Our Vacuous Mayoral Campaign

Some drama, yes, but no ideas, no debate. What gives?

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

There is, at last, drama and action in the mayor’s race. Still conspicuously missing, however, is any talk at all of policy, of governing, of, you know, actual tangible things the candidates might do to make Philadelphia a better place.

Earlier this week, former mayoral candidate Terry Gillen lamented the fact that ethics had yet to emerge as an issue in the mayoral campaign. She was entirely right, but the same can be said of pretty much everything. There’s been no substantive proposals–arguably not even a rough outline of a coherent set of priorities–from any of the candidates. Do you have any clue where Anthony Williams stands on tax policy? Do you know what Lynne Abraham thinks about L&I reform? In the context of the race so far, those questions almost sound silly, don’t they?

Lynne Abraham’s website doesn’t even attempt to to describe her platform, much less offer an issue-by-issue action plan. Doug Oliver’s site is slick and interactive, and it’s loaded with life-lessons and biography, but there are virtually no policy specifics to be found. Tony Williams deserves credit for at least taking a stab at addressing the issues, but the language is awfully loose and close to meaningless. A sample: “Anthony will continue to sponsor and advocate on behalf of legislation and community-led initiatives that protect our neighborhoods, and families from senseless and tragic gun violence.” Great. That’ll do it. Nelson Diaz, meanwhile, just launched his campaign and doesn’t yet appear even to have a website. The candidates that seemed most interested in policy, Terry Gillen and Ken Trujillo, have bailed from the race.

But it’s early, you might say, too early to expect the candidates to have staked out firm positions, much less strategies.

That wasn’t the case eight years ago though. By this time, Michael Nutter was calling for stop-and-frisk and Chaka Fattah was proposing hundreds of new surveillance cameras as part of a detailed crime plan. The congressman had also rolled out a robust ethics agenda. State Rep. Dwight Evans, hoping to seize the mantle of the “serious” candidate, accompanied his campaign launch with a weighty tome on how his administration would fight violence. And the campaign only got more policy-intensive from there. Nutter, in particular, released plan after plan after plan, an approach that solidified his reputation as a wonk and helped voters figure out what he would do if elected.

Which is, you know, the entire point of a campaign.

So what’s going on? Why has the 2015 fight been so–let’s face it–vacuous? Partly it’s because the mayoral field is still shifting (we are, right now, waiting “for white smoke to emerge from Jim Kenney’s office” as Jane Roh just put it on Twitter). Partly it’s because the candidates not-named-Tony Williams got off a late start, and thus are still spinning up their campaign policy shops (if, indeed, they will even have policy shops; fingers crossed). Partly it’s a reflection of the candidates in the race so far (policy wonks they are not).

Still, there’s hope. Substance might get a shot once Kenney enters the race (that seems like only a question of when now, not if). That’s not just because he has some policy chops. His entrance could also settle the field, mercifully ending this long, vacuous prelude.