Insider: African-American Leadership Is Rolling Over for Casino Deal

McCalla: Mayor Nutter, the NAACP, and the Black Clergy are looking past racial problems at the Cordish Companies.

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[Update: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 3 p.m.] After publication of this op-ed, Philly mag learned that the author performed public relations work for the National Action Network, an organization that is a central player in this controversy. That fact should have been disclosed to readers. Citified regrets the omission.

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(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider. McCalla is a policy consultant who has provided pro bono advice to mayoral candidate Anthony H. Williams and other candidates this election cycle.) 

To quote the lyrics of famed Rapper Flo Rida, “It’s goin’ down fo’ real”!

At the August 18th meeting of the City Planning Commission, fat-cat executives and exquisitely dressed lobbyists from the Cordish Companies presented their preliminary plans for Live! Hotel & Casino, to be located in the South Philly Sports Complex.

It was there and then that Paula Peebles, local founder and chair of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, informed commissioners that her organization was aware of and concerned by unresolved lawsuits alleging racial discrimination at casinos Cordish operates (eight have been filed since 2010, in which plaintiffs say, for instance, the company used dress codes as pretense to keep black patrons out). Peebles warned that NAN would conduct its own probe and, if the group found the allegations credible, she would lead it in a battle to oppose commission and City Council approval of the gambling house.

This put NAN nose to nose with the politically potent Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.

Readers may recall that Black Clergy was engaged by Cordish to investigate the outstanding lawsuits. To the surprise of few, Rev. Terrence Griffith, Leader of the Pack, returned with a glowing report about how kind and generous Cordish is. He said he found zero evidence of racial discrimination.

Allow me to contrast this with the behavior of Penn State, when the university wanted an objective assessment of its handling of the Seamy Sandusky Saga. Concerned with credibility, it retained Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI. Cordish? Not so much.

Fun fact: Rev. Griffith is noted for a political “flexibility” that enabled him, along with his group, to endorse Anthony Williams for mayor and later turn on both Williams and his own political committee (which had endorsed Williams by a 5­-2 vote) to endorse Jim Kenney when it was clear he was going to win. Griffith, a former politician in Grenada, is no Louis Freeh.

Black Clergy still struggles to live down the shonda (Yiddish for “shame of shames”) of former President Rev. Randall McCaskill’s indictment for allegedly stealing, while on the city’s payroll, some of the campaign donations the group received from politicians.

Truth be told, Black Clergy isn’t the only African-American group whose punctilious search for truth warrants a chuckle. The local chapter of the NAACP was scheduled to hold a press conference to publicly air the unresolved lawsuits and challenge Cordish.

The local chapter president stood in the doorway of the venue, damning fact­sheets in hand, when he abruptly sounded a sloppy, humiliating retreat. It seems that Mayor Michael Nutter had exercised mega­muscle by calling the national chair of America’s oldest and largest civil-rights organization and making it clear he was displeased. (The mayor denies he threatened the venerable organization, but the record is available for the reader to judge.)

Given that the 109-year old organization was on the brink of having its national convention in Philadelphia, Nutter’s “comments” were taken quite seriously — thus public exposure of the Cordish lawsuits was efficiently strangled by what appeared to be a mayoral power play.

I know we’re supposedly in a post­racial America, but since when is it the role of an African-American mayor, the NAACP, and the Black Clergy to suppress and white­wash charges of racial discrimination?

Well, the report from the National Action Network is now complete, public, and damning. NAN travelled to Kentucky, on its own dime, and interviewed former employees and those who have outstanding lawsuits — something they say Black Clergy was disinclined to do.

With a speed worthy of Muhammed Ali in his prime, Cordish sprang into action and retained the services of an African-American PR firm to counter the report. Cordish is ably advised and represented by close Nutter pal Dick Hayden, who plainly knows what buttons to push.

Now the drama moves to City Council, where Kenyatta Johnson (yet, another African-American) must decide whether to give his green light to this casino, allowing it to built despite the NAN report. The casino would be in Johnson’s district, and “councilmanic privilege” dictates he is the only member who could introduce the zoning changes required for Cordish to do business.

WWKD —­ What Will Kenyatta Do? Given the series of spinal collapses that precede him, his reaction is unpredictable. How will the other seven African-American members of Council (including President Darrell Clarke) behave? Will they hide behind “councilmanic privilege” and say it’s all up to Johnson?

Having grown up during the struggle for equal rights and Black Empowerment, I’m disappointed, but not baffled, by the “turn tail” characters on display. The casino is a $500 million project and, in the words of Bob Dylan, “money doesn’t talk — it swears.”

Surely there will be a casino, no matter what. The money will flow and skilled workers will be needed by whoever gets a permanent license. I just hope it won’t be one that delivers shame to our good city.

Jay McCalla has served as a city deputy managing director, a director for the Redevelopment Authority and as chief of staff to Councilman Rick Mariano.