talking to a roomful of Republicans.”

Carville isn’t the first to notice that the increasingly outspoken Committee of Seventy doesn’t much resemble the city it so stridently critiques. Stalberg guesses that the 75 members of his board are pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. (He’s a registered Democrat.) But there’s no getting around the fact that most (at least 40) live in the suburbs, including Stalberg—a bit of information that Council members enjoy talking about almost as much as they do Stalberg’s salary ($270,684 in 2010).

In 2010, for instance, when Seventy came out against a ballot measure requiring all contractors doing business with the city to pay their employees a living wage, Councilman Goode, who sponsored the measure, urged voters to “tell the rich guys to drive their Jaguars back to the suburbs and shut up when it comes to our economic opportunity.” The Jaguar in question belongs to Stalberg, who resides in Bala Cynwyd. “It’s so symptomatic of the tribal nature of Philadelphia,” says Stalberg. “If you don’t live within the city limits, you don’t count, which to me is a great way of writing off a lot of people and resources that could help you.” Of course, Stalberg didn’t exactly elevate that debate when he invited the then-rotund Councilman for a ride—assuming he could squeeze his frame into the two-seater.

Stalberg shrugs. “If you care too much about them liking you, you’re dead,” he says. “All you’re going to be doing is second-guessing every action and every statement, and the reality is that they don’t particularly respect that anyway. They respect you when you’re tough.”

What’s more remarkable than Council’s disdain for Stalberg’s hectoring is how much the city’s legal and business establishment appears to relish it. Stalberg says, and several of his board members confirm, that he’s never been told to dial it back. That’s remarkable, considering that the committee is clearly a creature of Philadelphia’s elite, and historically the city’s elite have been loath to mix it up publicly with political leaders.

The charitable view is that Stalberg represents the id of a legal and business community that is quietly as outraged as the rest of the city by the many failings of Philadelphia’s public institutions. In this view, Stalberg gives voice to what Philadelphia’s professional titans would like to say but can’t, either because of the long-standing cultural lockdown on dissent or because their companies prize good relations with the political class. The cynical view is that for these elites, the Committee of Seventy is a safe way to look like reformers without actually having to challenge incumbents or back long-shot reform candidates.

“Look, every elected official in this town has pressure points. But for a lot of them, a tough quote in a newspaper is not a pressure point,” says Brett Mandel, the former head of Philadelphia Forward who ran a losing reform campaign for city controller in 2009. What Mandel means is that shaming is not enough, at least not when the targets aren’t remotely ashamed of their behavior.

Which seems to argue that what the committee really needs to advance its agenda is new elected officials who share the organization’s ideals. And the way you put new politicians in office is by raising money for them or by mobilizing voters, which just isn’t in Seventy’s DNA. Actually, Stalberg says, there have been internal conversations about a more activist Committee of Seventy.­ Its current tax status forbids direct participation in political campaigns, but theoretically there’s nothing stopping Seventy from reorganizing, and then creating a political arm that could draw on the very deep pockets of its board members and serve as a counterweight to, say, John Dougherty’s myriad PACs. Seventy is also pondering a low-cost membership option—say, $20 a year—to extend its base beyond its powerful board. “I wouldn’t be real surprised over time if there’s the creation of some arm of the Committee of Seventy that’s more activist,” Stalberg says. “Right now, it’s a little too early to say, and there would be intense argument on both sides about that.”

For anyone who values ethics and transparency in government, the appeal of a politically powered Seventy is pretty clear. But could an overtly political organization still be a credible elections monitor? Would Stalberg’s public commentary lose its punch if the committee were seen by the public as just another partisan outfit? Unfortunately, Seventy probably has a choice to make: Does it continue to serve as the city’s conscience? Or does the organization evolve into one of real political consequence? Who’s to say which function is more vital? Mr. Stalberg, can you please figure out a way to give us both?