Off the Cuff: January 2013

Despite advancements in Philadelphia, it still appears that the city's corrupt politicians and developers are running the show.

A couple of months ago, this magazine ran a cover story about innovation in Philadelphia. It focused on more than 50 smart people in town who are doing impressive things, including Penn researcher Carl June, who recently made a revolutionary breakthrough in cancer. The package left me with a good feeling about what’s possible in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the headlines over the past few weeks give me the sinking feeling that there’s still one thing in Philadelphia that hasn’t changed, and I fear never will: the way our political class consistently puts its own interests ahead of the public’s.

All you have to do is take a look around. Old friend Leland Beloff, the former city councilman convicted of trying to extort $1 million from developer Willard Rouse 25 years ago, is still finding creative methods to keep financially afloat, it seems. Another old buddy, John Dougherty, has popped up again, too. New details of an FBI probe from a half-dozen years ago were just made public; in an affidavit filed in court in 2006, an FBI agent alleged that she had evidence suggesting the electricians union head got $300,000 in free work on his South Philly rowhouse, turning it into a fortress that includes an alarm system with 32 security zones. (No charges were ever filed against him.) Meanwhile, Michael Nutter’s one farsighted idea—selling PGW, the gas utility, to reap $500 million that the city desperately needs—seems to be a dead deal. Why? Because if somebody who actually cared about the bottom line were running the Gas Works, union jobs might be trimmed.

The most depressing part of all of this is how the cast of characters always seems to be the same. A few years ago, I ran into Leland Beloff at a restaurant in Margate. He came up to me and said, “You’re responsible for putting me in jail”—the magazine had written about his bald attempt to squeeze Rouse. Beloff was so mad, I thought he was going to take a swing at me, which is another Philadelphia tradition I love: Blame the accuser instead of taking a look in the mirror.

Recently, the Inquirer detailed how Beloff got $1 million in state grants for the nursing home he owns in Delaware County, arranged by the Urban Affairs Coalition, a Philadelphia nonprofit with ties to State Rep Dwight Evans. Evans is another classic Philadelphia player, one accused a year ago of putting a backroom squeeze on an Atlanta charter-school manager about to get a $50 million contract in Philadelphia, so that a New Jersey company Evans backed would be used instead. The Urban Affairs Coalition, by the way, is supposed to help communities, not ex-con businessmen.

John Dougherty, of course, reemerged in 2011 as the power behind several newly elected councilmen, after learning the hard way he himself wasn’t palatable to the Philadelphia electorate. But old pols in this city never die; former state senator Vince Fumo, tucked away in a prison in Kentucky, is rumored to still have his hand dipped in the sewer of politics here.

The problem isn’t corruption per se so much as how open it is in Philadelphia, which is a sure sign that things will never change. More than one hundred years ago, journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote that our corruption “looked like bad politics” to him. But a local boss set him straight: “We reasoned that if we [did exactly as we wanted] fast enough, one-two-three—one after the other—the papers couldn’t handle them all, and the public would be stunned and—give up. … We know that public despair is possible and that that is good politics.”

Which is exactly why Philadelphia still deserves the infamous indictment St­effens bestowed on us: “All our municipal governments are more or less bad,” he declared. “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.” Happy New Year, everyone.