An Open Letter to Milton Street

The floor is yours, Senator. Now make it count.

This week I had a conversation with someone who moved to Philadelphia six years ago. He talked to me about your candidacy for mayor as though it were not a completely preposterous idea, as though you haven’t played the Billy Carter/Roger Clinton foil to your brother John for many years now. My friend was ignorant of your history as “Philly’s foremost flibbertigibbet,” as the Inquirer’s Paul Nussbaum wrote in 2008. In that piece, Nussbaum got to the heart of your trajectory:

The arc of his life has been that of a bottle rocket: erratic, full of sparks, and quick to fizzle. He has been a campus food vendor, a community activist, a state legislator, a candidate for nearly every elective office short of president. He has been a Democrat, a Republican, an independent. Flamboyant and theatrical, he was the court jester of Philadelphia politics for 30 years. greeted news of your candidacy with this headline: “We Prayed For A 2011 Election Season Miracle And God Gave Us MILTON FUCKING STREET” and followed that up with:

Hallelujiah! You know, for a minute, the upcoming Mayor’s election was looking so, so boring … But then, manna from the heavens: Milton Street is going to run.

The excitement comes, in part, from the glory that was your last mayoral campaign in 2007—a venture marked by that bizarre rally at City Hall where, after a passionate speech about being innocent until proven guilty, you launched into song.

But my friend doesn’t see you as a joke. Instead, he’s simply listening to what you have to say. And some of what you have to say is actually quite important.

You invoke your early years as an advocate for the poor and pledge to honor the good you once did by speaking out now for the “Don’t Counts.” “The don’t counts are the ex-offenders, the people down in Kensington,” you told WHYY. You said the don’t counts include people with mental health issues, with addictions, people living in poverty.

You’re right. These people rarely get heard—especially if they’ve just come out of prison.

Many incarcerated in Pennsylvania are there for nonviolent drug offenses, and will be getting out of prison one day. Almost 36,000 ex-offenders come back to their neighborhoods each year—having done the crime and done the time—and face an avalanche of challenges (one of which—criminal background checks—is being debated this week in City Council).

How can you get a job if you come out of prison without any skills? If you’ve never used a computer? What if you have no money, no driver’s license, no suitable clothing for interviews? What if you don’t even have ID? How are you going to pay for it? Everything changes so quickly—people don’t even know where to begin to rebuild their lives. As you’ve ably pointed out, failed re-entry leads to recidivism. Which means the cycle of crime and punishment begins again.

This is why I write to you. When my friend told me he heard you advocate for ex-offenders, I realized you have a golden opportunity—not to make a mockery of the political process or to provide comedy for a bored electorate—but to say something important while a lot of people are listening. So what if they’re waiting for you to make a fool of yourself? Don’t take the bait. Talk seriously about the lives of the don’t counts. Explain why they matter. You know you can’t win this election, but you have a platform advocates would kill for. Surprise them. Surprise me. And make my friend believe that Philadelphia’s embarrassing political history—your history—can really be a thing of the past.