When Vince Fumo was hauled off to a Kentucky prison, there were murmurs that one day we might miss him. And now, we do. It’s almost axiomatic that if Fumo were still in Harrisburg, the nuclear meltdown of our city’s education system wouldn’t be happening. Fumo was a politico who commanded the descriptors “ruthless” and “genius,” someone whose legacy has only grown over time until we now seem him as a guy who could throw a few officials in a room and come out with a saved school system and some extra economic development grant money.
But Fumo is under very spacious house arrest, and we don’t appear to have any representatives capable of the the kind of political Jedi mind tricks he was. So local lawmakers, desperately seeking some way, any way, to freshen our crop of faces in Harrisburg, have found an outmoded Charter provision ripe for abolition: The resign-to-run law. Its repeal is likely coming to a ballot box near you May 2014.
Right now, elected officials have to resign from their jobs in order to run for another public office. For example, if Councilman David Oh wants to run for governor, he has to give up his council seat before running, meaning he loses the security of his job and ends up potentially unemployed.
Oh will introduce a bill in council this season to do away with the provision. The idea is that by getting rid of the rule, the city can expand its pool of applicants for Harrisburg representation and hopefully find its next ruthless genius.
The Board of Ethics discussed the bill at its last meeting on Wednesday and gave it a brief consideration before concluding that everything sounded above board barring a few esoteric campaign finance regulations. “I don’t hear any board members pounding on the table saying ‘No way,’ so it sounds to me like there’s a consensus,” said board chair Michael Reed. It’s worth pointing out that we’re the only city that has this rule.
That tentative consensus comes after Oh’s previous testimony that the charter change wouldn’t take effect until 2016, thereby allaying notions that it exists as an immediate self-serving opportunity for prospective mayoral candidates on council.*
Dispelling those notions of self-service is important if the bill’s supporters want to succeed. This isn’t the first time council has tried to do away with the rule. Councilman Jim Kenney brought it to the ballot in 2007 where it was defeated 55-45 after the Inquirer encouraged voters that the bill “deserves a resounding NO” and the Daily News followed suit, even after the bill got a thumbs-up from the Committee of Seventy — an endorsement that generally triggers editorial and popular support.
Oh and others say that the confusing wording of Kenney’s bill spelled its doom. But it’s hard to imagine “Shall the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended so that, effective January 1, 2008, City elected officials may become candidates for nomination or election to any public office without first resigning from their City office ?” being much clearer.
What might matter more isn’t the wording of the ballot question but the context surrounding it. In Oh’s version, there’s a three-year buffer period before the bill takes effect. And this time, all eyes are on the state, and the eyes are desperate. The Inquirer took issue with council members crafting a bill that would allow them to abscond their councilmanic duties in order to make mayoral runs. Voters might take a different position if they see another potential Fumo unleashed to represent our interests in the state capitol.
Oh insists that the introduction of the bill isn’t a tacit damning of our current representation in Harrisburg. “I think we have good representation, actually,” he says. But the bill arrives when the city is seriously evaluating its position in the state capitol. The sweeping 1950s reforms that introduced resign-to-run were part of a good-natured effort to subvert the political machine, but they also came at a time when the city population outnumbered the suburbs and Philadelphia had a near monopoly on state power. The effectiveness of our sheer numbers in Harrisburg now has to be replaced by the savvy of just a couple of politicians, and as we’ve seen, none of our politicians seem to be that savvy.
Instead, the only public officials it would apply to in the first election would be District Attorney Seth Williams and City Controller Alan Butkovitz.
* An earlier version of this story said that under a proposed charter change, the resign-to-run rule would be dropped immediately for the District Attorney and Controller races. That is incorrect, and this story has been updated to reflect that.