Who Really Runs This Town?: The Lopez Legacy

Even the newspaper columnists in our pay-to-play, one-party town don’t push very hard to make things better

Steve Lopez still haunts this city. At his best, he was everything a great columnist should be. Funny, maudlin, mean, he tried — often in vain — to hold the city’s most powerful people accountable, usually by sheer force of embarrassment. In the process, his Inquirer column, which ran from 1985 through 1997, created something that’s become increasingly rare among the dead-tree media: required reading. When mobster Nicky Scarfo was found not guilty of killing Salvatore Testa, for example, Lopez crashed the victory party. When City Council bought a $30,000 van and never used it, he got two Council members to help him steal it.

Since Lopez left the Inky, no one has stepped up to claim his mantle. Granted, it’s not an easy job, especially in an era of cost-obsessed, ­controversy-averse management — indeed, a few of the columnists below are rumored to be seriously considering offers of buyouts as the Inquirer and Daily News shrink their staffs. But we could certainly use a newspaper columnist or two who could make our public officials think twice (or once). Here’s a look at the contenders for Lopez’s long-abdicated crown, with a rating of one to five Lopez faces.

Monica Yant Kinney/Inquirer
Persona: Tough chick lost in Jersey.
Signature move: The late-blooming column, in which the point of the piece isn’t apparent until at least a third of the way in.
Lopez level: Considered by many to have Lopezian potential, she was shuffled off to Jersey (against her wishes) during the regime of Walker Lundy. She still seems to be finding her footing, balancing urban sensibilities with her suburban milieu, and the column has yet to hit the right tone to bring the depravities of South Jersey to life. Also, it’s annoying when she writes about her daughter.
Rating: Two and a half Lopez faces

Ronnie Polaneczky/Daily News
Persona: Modern-day Hildy Johnson.
Signature move: The keyhole view. In May, after a double murder in Warminster, she talked to the parents of Bryan Benson, murdered in 1993, to illustrate the devastation wrought by an unsolved crime.
Lopez level: We’re not exactly impartial on Ronnie, who once worked at Philadelphia and is married to one of our columnists. Still, even other reporters — not much of a warm-and-fuzzy group — give her credit for finding and reporting stories. As one so lovingly noted: “She’s less of a hack” than the other columnists. And though she’s not as stunty or funny as Lopez, she is the one columnist most likely to have an unpredictable take; Polaneczky once admitted she’d rather take a nap than attend the “Race for the Cure.” Even fans, though, wonder if she didn’t have more impact when she was writing mostly about the school system. We wish those reporting chops would zero in on bigger game more often. As it is now, she’s considered a talented feature writer who happens to have a column.
Rating: Two and a half Lopez faces

Jill Porter/daily news
Persona: The worry wart.
Signature move: The woe-begotten tale of a missing dog, a paralyzed kid or some bureaucratic nightmare, sometimes sprinkled with a dash of progressive politics.
Lopez level: Porter’s column is quintessentially Philly in one way: There is no silver lining for which she can’t find a cloud. When a Georgia woman, Ashley Smith, persuaded quadruple murder suspect Brian Nichols to turn himself in to police by reading from the evangelical Christian book The Purpose-Driven Life, Porter lamented that she felt “alienated from what should be an inspiring tale” because of the hype surrounding the book’s role in the episode. And though Porter still gets out from behind her desk to report a piece every once in a while, decision-makers don’t consider her required reading.
Rating: Two Lopez faces

Elmer Smith/Daily news
Persona: Misanthrope with a heart of gold.  
Signature move: The column as question: “What’s in a Strawbridge’s name?” “Bombs below: Can we be safe?” “What does Africa have to do with us?”
Lopez level: Smith seldom musters the energy to get angry about anything. “He’s harmless,” says one veteran political watcher, which is not a compliment. It’s too bad; when his anger and personality do come through, Smith offers a compelling voice, as when he wrote about Wachovia’s completely pointless apology for the company’s historic ties to slavery: “Here is this multi-billion-dollar corporate cannibal, which has devoured half the banks in the city without so much as a belch, apologizing for something it didn’t do. Excuse me for noticing that the mandatory mea culpa is prompted by a city law that is almost as pointless as Wachovia’s apology.”
Rating: Two Lopez faces