Is Rob McCord the Tom Corbett Slayer?

Four hours into my morning with Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord—after he’s analyzed the state of race relations in Boston, filled me in on his fitness regimen and his love of squash, demonstrated how best to ask rich people for money, outlined the strengths and weaknesses of Philadelphia’s nascent tech sector, and name-dropped the likes of George Stephanopoulos and Newt Gingrich—he stops talking, for just a moment, to quickly down a protein bar and a zero-calorie Powerade.

“I’m an aging jock,” the 53-year-old McCord says (for the third time that morning). “Got to stay lean.” And then he’s off again, this time on a five-minute soliloquy on the great buying opportunities presented by sub-investment-grade debt in Europe.

Brilliant babbling—if there is such a thing—is a McCord hallmark. The words tumble out of his mouth so relentlessly that talking to him feels less like a conversation than an unedited simulcast of his inner monologue. “So I fell in love with my wife, and also with microeconomics,” he says at one point, as segue to a riff on the wrongheadedness of GOP opposition to tax incentives.

At times you want to roll your eyes. And yet the overall effect is undeniably impressive. Ebullient, inquisitive and, yes, a bit undisciplined, McCord is unlike any prominent politician to cross the Pennsylvania stage in years. And he’s obviously having an awfully good time.

As well he should. Life has been very good to McCord, an ambitious Main Liner and venture capitalist turned political aspirant. He is a rich man gifted both with the right connections and the talent to maximize those advantages. Born into an academic family, he was schooled at Harvard and Wharton. He was mentored in politics by two-time U.S. Cabinet Secretary Norman Mineta, and in business by legendary former Safeguard Scientifics CEO Pete Musser. He made millions investing in tech start-ups, then waltzed into statewide elected office four years ago as a first-time candidate. And in early November, he was easily reelected to a second term as state treasurer.

And so, in a state Democratic Party short on high-profile talent, McCord’s profile is surging, and the calls for him to challenge Governor Corbett in 2014 are growing louder. State Democratic chairman Jim Burn says McCord is a “top-tier” name “held in the highest esteem” by party bosses. Congressman Chaka Fattah pronounces himself a “big fan.” Philadelphia Democratic Party boss Bob Brady considers him “formidable” and “probably our strongest candidate.”

What makes this establishment enthusiasm for McCord so interesting is the fact that he in no way resembles gubernatorial candidates of the past. Pennsylvanians tend to be traditionalists when it comes to their elected leaders. Governors Corbett and Rendell are both redolent of the 20th century, with old-fashioned political résumés and brands (Rendell the charismatic operator, Corbett the sober uncle). So were Dan Onorato (a longtime lawyer and pol) and Lynn Swann (the ex-athlete trope).

McCord, though, is a thoroughly modern politician. He’s run a think tank and a series of investment funds. He’s considered a critical early leader in the development of the region’s tech industry. He has an African-American wife. And he entered politics late in life, mea­ning he has ascended without the benefit—or b­aggage—of a machine to call his own.

All of which makes him one of the most intriguing figures to appear on Pennsylvania’s political stage in some time. Can a candidate as novel and contemporary as McCord win in a state this conventional? He seems sure to test that question. But when?

8 Trends That Prove Philly Is Changing for the Better

For too long, Philadelphia was a city besotted with its past, disinterested in its future, and stagnating in the present. Innovation was for other cities. San Francisco would corner technology. New York would figure out how to cut crime and scrub blight. Chicago would take the lead on gentrification and redevelopment. Philadelphia? We had Rocky. And Tastykake. And the memory of relevance.

But that’s changed. Somewhere in Philadelphia’s long escape from the urban Dark Ages of the ’70s and ’80s, the city began to craft a character that was a bit more in step with the times. We saw the emergence of higher education and medicine as the indisputable new economic anchors. Center City was recognized for the ideally sized and eminently walkable gem of a downtown it is.

Now, at last, there’s an unmistakable momentum to the city’s reinvention, an almost palpable dynamism that you used to have to travel to New York or Boston or Washington, D.C., to feel.

Finally, Philadelphia is doing what cities are supposed to do: evolving. But into what?

That question will be answered in large part by the new Philadelphians: that big and growing class of immigrants, students and young professionals, the ones filling Center City to capacity and spilling out into the neighborhoods beyond. Just as consequential is the continued flight of Philadelphia’s working class, not just from the white ethnic rowhome neighborhoods that have been emptying out for decades, but from once-stable black communities as well. This population churn—a massive exchange of very different classes of people—is already having profound effects on the city.

A new appreciation for the critical role of public space is taking hold. Universities are exerting an ever larger sway. And the influence of the new Philadelphians can be felt everywhere. They are ditching cars, clamoring for school reform, and launching the start-ups that could one day reshape our economy. And that’s to name just a few of the innovations that are changing the character of a very old city, and will very likely continue to do so in years to come.

There are downsides, of course. Income inequality is on the rise, and so are gentrification tensions. The trends that are working so well for Center City are having far more limited effects in poorer neighborhoods. And there’s a sense that Philadelphians are losing their common history; they seem not to understand one another quite as well as in the past.

We can lament what’s been lost, but this is what urban progress tends to look like in America. Better to face it than to continue stewing in Philadelphia’s special blend of cultural stasis and economic decay. So. Let’s talk about what’s next:

>> The Manifest Destiny of Eds & Meds

What Will It Take for New Philadelphians to Clean Up City Hall?

The new Philadelphians just keep coming. From too-big exurb mini-m­ansions and too-small Manhattan studios; from San Francisco and Shanghai; from the beat-up ’burbs of Delaware County and the dormitories of Penn, Drexel and Temple. They’re young professionals and empty nesters, Cambodian immigrants and Kensington-bound hipsters. And there are many more of them than you likely realize.

In 2007 alone, an estimated 56,000 new residents made Philadelphia their home. A year later, there were another 62,000. Then 64,000. In 2010, the tide reached 70,000. Somehow, someway, they’ve kept coming.

And thank God for that. It’s terrifying to think where Philadelphia might be were it not for these new residents, who have both reversed a 50-year pattern of population decline and breathed new life into a tired old post-industrial city. They are remaking neighborhoods, invigorating the arts and restaurant cultures, giving employers reason to again consider doing business here.

But where you don’t see much impact—at least, not in the traditional sense—is in the corridors of power. For all they’ve done to change the city, these new Philadelphians, as a class and voting bloc, are political also-rans—when they bother to run at all.

Six new City Council members took office this year. But not one of the new members is a new Philadelphian. Just one City Councilperson didn’t grow up in this town, and the vast majority of the 17 members have spent their entire lives in Philadelphia. The 2015 mayoral field could be one of the most crowded in city history, but all six of the most oft-mentioned contenders are native Philadelphians, or near enough to make no difference.

Indeed, with the huge exception of Mayor Nutter—a man whom new Philadelphians tend to like and support—the city’s political scene today looks much the same as it did before the new Philadelphians arrived en masse. A few of the players have changed (see Fumo, Vince). But old-fashioned political power is still pretty securely in the hands of a few big interests and institutions. Unions. The Democratic City Committee. Big business and the Chamber of Commerce. And long-established political factions, like the Dougherty and Fattah organizations.

So what is it with these new Philadelphians? They have time for night markets and guerrilla gardening, but direct participation in local politics is beneath them?

Well, yes and no. Both skeeved out by the nature of the city’s political culture and intimidated by its strength, the new Philadelphians have made an end run around the traditional political system, channeling their civic energy into nonprofits, neighborhood associations, and loose networks of like-minded activists. Consciously or not, the new Philadelphians have decided they don’t need to take over City Hall in order to remake Philadelphia in their image.

But there are limits to this apolitical brand of activism, and the new Philadelphians are starting to reach them. Sooner or later, they’ll be forced to realize it’s in their interest—and, I’d argue, the city’s as well—for them to spend a little less time organizing co-ops and a little more time building real political power.

Pat Toomey Is Surprisingly Moderate

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey.

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.

Who Speaks for Philadelphia Republicans?

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 »

See Which Special Interests Pay for Influence in Philly

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 »

Wanted: Female Mayoral Candidates

The faces of powerful Philadelphia politicians in 2012.

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.

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