Philadelphia is a city of big personalities and big egos. And, the biggest personality, both in style and substance, is His Honor the Mayor.
According to its Home Rule Charter, Philadelphia believes in a single, very strong executive. This is reiterated time and time again throughout the document, the de facto constitution of the city. This is also a good thing because it means that in time of dire straits, when political courage is needed, it may be found in the stroke of a pen. As the popularly elected chief executive of a city of 1.5 million Americans, Philly’s mayor must have an acute sense of democratic will along with a deft understanding of practical policies and, most importantly, the limits and the scope of his power.
As Philadelphia mayor, Edward G. Rendell demonstrated this understanding expertly when he demanded reopening the city’s public pools and libraries on the weekend, the financial consequences or quibbling of City Council be damned. “When I became mayor,” Rendell told InsidePolitics.org years ago, “2 of our 61 branch libraries were open on Saturdays. So, working people weren’t able to take their kids to the library. I forced the library to start using volunteers.” At the conclusion of Rendell’s two terms as Mayor, all 61 branches of the library were open six days a week during the school year. Like the public libraries, Rendell also demanded the pools to be open.
After all, he was the Mayor.
And, he demanded concessions from bloated, business-hostile public workers’ unions. The unions howled and never forgot Rendell’s betrayal of liberal canons.
Still, it had to be done, and we were better for it because it communicated to everyone that Philly was back open for business after the abysmal 1980s mayoral tenure of W. Wilson Goode and the racist fear-mongering of Frank Rizzo. It gave us hope, and these executive actions by Rendell ushered in one of the most stunning eras of economic development and social betterment in Philadelphia’s history.
Carrying on this liberal tradition last week, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter exerted his executive swagger by banning smoking in outdoor public parks despite this not actually being a problem. After all, we already have littering laws on the books, and nobody in his right mind believes that outdoor smoking is the same kind of harmful secondhand smoke found indoors.
Still, Nutter wants to keep a high profile as the city’s chief executive and at least get the “participation” ribbon in the race to be Philly’s best mayor — so he did it anyway. It was a stylish chord to strike, particularly in a city seemingly obsessed with wagging its finger at its citizenry without doing a damn thing to actually improve lives.
Last month, when Jared Shelley of the Philadelphia Business Journal asked Nutter on 6ABC’s “Ask the Mayor” Twitter conversation what the city was doing about the trash rife on Philly’s streets, Nutter responded in all-caps: “PEOPLE SHOULD STOP THROWING TRASH ON THE GROUND.” OK then.
Yesterday, Nutter executed his executive privilege by signing an order raising the city’s minimum wage surrounding city contracts and subcontracts. He has the power to do it, so he did it!
More important to Nutter’s action, though, is the fact that raising the minimum wage is now politically expedient and requires no real effort on his part.
There’s something very much not politically expedient for him to recognize going on right now, though.
The Philadelphia Police Department disproportionately arrests African Americans for marijuana possession. This isn’t a small disparity, either: Police arrest African Americans at five times the rate the PPD arrests white folks for the same crime. This is wrong. And, Nutter has unilateral executive control over the Philadelphia Police Department based on the Home Rule Charter and according to every reasonable person in the universe, too.
Councilman Jim Kenney even called Nutter out on the Mayor’s inaction in terms of this perverse injustice, insisting that Nutter could stop it today with an executive order decriminalizing marijuana.
“I don’t know what Councilman Kenney thinks an executive [like Mayor Nutter] could do unilaterally,” responded Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald to Philadelphia Weekly. I guess executive orders can't really do anything aside from, you know, opening the libraries, banning smoking in public parks, and raising the minimum wage. Gross injustices against African Americans are not on the menu, apparently.
Based upon his track record, Nutter can do everything under the sun with executive orders except, you know, things that actually require political courage. And, when the city sucks at doing something like picking up trash? Or, the police are apparently targeting African Americans specifically for a crime everyone else also commits?
Well, that’s your problem, Philadelphia.
The Mayor is not just a cheerleader for the city. He’s also supposed to be the actual leader of the city. Right now, he’s only one of these things.
We’re seriously suffering for it.
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