If you can’t even debate the issues facing Philadelphia, how could you possibly lead? That was the question I took home with me last night after moderating a debate among nine of the Republican candidates running for City Council at-large and between the two Republican candidates for Mayor at the German Society on Spring Garden at 6th Street. At least, that’s what the event was supposed to be. It became more about who wasn’t there and who walked out than the discourse itself.
The debate was co-sponsored by the Loyal Opposition, a group led by the feisty Kevin Kelly, who’s hellbent on overthrowing the Republican establishment in town. Kelly was keenly aware of his reputation and told me in a pre-debate briefing, “I don’t want the whole night to be about trashing the Republican establishment. That’s what everyone is expecting. You choose the questions, but I would prefer you ask one question about it and move on.”
The night wasn’t about that at all. It was about schools, pensions, unions, taxes, crime, budgets and development. But fear that the crowd of 150 would storm the Republican establishment’s castle caused two candidates to give up without a fight: Councilman Frank Rizzo and Republican Party-endorsed mayoral candidate Karen Brown. Another “c” word was used to describe them both by many in attendance: cowards.
There was speculation early that Rizzo might not show. Rizzo is part of the reason that 2011 has become maybe the most interesting race in City Council history. The revelation that he and several other council members were poised to skim millions from the already strapped Philadelphia pension fund because of a loophole in the city’s deferred retirement program (DROP) assures that there will be at least five new members in council next year.
Five of the DROP council gang begrudgingly retired, and only two are brazenly running despite the DROP stain: Rizzo and Democrat Marian Tasco. Tasco, serving Philadelphia’s 9th District, is set to collect $427,057 in DROP money when she finishes her current term. Then after “un-retiring,” she wants to run for City Council President.
Rizzo will receive $194,518 and has said that if he can figure out a way, he’ll give the money back to the city. That’s, of course, if he is reelected. If he loses, he’ll retire for real and keep the money. Frank Rizzo likes to have it both ways. And that’s what he tried to do last night.
Rizzo got high marks for showing up, but lost them quickly when he told everyone that he would have to leave early. No one would have ever guessed how early. The debate started with each candidate taking one minute to talk about themselves. After Rizzo’s turn and before the last two candidates used their one minute, Rizzo got up and left without debating and without taking a question.
As Rizzo worked the room during his exit, I asked from the podium, “Mr. Rizzo, are you leaving now?” He nodded his head yes and was gone. I crossed out my first question about the definition of the word “irrevocable.”
Before the mayoral debate, Kevin Kelly took the stage and announced that Republican Party-endorsed candidate Karen Brown was a no-show. Kelly explained that the last he talked with her, she was coming. The word “coward” was used for the first time in his speech.
I sat in front of the placard that read “Karen Brown” and asked John Featherman questions. I was stunned when Featherman told me that neither he nor Brown have any chance of winning in a general election “unless a miracle of God happens.” I asked, “Why would anyone vote for a candidate who admits so early on that he can’t win?” Featherman said he was running to help other Republican candidates who have a real chance.
Featherman and Council candidates Malcolm Lazin, Joe McColgan, Elmer Money, Dennis O’Brien, Steve Odabashian, David Oh, Al Taubenberger and Michael Untermeyer deserve all the credit in the world for showing up and spending time answering questions for more than an hour in a muggy room on a Wednesday night. It is an important part of the democratic process.
But one walkout and one no-show defined the night. And said more about the state of the Republican party in Philadelphia than anything said from the stage.