A FEW MONTHS ago, a prominent area businessman received a phone call from a fund-raiser for one of the mayoral candidates. The fund-raiser was looking for someone to host a big-money donor party.
“Why should I support your candidate?” the businessman asked.
“Because frankly, my guy is going to win,” said the fund-raiser. “He’s going to be the next mayor.”
It was, sadly, the archetypal Philadelphia exchange: candid, shameless, devoid of ideas or ideals. The fund-raiser’s response wasn’t “Because my guy is focused on stopping the murder epidemic” or “He’ll grow the tax base.” No, the message was, as it has been since Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented” in 1904, “Place your bet now in order to get maximum return on your investment.”
It used to be that political machines were an effective form of local government. Unelected bosses and ward leaders looked out for their own; by virtue of a web of such special interests, cities ended up being responsive to citizens’ needs. Now, however, as the businessman’s exchange with the fund-raiser illustrates, the insider game rarely rises above the merely transactional — for the ultimate benefit of a precious few. Need proof? Look no further than our Delaware waterfront, the development of which was used as a ruse for a crony of Mayor Street’s to solicit campaign contributions from businessmen who were competing for the city’s nod to be the developer of record for the prime real estate. Lo and behold, after the 2003 election, the Mayor pulled the plug on waterfront plans (which left the area ripe for our oncoming casino invasion). Our transactional culture had hijacked and thwarted an important public policy issue.
We believe all of the progress Philadelphia has made in recent years is threatened by the preservation of the local oligarchy that dominates our politics. “Reform” is not just one of many issues; in fact, our most pressing problems today exist precisely because of our go-along-to-get-along culture. The murder rate? We have an incompetent police commissioner who rose through the ranks as a product of the old boys’ network. (The previous commissioner, John Timoney — who did confront the status quo and, not coincidentally, made our streets safer — recently told the New Yorker magazine that it was, in part, the impediments to change presented by the police union leadership here that eventually drove him from town.) Education? We have a schools CEO also leaving town — not due to the daunting challenge of actually educating kids, but because of the wall of opposition he has faced from political hacks and bureaucrats. The budget? The city’s rising pension and health-benefits costs are projected to claim one dollar of every four dollars spent by the city by 2012, and yet no one is taking on municipal workers unions that allow workers to roll over unused sick days year after year. (One city employee we know has more than 90.)