Ten minutes into my first interview with Pat Toomey, the terrifying reality sinks in: I am in no way prepared to tangle with this guy. He’s perfectly pleasant and courteous. But that doesn’t change the fact that in his somewhat grating, nasally monotone, Toomey is taking a hatchet to my questions as well as my assumptions about him. I’d been expecting a radical. What I didn’t expect was that the radical would be so damned convincing. Yet here I am, a Philadelphia journalist raised in the liberal bubble of San Francisco, and already Pat Toomey has me grudgingly nodding in agreement. Afterward, I actually pick up a copy of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom—which he’d mentioned in an offhand kind of way, as though of course I’d read it—the better to arm myself for future conversations with the man.
That was in March 2004, long before Hayek’s free-markets-forever ideology had been popularized in viral rap videos. Back then, the prevailing Republican view on domestic policy was still the quasi-compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush, and according to the leading GOP figures of the day, “Deficits don’t matter.”
Toomey was an obscure congressman from Allentown, in the middle of what was supposed to be a hopeless primary campaign against Senator Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican whose politics had long been a perfect fit for purple Pennsylvania. The analysts agreed: Toomey was smart and disciplined (if a bit stilted on the stump), but he was just too fringe to be a threat to a super-incumbent like Specter. On election night, though, Toomey didn’t make his concession speech until 12:45 a.m. His conservative insurrection had been just over 17,000 votes short of knocking out a four-term legend.
Eight years later, the Toomey-Specter campaign is seen as a prelude to the Tea Party movement and the first big battle in a GOP civil war that has all but eliminated Republican moderates from the national stage. The campaign made Toomey a darling of the conservative intelligentsia, elevated him to the presidency of the influential anti-tax group Club For Growth, and set him up for another run for the Senate in 2010 (this one successful, after a spooked Specter switched parties and lost the primary).
Today, Toomey is the most prominent Pennsylvania Republican in Washington, D.C.—one whose credentials as a conservative are unquestioned, owing mostly to the fact that he was howling about the deficit and fiscal discipline more than a decade before the majority of his party took up the tune. There is even talk that he would make a fine vice presidential pick, the perfect choice to ease the anxiety of conservatives who worry that a onetime Massachusetts moderate like Mitt Romney might go squishy.
Toomey’s rapid ascent—from the periphery to the vanguard of the national GOP—has little to do with his own evolution. He’s changed hardly at all since 2004. He has the same alarmingly white teeth, and a lean, rigid bearing that calls to mind a retired military man. (He comes by that through temperament, not a service record.) He’s 50 years old, and the lines on his steep forehead have deepened into trenches, but otherwise Toomey is much the same. And so are his politics.
The nature of the Republican Party, though, has changed dramatically. Toomey might have been a radical by the mainstream GOP standards of 2004, but in 2012, stacked up against the likes of Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann, Toomey comes across as the most sober adult in the Republican room.
Combine that with the admirable rigor he brings to his thinking about public policy, and it’s no wonder leading Pennsylvania Democrats have come to view Toomey as a worthy adversary, and perhaps even a partner—some of the time. Ed Rendell says, “Pat Toomey has got a chance to emerge as one of the constructive conservatives who are willing to be realistic.” And Alan Kessler, one of the leading Democratic fund-raisers in the nation and a finance chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, says, “Quite frankly, we need more Pat Toomeys.”
Which means for now, Toomey is pulling off a trick that is supposed to be impossible in our poisonously partisan politics: keeping the trust of his base while winning the respect of at least some of his political opponents. And that gives him a chance to be one of the most powerful players Pennsylvania has sent to Washington in a very long time.
Last month, for the first time in recent memory, the chairman of the Philadelphia GOP issued a press release on a pressing public policy question: the citywide property reassessment known as the Actual Value Initiative.
That might not seem like such a big deal. But given the timid, low-profile tradition of the city’s Republican Party, the move was heralded by some as signaling the arrival of a reinvented minority party, one that actually intends to challenge the city’s Democrats on the issues. Read more »
New lobbyist disclosure statements filed recently with the city’s Board of Ethics offer a first-ever look at how special interests attempt to influence policy in Philadelphia behind the scenes. The reports, which cover the first quarter of 2012, don’t contain any huge revelations, and many of the filings appear to be incomplete. Still there are some fascinating nuggets.
According to the new records, 89 separate entities—from corporations as big as McDonald’s and Microsoft to non-profits as provincial as the Committee of 70—have officially registered as “principals,” meaning they either directly lobby city government themselves or hire professionals to do so on their behalf. Of those, only half reported spending $2,500 or more on their Philadelphia lobbying expenses, which is the threshold for filing a detailed quarterly report. Read more »
2009 was a tough year financially for most every family, but it was downright catastrophic for Rep. Bob Brady and wife Debra. Or at least, that’s the way it appeared on federal personal finance disclosure reports filed by the 14-year congressional veteran and boss of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee. Read more »
It’s March 8th, and the recent national debate over the “war on women” is at its zenith. Rush Limbaugh has just called a Georgetown law student a slut and a prostitute after she argued that her university’s insurance plan ought to cover contraception. A week later, Governor Corbett will suggest that mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions are no big deal because, hey, “you just have to close your eyes” to avoid seeing the picture.
In Philadelphia’s City Hall, Councilwoman-at-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown crosses her arms and leans towards the microphone. For the next four minutes, she delivers a levelheaded attack against “the all-out assault on women’s rights.” She proclaims that the root of the problem is the lack of women in elite positions in business and government. She tells her colleagues they should haul local CEOs into Council chambers and grill them on why there are so few women in their boardrooms. “In politics, the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu,” she says. Her delivery is crisp, forceful and deadly serious—three adjectives not always associated with Brown’s oratory.
This isn’t a new subject for the Councilwoman. She trots out resolutions honoring women’s contributions every few months. Today, though, feels like more than just another nod to her core constituency. Brown sounds like a ready-to-announce mayoral candidate. What better way, after all, to ensure that Philadelphia women have a seat at the table than to go after the most powerful office in local politics? And Brown is arguably better positioned than any other woman in the city to mount a mayoral campaign: She’d likely have the backing of the powerful political organization led by U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah; she’s had the experience of running for and winning citywide office four times; her base of African-American women is the most reliable voting block in all of Philadelphia, and she’s got supporters among Center City and Chestnut Hill white progressives as well.
As the Council meeting wraps up, I approach Brown and ask if she’s planning a run for mayor, expecting a wink and a sly “We’ll see.” Instead, she tells me about her 16-year-old daughter, who’s getting ready for college. She talks about the financial challenge of resigning her Council seat to run for mayor, and the personal sacrifice that’s required. She says she’s already walking a tightrope backwards in heels, and how can she run for mayor on top of that?
And this, I think to myself, is the city’s leading political champion for women. What a cop-out.
Early on the morning of June 13, 1984, John Keyser and eight other firemen entered a burning rowhome on the 2000 block of Tulip Street in Fishtown, in search of an old woman supposedly trapped on the second floor.
The smoke was thick, and there was garbage and clutter all over the place, so the going was slow. Keyser remembers crawling over a motorcycle in the kitchen. He was approaching the staircase when, with no warning, the house caved in. The floor gave way beneath him, he tumbled into the basement, and multiple stories’ worth of plaster, wooden beams and junk came crashing down on top of the firefighters. Keyser and seven others survived. Fifteen-year veteran Joseph Konrad didn’t.
That, Keyser says, was probably the closest call of his 34 years of fighting fires in the City of Philadelphia. He retired in 2008, satisfied with his career, but happy to end it at the age of 55. “If someone’s hanging out a third-floor window in a burning building, do you really want it to be a 65-year-old guy that goes and gets her?” says Keyser. His family’s financial security was assured, thanks to the city’s pension system. Keyser is paid just shy of $50,000 a year. He’ll get that check for the rest of his life.
And really, who would begrudge him a comfortable retirement? Here’s a man who literally risked his life for the residents of Philadelphia. It seems eminently fair that Keyser is paid enough in retirement to afford a handsome Cape Cod two blocks from Burlholme Park in the Northeast. His condo in Ocean City, Maryland? Well, that’s more than a typical taxpayer can manage. But it’s no palace, and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t earn it.
But there’s a problem. While John Keyser on his own may seem worth every cent, he was just one of the 1,407 municipal employees who retired from the City of Philadelphia in 2008. Each of them is owed a lifelong pension. In all, there are 34,966 city pensioners now receiving monthly checks.
And together, John Keyser and the 34,965 other retirees are making beggars of City Hall.
As he loped onto the opulent stage at the Academy of Music and took his place beneath the gold-and-red silk bunting, Darrell Clarke was wearing an impossibly toothy grin and, as always, an overlarge suit that hung off his lanky frame, as though he’d inherited it from an older, even taller brother. It was Inauguration Day in January. Mayor Nutter would take the oath of office in a few minutes, but first Clarke had to be confirmed as the new president of Philadelphia’s City Council, a promotion that would make him the second most powerful public official in the city—and the man best positioned to advance, or destroy, Nutter’s second-term agenda.
By the flamboyant standards of Philadelphia politicians, Clarke has been a reclusive figure, so his appearance at the podium in front of the city’s assembled officialdom had the feeling of a debut performance. He seemed awed. Compared to departing president Anna Verna, Clarke appeared youthful, perhaps even a little sophomoric. “Wow,” he said as he reached the podium. “This is truly a good morning for me.” Then Clarke turned, looked directly at his political mentor, and gave him a big thumbs-up. “John Street,” Clarke said, with genuine affection. “I would not be standing here today were it not for John Street.”
It was a public acknowledgement of the obvious. After all, it was the former mayor who first brought Clarke into city government, hiring him as a lowly Council aide more than 30 years ago. It was Street who groomed Clarke, showing him the levers of power in their North Philadelphia district. And it was Street who made Clarke his political heir, bequeathing his lieutenant his North Philadelphia Council seat when he ascended to the mayor’s office.
But Street could only give Clarke so much. He couldn’t pass along his encyclopedic knowledge of city finances, or his natural talent for political manipulation and bullying. Nor could Street transfer his deft touch for rallying much of African-American Philadelphia to his side with a carefully chosen—and occasionally divisive—phrase. So when Clarke joined Council in 1999, the media and political class figured him for the second, lesser coming of John Street. A man with the same politics, associations and inclinations, only with less attitude, less aptitude and less Afro.
But there is a problem with this neat analysis: It’s dead wrong. Despite lingering perceptions to the contrary, Clarke has turned out to be a largely independent operator who knows the city and its government as well as anyone else on the political stage today. Elected officials in Philadelphia are hardly known for having wide-ranging interests, and few have knit those interests together into a coherent philosophy. Is Clarke among them?
“I don’t think he is, I know he is,” says mega-developer Bart Blatstein, who estimates that his company, Tower Investments, has plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into Clarke’s Council district. “I would not be that bullish on North Philadelphia if not for the Councilman. He has the vision thing.”
The irony? It was Mayor Nutter, buttressed by his cadre of highly educated aides, who was supposed to be the big-picture guy. Yet when it comes to redevelopment—to the actual physical rebuilding of long-blighted neighborhoods—the Nutter administration has become mired in process and bureaucratic reshuffling. Clarke, meanwhile, has personally presided over some of the most compelling redevelopment projects in Philadelphia over the past decade, from the Temple-and-Blatstein-fueled revival of North Broad Street to the taxpayer-funded reclamation of the barren industrial Badlands east of Broad. In other words, while Nutter’s redevelopment team continues to study best practices, Clarke has emerged as a doer: a politician who is more concerned with ends than means.
All of which has made him an increasingly pivotal figure not just in the arcane maneuverings of Council, but in the growth and continuing recovery of Philadelphia as a whole. Clarke—the Street-trained practical politician whose formal education ended at a technical school—may be just the shot in the arm that Nutter and his band of Fels-trained experts need.
Philadelphia mayors have dreamed of selling off—even giving away—the publicly owned Philadelphia Gas Works for nearly 20 years. The obstacles: Some pols blanch at the mere mention of privatization, and few buyers were interested in taking on the utility’s huge debt. Read more »