Can the Committee of Seventy Clean Up Philadelphia Politics?
It’s Election Day in Philadelphia, and Zack Stalberg—the CEO of the Committee of Seventy, the city elections watchdog—has nothing but time on his hands. The war room is up and running inside the committee’s small suite of offices in an aging Penn Center high-rise. Attorneys putting in their pro bono hours are at the long tables, waiting for the phones to ring. Dozens more volunteers, 200 in all, are on the streets making precinct checks, looking for trouble, just as the Committee of Seventy has been doing for over 100 years now. Nobody would deny that it’s important work, particularly in Philadelphia, which has had more than its share of Election Day fraud and intimidation. But the entire operation is kind of mechanical, kind of routine. Stalberg watches the room for a while, because it seems like he should. When his wife calls a little later, he tells her he’ll probably be home early.
Not all that long ago, the Committee of Seventy, which was founded in 1904 as a check on the corrupt Republican machine, pretty much existed for Election Day. Now, election operations are an ancillary job to the committee’s broad new vision, which is nothing less than an honest political culture and a better, more efficient, cleaner government. To some, that seems like a conflict: serving as an utterly nonpartisan elections observer two days a year and a relentless advocate for change the rest of the time. Stalberg, though, doesn’t see it that way: “This is basically about helping people who want to vote. It’s a positive thing. And frankly, it helps balance out some of the unpleasant things I say.”
Indeed, much more than by elections, the Committee of Seventy today is defined by what comes out of Stalberg’s big, marvelously quotable mouth. Seven years ago, before Stalberg left his job as editor of the Daily News, the Committee of Seventy was irrelevant at best, the tame house pet of the city’s political class at worst. Today, Stalberg and the Committee of Seventy aren’t just relevant players in the city’s civic dialogue: They’re omnipresent. It was the Committee of Seventy—with the help of the press and the Nutter administration—that turned participation in the city’s loathed DROP retirement program into a modern-day political mark of Cain. Stalberg was the loudest to call foul when Mayor Nutter tried to line up anonymous private contributions to buy out the contract of catastrophic schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman. And that’s just to name two recent controversies. Really, there are precious few public debates in which Stalberg’s voice isn’t heard.
But are Stalberg’s broadsides having any actual impact? Here, the record is mixed. The Committee of Seventy’s newfound willingness to enter the public dialogue hasn’t swept the city clean of shady political behavior. City Council will tell you that’s partly because Stalberg’s nonstop critique of City Hall has led many of its denizens to tune him out. “As far as City Council is concerned, the Committee of Seventy is irrelevant. I don’t believe anyone here values their opinion or what Zack says at all,” says Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. Even within the Nutter administration, where the committee is generally well-regarded, there’s a sense that the organization is too easily distracted, too prone to chasing the day’s headlines instead of picking one or two causes and beating on them until victory comes.
Expecting an organization with a staff of just six and a budget of $1.2 million to single-handedly clean up a town as dirty as Philadelphia is perhaps a bit unfair. But then again, under Stalberg, Seventy has encouraged those sorts of expectations. The organization routinely issues comprehensive agendas and roadmaps—on ethics, campaign finance, spending and so forth—that call on the city’s elected leaders to enact very specific reforms. An awful lot of those recommendations have gone unheeded.
Stalberg himself has been surprised at the resilience of City Hall’s entitled culture. “I had a simpleminded newspaperman’s point of view, which is that things ought to change overnight,” he says. “And it turns out that a lot of this stuff is deeply ingrained.” Still, Stalberg, 64, isn’t going anywhere, and he remains as cocksure as ever, despite the frustrations. “I’ve been playing some version of this game for over four decades, and I don’t get easily discouraged or upset,” he says. “So things move too slowly. Or a politician finds a way to corrupt a victory. It’s just part of the business.” Stalberg is playing the long game: “I like building something, and that’s what we’re doing here.”