Larry Platt interviews former Temple Law School dean and “reformed pay-to-player” Carl Singley, the man who should be mayor.
In a review of the film The Shame of a City, Tigre Hill’s documentary about the last mayoral race, Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey wrote that there is “one individual who emerges charismatically from the ashes of 2003.” Describing Carl Singley, 60, the former Temple Law School dean and current partner at the law firm of Blank Rome, as possessing “Harry Belafonte’s matinee-idol looks and Daniel Webster’s silver tongue,” Rickey posited him as a contender for mayor in 2007. We decided to sit down with the onetime Street confidant, who co-chaired Sam Katz’s 2003 campaign for mayor, to further explore the eloquent outrage he expresses in the movie. A self-described “reformed pay-to-player,” Singley has never been known to hold his tongue, as he showed during a 2004 symposium on race at the Wharton School that he turned into a stunning, Chris Rock-like lecture on the permutations of the word “nigger,” and in the recent controversy in which he called the members of an all-white jury “crackers.” (In 2003, Singley sent this magazine a profane letter to the editor in response to a Noel Weyrich column. When called to confirm that he indeed meant for the letter to be published, Singley responded: “Yes, just make sure I spelled ‘asinine’ correctly.”) Herewith, one insider’s prescription for what ails our civic life.
Philadelphia magazine: In the film The Shame of a City, you seem genuinely outraged by the exploitation of race in the 2003 mayoral race. Does Philadelphia need that sense of outrage now?
Carl Singley: I think so. I think it’s time for somebody to be indignant. Time and time again, people who run for public office and hold public office underestimate the basic intelligence of the people they seek to lead, and they are prepared to manipulate, with no sense of shame, the differences that exist among people. In that movie, there was a press conference where Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah used racial divisions to exploit differences. Their message was that somehow Republicans were going to come into Philadelphia and intimidate and harass and commit criminal acts to prevent African-Americans from voting. That comes from the same party of people that had Johnny Dougherty’s union people following Sam Katz, shouting, pushing people, literally threatening physical intimidation. So I really was outraged by it, by the hypocrisy of it. They were so desperate to hold on to power that they would do whatever it took to maintain it, and they really didn’t give a damn what the world looked like after they finished.
PM: What are the biggest challenges facing Philadelphia today?
CS: What we need is what the city got when Ed Rendell was elected mayor, and that is the ability to articulate people’s basic sense of hope and optimism that things can change if the right people are given an opportunity. We need leadership to remind people about our better virtues and civic values. And we need some straight talk. Politicians today won’t take a policy position without checking to see where the public pulse is. That’s the difference between following public opinion and shaping and leading public opinion. My wife says I’ve never had an unexpressed thought. I think she means that as more of a criticism than a compliment, but authenticity, having the courage of your convictions, having a belief in something, is what we are entitled to expect in elected officials. Anybody who would lead anybody else ought to stand for something. If you’re going to lead, you should have a passion and a capacity for outrage.
PM: Are there issues in the news recently where you’ve seen politicians or wannabe mayors not stepping up and saying what everyone is thinking?
CS: One subject that is taboo in this town is to criticize the unions for anything. People say, with a certain amount of pride, that Philadelphia is a union town. Take this controversy recently about the urinals in the Comcast building, where a compromise was reached after one of the more influential unions had an issue with what I think is called waterless plumbing, and so the developer agreed to run pipes that wouldn’t carry water. And paid the additional expense. Well, that is nonsense. That is bullshit. And when people propose something that is preposterous, that is going to be costly and increase inefficiency, someone needs to stand up and say that it’s bullshit and we shouldn’t stand for it. In this town, I don’t know that anybody gets elected mayor if the unions are unhappy with him. And one of the big problems we have is that the unions have an ability to paralyze and retard growth and economic development. And by the way, my father was in the brotherhood of the sleeping-car porters in Alabama, one of the early unions. But by the same token, I know that unions get corrupted by their power. Then you have a guy like Johnny Dougherty who rises to a position of prominence because he heads a union and has the ability to put his membership on the streets, picket convention centers, and intimidate and threaten people. That’s not what unions were originally created to do, which is to protect their membership from unjust treatment and get a decent wage. Unions in this town are not unlike the Democratic Party here, where they have had so much power for so long, it has corrupted them.
PM: In 1999, Ed Rendell said, “All you get if you contribute to me is access.” Is that true? Take us inside what’s wrong with the pay-to-play system. You have, after all, described yourself as a reformed pay-to-player.
CS: In the years I’ve been involved in politics, you give money for three reasons. I’ve given money because somebody that I respect and like asked me to give to a candidate. Or you give because you believe in the cause, like I did when my brother-in-law, Harvey Gantt, twice ran for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina. The third reason, and the primary one in local elections, is because you want something. The more you give, the more you expect something. People who want to do business with the government don’t want a meeting just to say hello. They want to have some kind of a leg-up in terms of an outcome. If it’s a contract that’s pending, or a job they want for somebody, they believe the amount they give has a relationship to a particular result. Anybody who says they don’t expect a certain outcome because of the money they contributed is a liar. Because that’s why they gave the money.
PM: You’ve benefited from the inside game. So you’re speaking from a first-person perspective?
CS: Yes, and let me give you another example. Law firms have historically been major contributors to campaigns. Well, one of the ways they benefit is that they have clients who want to do business with the government. For example, Lenny Klehr, as one of Street’s insiders, was proud to say that he wasn’t interested in any city contracts, as if he’s trying to say he wasn’t involved in the game. What he was essentially doing was representing developers, and giving them not just access, but receptivity.
PM: What do you mean by receptivity?
CS: If you have a client who wants to do a major development project, there are a lot of steps in the kinds of approvals controlled by the mayor that affect your ability to get a deal done. So if people who run these agencies that serve at the pleasure of the mayor know you’re a major contributor to the mayor, you’re going to be treated differently than somebody else. The other way it plays out is in the bond work. Big contributors get the bond deals. That is pay-to-play. It’s not as sordid as it appeared to have been with Ron White, but that’s pay-to-play.
PM: So what’s the lesson here?
CS: This is what happens when you don’t place limits on the money in campaign contributions. If all law firms were restricted so that they were limited, as in federal elections, then that’s a fair system. Then you take money out of the equation.
PM: So you don’t think we need an ethics commission or ethics guidelines. You’re saying, “It’s the money, stupid.”
CS: Absolutely. My position is, I can’t imagine that the people who have been indicted in these probes, the people who were asking for money or were given money, had any doubt in their minds about the legality, morality or propriety of what they were doing. That’s why those things were done in secret. That’s why there’s nothing written down. There was an exchange between John Street and Ron White where Street said he wanted to talk to him, but not over the phone—could they get together? The view that somehow some ethics code would all of a sudden increase the level of understanding among educated, savvy people about what’s right and what’s wrong is just nonsense. I don’t think the solution is ethics reform; I think the solution is campaign finance reform. And since 2003, there have been some efforts at reform on both ethics and campaign contributions. Unfortunately, they don’t go far enough.
PM: You were a co-chair of Republican Sam Katz’s campaign for mayor in 2003. Are you now a registered Republican?
CS: I’m not a Republican. People look at me like I’ve got a horn in the front of my head when I tell them I’m an Independent. The notion that a black male could be an Independent is unsettling. I have a history of supporting people in both parties, like when I supported Bill Scranton Jr. in 1986 over Bob Casey Sr. I supported Sam in 2003, yet I’m a big fan of Ed Rendell’s. I’ll tell you what shapes my lack of ideology about party. I grew up in Alabama during the civil rights movement. The one thing I remember so dramatically as a young man was that there were no Republicans at all in the South. Anytime there was a racist standing in the schoolhouse door or shouting taunts as we marched, they were Democrats, like George Wallace and Ross Barnett and Strom Thurmond. My whole childhood, the people who sought to frustrate the opportunities of my people were Democrats. So I made a vow that I would never formally be part of a party like that. Plus, I think that political independence is a wise position to take because both parties shamefully exploit race. My view is, an informed voter makes a judgment about who the person is and what that person stands for, and then votes for the person. I have done that at some cost. But I make no apologies.
PM: You forcefully critique our system. But what can be done to change things?
CS: Let me just tell you by way of a reform, local elections in Philadelphia should be nonpartisan. Of the 30 largest cities, only nine hold partisan elections. You shouldn’t run as a Democrat or as a Republican. Local government problems have to do with putting out fires, the education of kids, trying to provide for poor people on the health side, policing crime, cleaning up streets. There is no Republican or Democratic twist on that. It’s just what cities have to do. I think party ideology at the local government level is irrelevant.
PM: Is it the Singley principle that the best slogan is, “Vote for me because I don’t even want the job?”
CS: I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I think there is a place in public discourse for people who speak candidly on issues. Whether or not anybody gets elected for speaking candidly is a different proposition. In Philadelphia, there is a terrible lack of candor on the part of candidates who run. Some of the people who are running are good friends of mine, and I want to give them some radical advice: I think voters have brains. They have the power of discernment. You don’t have to use buzzwords and bumper stickers. I think for the most part, politicians underestimate the intelligence of the average voter. They should acknowledge the fact that, for example, most people really don’t care about race, even though in politics, you have people who are in the extremes of the black and the white communities. Just like most people don’t care about sexual preference. Most folks get up every day, try to make a living, spend time with their families, enjoy their ball games or darts or board games, and it’s only when people stick race or sexual preference in their faces that they really care about it. So I believe fundamentally that all people really are the same, and that most folks just don’t care about things like that—until manipulative politicians and pundits inject them in a deliberate way to serve their own ends.
PM: Before you were excommunicated by Street, did you ever do anything that was wrong?
CS: Never. I wouldn’t. And I’m not Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes, but he never asked me to do anything. I think that a person is the sum total of how he lives his life. I can say, despite all my differences with Street, that he never asked me to do or suggested that I do anything that was illegal or improper. And it’s not because I’m necessarily moralistic, but sometimes you just have too much to lose. You don’t spend all of your time developing a reputation and building a career to blow it on some nonsense that you don’t have to be involved in. And I wish I could tell you that it was a strong sense of morality that drives me, but a person with a mouth like mine, who talks as much shit as I do, I need to be like Caesar’s wife—above reproach. So I think one of the compliments Street paid to me by excommunicating me is, he knew that if I saw something immoral, I was going to speak on it. So rather than have me be like a disapproving parent, he would just rather not have me around, which was the best thing he did for me and the worst thing he did for the city.
PM: You did get airport deals largely by virtue of skin color, which is to say, a white majority firm needed a black partner—is that fair to say?
CS: Right. Now, maybe someone might have said, couldn’t they have found a white partner? And yes, they probably could have. But let me tell you—and I no longer have any interest in those shops—at the time, Street and Ron White had absolutely nothing to do with those deals. It was the Rendell administration that was encouraging locally owned businesses in the airport shops. And the deal that I did was done with a company that approached me because I was part of a group that had two gift shops in the Convention Center. We lost a ton of money in those gift shops, so the guy said to me, “I understand you guys are in the gift-shop business.” And I said, “Yes, we are, and I know how to lose money in the gift-shop business. Maybe we can learn how to make money as well.”
PM: Let us ask you to handicap the prospective field of 2007 mayoral candidates. Whom do you like, and who will incur the wrath of Singley?
CS: The two candidates I think are head and shoulders above the others are Dwight Evans and Michael Nutter. As for Chaka [Fattah], he’s been a mediocre congressman. In his defense, he has been part of a minority party, and largely a junior member of that minority party. But it’s hard to ascertain any major contribution of a policy sort that he has made in Congress. I worked in the Bill Green administration with Chaka, and he was a young Turk then, and there were high expectations that he would be a breath of fresh air. Since then, Chaka has become real old-school politics in the worst sense of that term. His mayoral bid is an invention and contrivance of the Street administration and represents the effort of Street and George Burrell to continue the same practices and policies. Now, to Chaka’s credit, he’s tried to do some decent things with public education. But he has been more of an insider who’s willing to play ruthless political games, and has somewhere along the way lost the enthusiasm of a young man. I sense in him an old-school political cynicism, that he wants this job for the power and nothing else, for the jobs he can get his cronies. I don’t think he deserves to be mayor.
PM: What is it about Dwight and Michael?
CS: They’re two very different choices. There are probably only two things that they have in common. One is that they are both African-American males. And both have had extensive experience in elected office and have demonstrated the ability to work across racial and party lines. We have a school reform commission that’s improving the conditions of our schools because Dwight broke ranks and formed an alliance with the Republicans and did what needed to be done in terms of taking over the public schools in Philadelphia. He’s made enemies because he’s taken unconventional positions. The disadvantage for Dwight is, he’s been around a long time, and people tend to think you need new faces and new blood.
CS: I haven’t met a smarter elected official in my life, but intellect alone will not get you elected. He needs to show he’s tough enough. He has shown the ability to communicate over ethnic, racial and class lines. And Michael has been in the right place with the ethics issue. So he’s a good candidate and if elected would make a really good mayor.
PM: Johnny Dougherty?
CS: Only in Philadelphia would a guy like Johnny Dougherty think that he could preside over an all-white union and be a credible candidate for mayor. He is a product of a corrupt party machine who took whatever union money and whatever bodies he could onto the street in support of Street and then got rewarded for it by heading up the Redevelopment Authority. He is a guy who never makes any bones about deliberate and organized thuggery going on in campaigns.
PM: Well, he would deny that, wouldn’t he?
CS: He may deny it, but he’s lying. The man who followed Sam Katz and shouted the most obscene things at Connie Katz in 2003 was hired by Johnny Dougherty. A guy who can engage in conduct that borders on illegal, ruffian thuggery has no right to think that because he puts on a suit and donates a few dollars in turkeys at Thanksgiving to some charities, that somebody should make him mayor. Only in Philadelphia.
PM: By all accounts, he’s done a terrific job with the Variety Club and other charities.
CS: I’m sure every man’s mother can find a good side to him. Even Charles Manson’s mother could say that before he got involved with these mass murders, he was a good boy. In Dougherty’s case, there’s no doubt that he has done some good deeds, but he symbolizes what’s wrong with the party system in Philadelphia.
PM: Tom Knox?
CS: Other than working for maybe one or two years for Rendell, what’s he done? He was the deputy mayor for management and productivity at a salary of $1, and then left the job. When I mentioned to someone that he got $1, they said he wasn’t worth that. The only reason we’re having this conversation is because he’s wealthy. So he’s the argument for limitations on campaign contributions, even if it’s your own money.
PM: Jonathan Saidel?
CS: Interestingly enough, he’s the best of the lot of the white candidates, in the sense that he has demonstrated the ability to win on several occasions. And the thing about Jonathan is, it’s hard not to like the guy. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is not to say that he doesn’t take his job seriously, even though he was very much at the beck and call of the Democratic City Committee, as is true of all elected Democrats. I think that his behavior after the bug was discovered and his behavior at Bright Hope Baptist Church [as depicted in The Shame of a City] was despicable, but he had a look on his face that was almost tongue-in-cheek, as if to say, “Are they really eating this stuff up? Because I know it’s crap!”
PM: Finally, Bob Brady, who some say is mulling a run.
CS: Bob Brady symbolizes what’s wrong with the city’s Democratic Party as it currently exists. That might be a criticism and a compliment. In order to survive, Bob is cut from the Pete Camiel mold as well as the old Billy Meehan mold: It’s all about meeting the needs of the people you serve. So Brady has taken care of ward leaders and committeemen, gotten them jobs and things like that. He has developed a loyal following based on his ability to play the patronage game. That hasn’t served the interest of the average Philadelphian, but it’s served the insiders. I don’t think Bob Brady would say he’s done anything of consequence as a congressman. Along with Dougherty and Fattah, Brady probably represents everything that is wrong in this city and presents none of the new vision that we need to move forward.
PM: Seems like the times cry out for a true populist candidate, someone who would look out for the average Philadelphian. Are you thinking of being that person?
CS: William Tecumseh Sherman, a Civil War general from the North, stated in response to that question, “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” I have never had, and do not at this time have, any mayoral aspirations. What I like to do, and what this interview gives me the opportunity to do, is engage and frame some issues and push an idea. And I think I speak for a lot of people who have no interest in running for public office, but who want to have a voice and who yearn for candor and openness and some straight talk. When you feel passionately about ideas and you go out on a limb, there are downsides to it. Sometimes people buy the message, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they compliment you, and other times they revile you and call you bad things. But nope, I’m not a candidate.
PM: You kind of like being reviled, though, don’t you?
CS: Well, it goes with the territory, with a mouth as big as mine. If there was a way to speak my mind and avoid criticism, I would. But the city really needs some straight talk. And if I get involved in advising a candidate, then I will be pushing the idea that it is time for people to respect the voters of this city and send a positive message about our potential. It really is a terrific city, and somebody needs to articulate the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the majority of people who feel the way I do about my adopted hometown.