Desperately Seeking Leadership: Philadelphia’s Next Mayor

The next mayor’s race is still two years away, but the field is shaping up to be a depressing array of hacks and usual suspects. Maybe it’s time to call Philadelphia’s civic leadership exactly what it is: Cowardly and pathetic.

Photo by Clint Blowers. Philadelphia is looking for a mayor already, even though the next election isn't for two years.

Billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is in the final year of his three-term reign in New York. Onetime White House bully Rahm Emanuel runs Chicago. Former journalist Boris Johnson remains wildly popular in London. A leading candidate in Detroit’s 2013 election is Mike Duggan, a white businessman who recently moved back to the city from the suburbs.

Two years ago, voters in Kansas City chose a lawyer and first-time candidate named Sly James as mayor. He’s brought bow ties back into fashion, and lured Google to his city to build the nation’s fastest Internet service. Julián Castro was 34 years old when he was elected mayor of San Antonio after just four years on city council. Last year he electrified the Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech. So did Newark mayor Cory Booker, who also won office after a single term on council. And before Narberth native John Hickenlooper became one of the most popular governors in the country, he was mayor of Denver, a job he won having never run for public office before.

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And in Philadelphia? In Philadelphia, we get parochial hacks. Over and over and over again.

The early lineup for the 2015 mayoral election is an insipid collection of Council members, has-beens and legacy admits. Some are fundamentally unfit for the job. Most are ardent defenders of the status quo. And every last one of them would likely lose to Mayor Nutter—himself a pale shadow of what his supporters had hoped for—could he run for a third term.

The sons of as many as three former mayors may make bids, and the most di­sruptive of these—Councilman Bill Green—appears to have both lost his pep and alienated many potential supporters with his sometimes-abrasive personality. The current front-runner, Anthony Hardy Wi­lliams, is the lethargic heir to a West Philadelphia political machine who has spent nearly a quarter-century in the state House and Senate, with shockingly few accomplishments to show for it. Councilman-at-large Jim Kenney has logged more than two decades in City Hall, much of it in the service of the now-defunct Fumo organization. He seems to be in the mayoral mix mostly because he’s bored out of his mind on Council. The most-mentioned female candidate is septuagenarian former district attorney Lynne Abraham. The non-politicos openly flirting with bids are perennial electoral losers: Sam Katz, who has run for mayor three times and governor once (going 0-for-4), and millionaire Tom Knox, who floats his name for so many offices that he is fast becoming a punch line.

All of this would be distressing enough if Philadelphia were a perfectly average city with a well-run bureaucracy and a readily manageable set of problems. But it’s not. Instead, Philadelphia has the highest rate of deep poverty of any big city in the country, and is getting poorer every year. In the eyes of at least some Wall Street analysts, the city is a prime candidate for bankruptcy. Outside the expanding bubble of Center City, crime and blight are endemic. The school district is atrocious and only stands to get worse with catastrophic spending cuts looming.

And yet, even so, this is a moment of incredible opportunity for Philadelphia. The city is growing again. New arrivals from Bensalem and Brooklyn and Bangladesh are flocking here, in spite of City Hall’s fumbling. The millennials—God bless them—are giving the city a fighting chance.

It’s now entirely plausible to imagine Philadelphia evolving into a far more prosperous, better-educated and less violent place: a metropolis with character and grit and grace that finally reclaims its rightful crown as one of the world’s great cities.

But it’s equally easy to imagine the opposite. The calamitous conditions in low-income neighborhoods could slow and ultimately reverse Center City’s growth. A less prudent mayor than Nutter could quickly spend and borrow the city into outright insolvency. A collapsing school system could lead middle- and upper-class families to desert the city in droves, just as earlier generations did.

The point is that Philadelphia is—right now—in the midst of radical change. The city could tip one way (call it the way of tech-and-research hive Boston). Or it could tip the other (Detroit). Some years
matter more than others in a city’s trajectory. Some moments—and the chance to beat back 60 years of population decline is one of them—come along only once every few decades.

This is the opportunity that the city is poised to entrust to one of the usual suspects?

If only there were someone else.

There is someone else, of course. Many someones, in fact.

If Philadelphia could look past the professional political class for leadership—as so many other cities have—the number of outstanding mayoral prospects increases dramatically. There are plenty of capable, charismatic and politically astute business executives, activists and nonprofit titans in this city.

There is no shortage of supply. There does seem, however, to be a critical shortage of nerve in the ranks of the city’s non-governmental leaders. The disconnect between what they say they want for the city and their willingness to entrust its governance to City Hall lifers is staggering.

In private conversations, private-sector and nonprofit leaders tell you they’re disgusted with City Hall. Indeed, many of them have been disgusted for decades. But they rarely register their disdain publicly. It’s even more uncommon for them to actively support anti-establishment candidates. And—with the notable exceptions of Knox and Katz—there have been no high-profile private-sector leaders to take the plunge and actually run for office in Philadelphia since John Egan took on Frank Rizzo in the 1980s.

But why?

There’s little doubt in the minds of political experts that an outsider could win. Indeed, many think the 2015 mayor’s race is ripe for the plucking if the right political newcomer emerges. I think they’re right. Party big shots might still be able to dictate who wins obscure offices (register of wills, sheriff, etc.) in most years. But the city’s electorate proved when it picked Nutter (who had a conventional résumé but an unconventional relationship with the political establishment) that it’s willing to buck party honchos for the mayor’s race. Just ask the 2007 mayoral also-rans: party boss Bob Brady, U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah and State Rep Dwight Evans.

And the prospects for an outsider candidacy have only improved since then. Every year, there are fewer native-born Philadelphians voting in city elections, a trend that chips away at old political allegiances created by neighborhood identity and racial and ethnic loyalties.

So why aren’t qualified private and nonprofit leaders (and by that I mean more than just bored rich white guys) lining up to run for what remains the single most important job in Philadelphia?

Mayor Nutter is screaming, but nobody can hear him. He has a microphone, he’s standing at the podium in City Council chambers, and he is bellowing. But it doesn’t matter. I’m sitting maybe 20 feet from him on this March afternoon, and I can’t hear a word. Nobody can. Nutter is completely drowned out by the monstrous roaring and whistling of hundreds of livid municipal-union workers. They are screaming epithets. Their eyes are bulging. The ones in the balcony, behind a glass barrier, remind me of roaring fans at a hockey game taunting an opposing player in a penalty box.

Only this is the mayor, not a Rangers defenseman. And this is the day of his budget speech, the occasion each year when the mayor addresses City Council. There’s a bit of pomp and circumstance; the reporters dress up a tad, and the TV stations show up. It’s supposed to be Nutter’s day, and it’s being stolen from him by union workers blowing into plastic whistles with all the venom and wind they can muster.

This goes on for about four minutes, though it feels much longer. And then, abruptly, City Council President Darrell Clarke and the rest of Council leadership simply bail on the Mayor. They leave the dais without telling him, having recessed the Council session. And there the Mayor dangles, alone, shouting soundlessly at the very workers he has been elected to manage.

“There’s nothing for me to be embarrassed about,” Nutter says later that day. And technically, he’s right. He comported himself with dignity in Council chambers and handled the awkward questions from the press afterward with restraint and good humor.

Even so, it must have been a humiliating experience. And for plenty of private and nonprofit leaders toying with the notion of elected office, the entire spectacle was chilling. Indeed, in a lot of ways, Mayor Nutter’s six years in office serve as one big red flag for accomplished outsiders considering a run for mayor.

They look at Michael Nutter and see a mayor who is smart, hardworking, personable, ethically clean and popular. (His 60 percent approval rating in February is the highest it’s been in the past three years.) And yet even with those gifts, Nutter has been unable to make significant headway on some of the city’s most vexing problems—a point frequently mentioned in political circles and among many business and nonprofit leaders.

The union stalemate is a case in point. The verbal beating Nutter absorbed at this year’s budget address was simply the loudest and highest-profile expression of the vitriol municipal union workers have been spitting at the Mayor since 2009, when the contracts for AFSCME blue- and white-
c­ollar unions expired. And yet despite all the abuse he has endured, and all the political capital he has expended in the fight, Nutter has little to show for his years of battling the unions. There have been no revolutionary new contracts. No comprehensive long-term pension fixes. The unions are simply waiting Nutter out.

This is the sort of dynamic that quickly cools the electoral interests of many leaders—
not the unions, per se, but the intractability of the city’s problems generally. Some say privately that Philadelphia’s woes are too deep to be solved by city government. The poverty is too rooted, the bureaucracy too entrenched and inefficient, the inequality too staggering, and the prospects of dealing with the political class too depressing for accomplished civic leaders to chuck it all and run for an office like mayor.

This doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the city. They just tend to think they can accomplish more out of government than within. Why take a pay cut and subject yourself to that sort of scrutiny, they say, to quite possibly do less for the public good?

Consider Paul Levy and the Center City District, an organization that has probably had more to do with Center City’s resurgence than City Hall. The business improvement district has its own source of funding and its own board of directors. There are no work rules, apart from standard state and federal guidelines that all employers adhere to. The district’s budget is $19.4 million a year, and with that it fields a private security force, cleans Center City, markets downtown and downtown businesses, publishes scads of city-oriented research (much of which has a very pointed policy agenda), and manages major construction projects, like the reconstruction of Dilworth Plaza and the makeover of Sister Cities Park.

What does $19.4 million buy in city government? Much, much less.

Mayors have to sell their agendas to a City Council with 17 self-interested operators, not to a compliant board of directors. At any moment, your carefully laid plans can be overrun by events entirely out of your control: A cop is shot. The economy tanks. The feds investigate an associate.

There are reporters dogging you most days, anxious to point out any and all missteps. Privacy is nonexistent. For the natural-born politician, the attention is addictive. For those wired more normally, it’s terrifying.

But all of this only explains so much. Other cities have major problems. Other cities have critical press corps. Other cities have recalcitrant councils. And yet other cities manage pretty frequently to elect mayors who haven’t been born and raised in the fetid wading pool that is municipal politics. Indeed, of the 50 biggest cities in the U.S., close to half are right now being led by mayors who have had largely non-political careers.

There is no guarantee, of course, that political newcomers make for better mayors than City Hall veterans. Their record is mixed, just as it is for lifelong politicos. But surely there are times when it makes sense to refresh a stagnant leadership pool with some outside perspective. Even if the outsider bids end in failure, the injection of new ideas and new thinking about how government can and ought to work would do Philadelphia good.

So what’s stopping that from happening? What are the real hang-ups?

  • There’s a baked-in cowardice to Philadelphia’s established leadership class that’s missing in more dynamic cities. Consider the decades of developer kowtowing to building-trades unions that are shedding members and dwindling in size. It took a couple of out-of-town 30-something developers, the Pestronk brothers, to show Philadelphia that it was possible to stand up to the building trades and their often-thuggish tactics and still get something built.
  • It’s not just the developers. Philadelphia’s business culture as a whole is too often financially dependent on political actors for sweetheart tax breaks and contracts. Big business in this city hedges its bets, plays it safe, and tries to get on the side of the eventual winner. The notion of making a winner, or of putting forward a capable executive to champion business interests, is fodder for idle conversation and nothing more.
  • The nonprofit sector considers it unseemly—and potentially improper, given legal restrictions on political activities—to broadly engage the city’s political system. Nonprofit leaders will lobby on narrow issues, but few will take strong stands on broad questions about the direction of city government. And those few who do, like the William Penn Foundation’s recently deposed Jeremy Nowak, find they have little institutional support.
  • The political system is built to discourage outsider candidates. Philadelphia is part of a dwindling minority of big cities that still conduct partisan municipal elections. Given the paltry number of registered Republicans in town and the sorry state of the city GOP, the winner of the Democratic primary always goes on to win the general election.

These are real obstacles. But none is insurmountable. Indeed, most are self-imposed. Philadelphia’s political class is imbued with powers entirely disproportionate to its abilities and past performance mostly because the private and nonprofit sectors have, time and again, surrendered that power without a fight.

What about the relatively new contention that leaders can make a bigger difference outside of City Hall than within? It’s rank defeatism, just the latest iteration of a decades-long capitulation to the hacks. You don’t simply cede control of a $3.8 billion enterprise to the very people who, over decades, have made that enterprise so ineffective.

And yet that is exactly what Philadelphia appears poised to do. Again.

In a too-tight neon yellow t-shirt, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams—considered by many to be the candidate with the clearest path to the mayor’s office—dances wildly on a sidewalk in Point Breeze, his ample midsection jiggling away while he waves his hands awkwardly in the air.

This degrading little piece of performance art is in service of the public good. Williams is promoting the city’s cleanup day, and with the help of some volunteers, he has put together his own version of the Harlem Shake (and posted it on YouTube, no less). Somehow, this display comes off as endearing, like Nutter’s (admittedly overdone) renditions of “Rapper’s Delight,” or that photo of Ed Rendell scrubbing the floor of a City Hall bathroom.

But Williams’s advantages in the forthcoming mayoral race go well beyond his willingness to look silly in service of politics. They include a well-established political organization—albeit smaller than some—and money. Perhaps lots of money. The state senator is one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent supporters of charter schools and vouchers, a position that has, in the past, won him the financial backing of a trio of very wealthy executives at Susquehanna International Group L.L.P., a Bala Cynwyd investment group. They contributed more than $5 million to Williams’s gubernatorial run in 2010, and the presumption among political operatives is that they will once again open their checkbooks if it will help put a committed school reformer in the mayor’s office. (That could be a bit tricky, given Philadelphia’s strict caps on campaign finance contributions. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling gutting campaign finance controls seems to at least open up the possibility for Super PACs—last seen rampaging across the airwaves during the presidential election—to do an end run around Philadelphia’s ordinances.)

But money isn’t even Williams’s greatest advantage. Right now, his big edge is the lack of other prominent African-American candidates. If Williams runs as the only viable black candidate in a mayoral field crowded with white candidates, he could cruise to the Democratic nomination.

Here, Williams has mostly just gotten lucky. He has no shortage of powerful opponents in the city’s other black power centers, and in normal times, leaders of these factions wouldn’t dream of letting him jog to the nomination. But those factions have bigger problems right now. For instance, Congressman Chaka Fattah’s organization’s leading contender for a 2015 bid—Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown—has self-destructed with a raft of unusually stupid campaign finance violations.

State Rep Dwight Evans and his allies are just as badly hamstrung. Fellow Democrats stripped him of his post atop the all-powerful appropriations committee in December 2010. The state is poking into his dealings with a well-funded Ogontz nonprofit he founded. And memories of his well-documented Godfather-esque machinations to steer school cash to a favored contractor are still fresh. Evans lieutenant Marian Tasco is likely too old to run, and in any event is now best known as the leading champion of the city’s politically toxic DROP program. An intriguing option might be State Rep Cherelle Parker, who chairs the city’s Harrisburg delegation. But she was convicted on a drunk-driving charge earlier this year. (Parker is appealing the decision.)

Who else is there? On City Council, Darrell Clarke or Wilson Goode Jr. could give Williams a run for his money. At minimum, Williams wouldn’t be such a prohibitive favorite if either entered the race. But they’d have to quit their day jobs first, and neither looks particularly inclined to do so. District Attorney Seth Williams could be more formidable still, despite some missteps. But the two Williamses are close, and it seems unlikely they’ll go head-to-head. State Senator Vincent Hughes has served in Harrisburg about as long as Anthony Williams, but Williams has been assiduously courting him, and it seems to be working. Word is that Hughes won’t run.

All of which is very bad news for the glut of white men openly considering mayoral bids. In addition to Council members Green and Kenney, City Controller Alan Butkovitz has been mentioned as a possible candidate, and former Republican councilman Frank Rizzo has suggested he might run, too (though as a Democrat this time). Then there are Knox and Katz and, who knows, maybe even former city controller Jonathan Saidel.

Of course, we’re still far from the election, and the field is sure to change in ways that are hard to predict. There will likely be fewer white candidates and more black ones. Long-shot pretenders will reconsider, or be convinced to bow out with promises of patronage jobs or city business. But the end result is still likely to be this: the same old same old, with little promise of excitement or change.

What’s needed—somehow, some way—is disruption, a candidacy or three from outside the ranks of the usual suspects. The city is so desperate for new voices that Dana Spain, a socialite with a thin résumé, generates big waves when she mentions the possibility of a run. Think of the buzz that a more accomplished female executive, like Rosemary Turner at UPS or Renée Cardwell Hughes at the American Red Cross, would instantly generate. Imagine what education activist Helen Gym could do at a mayoral debate. Or consider the reverential press that Comcast’s David L. Cohen or Center City District’s Paul Levy would enjoy. And then there are veterans of government—but not politics—who would enter the race with serious credibility, if less instant name recognition, like current managing director Richard Negrin or former managing director Loree Jones, or accomplished deputy mayor for environmental and community resources Michael DiBerardinis.

They all have reasons not to run. For some, the odds of victory are low. For others, the pay cut is prohibitive. At least a few fear retribution from the professional political class they’re being prodded to challenge. And many seem truly convinced they can achieve more from where they are now than from the second floor of City Hall.

Talk to some of them, and you get it. It’s easy to understand why they would choose to stay out of the fray. But that decision, taken over and over again, is nothing less than a tacit capitulation of the city’s best and brightest to a parochial political class.

Which raises a few questions for the capable, charismatic and accomplished leaders in this city: Do you see a candidate in the current field worthy of leading Philadelphia? Can that candidate win? If the answer to either query is “no,” then I have one other question to ask: What are you doing about it?

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