Off the Cuff

When things are a mess, one of the worst reactions is to do nothing but complain. (Columnists are exempt from this.) I’ve often wondered, as problems in Philadelphia have festered and grown worse, why there seems to be so little outrage. Where are the voices saying Enough? More to the point, who has the guts to stand up to try to make things different?

There is, I recently discovered, one brave soul left in Philadelphia. And he goes all the way back to the days of Frank Rizzo.

Hillel Levinson was Mayor Rizzo’s managing director back in the ’70s. And now he’s dusting himself off to take another shot at public service, running for city controller, a seat wide open this year because Jonathan Saidel isn’t running for reelection; Saidel evidently believes his incompetence as controller means he should be mayor.

The Republicans are reaching back to pluck a lifetime Democrat, a guy some people might consider an old-time political hack. But I don’t agree. My reading of him is a little broader. After working under Rizzo, Levinson left government for a couple of decades; he became a consultant, working with companies with financial problems, and lived in Harrisburg. But he was born and raised in this city, and he came back in 1999 to work on the mayoral campaign of Marty Weinberg, another holdover from the Rizzo era.

Levinson saw, firsthand, how the city was being run. And once the corruption trial exposed even more baldly what was really going on, he got busy. Looking for a way to control the abuse of the city’s coffers, Levinson studied Philadelphia’s charter. The charter spelled out something that quickly got his attention: The city’s controller really has a lot of potential power.

The controller must sign off on any contract with the city. Furthermore, the controller also signs off on all checks the city writes, including payroll. And one more thing: The controller has subpoena power; he can put anybody who gets money from the city under oath to find out, for example, what political contributions might have greased the way to a shaky deal.

The controller, in short, actually has the power to make sure that awarding contracts makes good business sense. That has been, it goes without saying, a power untapped during Saidel’s reign, which the corruption trials exposed in sad detail: how, for example, the company belonging to Janice Knight, Ron White’s girlfriend, got juicy contracts for printing work and then farmed it out for peanuts, pocketing tens of thousands in taxpayer money.

Levinson saw a golden opportunity to make some noise and have a positive effect — to the point that he switched parties to avoid the appearance of being controlled by the ruling Democrats. He’d been talking to Republicans anyway; there had been some interest in his running for mayor, but Levinson says he’s no longer interested in that sort of around-the-clock commitment. He was intrigued with the possibility, however, of making the way the city conducts business an open endeavor, which is diametrically opposed to our historic behind-closed-doors deal-making.

“When I was a kid, my father used to tell me to stop complaining,” Levinson remembers. “‘Stop complaining and do something about it.’”

That’s the plan. Become controller, reform the job, and change the way the city is run.

You can call it, if that’s your impulse, a pipe dream. I applaud him for trying.