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.)


It’s Election Day in Philadelphia, and Zack Stalberg—the CEO of the Committee of Seventy, the city elections watchdog—has nothing but time on his hands. The war room is up and running inside the committee’s small suite of offices in an aging Penn Center high-rise. Attorneys putting in their pro bono hours are at the long tables, waiting for the phones to ring. Dozens more volunteers, 200 in all, are on the streets making precinct checks, looking for trouble, just as the Committee of Seventy has been doing for over 100 years now. Nobody would deny that it’s important work, particularly in Philadelphia, which has had more than its share of Election Day fraud and intimidation. But the entire operation is kind of mechanical, kind of routine. Stalberg watches the room for a while, because it seems like he should. When his wife calls a little later, he tells her he’ll probably be home early.

Not all that long ago, the Committee of Seventy, which was founded in 1904 as a check on the corrupt Republican machine, pretty much existed for Election Day. Now, election operations are an ancillary job to the committee’s broad new vision, which is nothing less than an honest political culture and a better, more efficient, cleaner government. To some, that seems like a conflict: serving as an utterly nonpartisan elections observer two days a year and a relentless advocate for change the rest of the time. Stalberg, though, doesn’t see it that way: “This is basically about helping people who want to vote. It’s a positive thing. And frankly, it helps balance out some of the unpleasant things I say.”

Indeed, much more than by elections, the Committee of Seventy today is defined by what comes out of Stalberg’s big, marvelously quotable mouth. Seven years ago, before Stalberg left his job as editor of the Daily News, the Committee of Seventy was irrelevant at best, the tame house pet of the city’s political class at worst. Today, Stalberg and the Committee of Seventy aren’t just relevant players in the city’s civic dialogue: They’re omnipresent. It was the Committee of Seventy—with the help of the press and the Nutter administration—­that turned participation in the city’s loathed DROP retirement program into a modern-day political mark of Cain. Stalberg was the loudest to call foul when Mayor Nutter tried to line up anonymous private contributions to buy out the contract of catastrophic schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman. And that’s just to name two recent controversies. Really, there are precious few public debates in which Stalberg’s voice isn’t heard.

But are Stalberg’s broadsides having any actual impact? Here, the record is mixed. The Committee of Seventy’s newfound willingness to enter the public dialogue hasn’t swept the city clean of shady political behavior. City Council will tell you that’s partly because Stalberg’s nonstop critique of City Hall has led many of its denizens to tune him out. “As far as City Council is concerned, the Committee of Seventy is irrelevant. I don’t believe anyone here values their opinion or what Zack says at all,” says Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. Even within the Nutter administration, where the committee is generally well-regarded, there’s a sense that the organization is too easily distracted, too prone to chasing the day’s headlines instead of picking one or two causes and beating on them until victory comes.

Expecting an organization with a staff of just six and a budget of $1.2 million to single-handedly clean up a town as dirty as Philadelphia is perhaps a bit unfair. But then again, under Stalberg, Seventy has encouraged those sorts of expectations. The organization routinely issues comprehensive agendas and roadmaps—on ethics, campaign­ finance, spending and so forth—that call on the city’s elected leaders to enact very specific reforms. An awful lot of those recommendations have gone unheeded.

Stalberg himself has been surprised at the resilience of City Hall’s entitled culture. “I had a simpleminded newspaperman’s point of view, which is that things ought to change overnight,” he says. “And it turns out that a lot of this stuff is deeply ingrained.” Still, Stalberg, 64, isn’t going anywhere, and he remains as cocksure as ever, despite the frustrations. “I’ve been playing some version of this game for over four decades, and I don’t get easily discouraged or upset,” he says. “So things move too slowly. Or a politician finds a way to corrupt a victory. It’s just part of the business.” Stalberg is playing the long game: “I like building something, and that’s what we’re doing here.”

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.

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?

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