Desperately Seeking Leadership: Philadelphia’s Next Mayor

The next mayor's race is still two years away, but the field is shaping up to be a depressing array of hacks and usual suspects. Maybe it's time to call Philadelphia's civic leadership exactly what it is: Cowardly and pathetic.

Billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is in the final year of his three-term reign in New York. Onetime White House bully Rahm Emanuel runs Chicago. Former journalist Boris Johnson remains wildly popular in London. A leading candidate in Detroit’s 2013 election is Mike Duggan, a white businessman who recently moved back to the city from the suburbs.

Two years ago, voters in Kansas City chose a lawyer and first-time candidate named Sly James as mayor. He’s brought bow ties back into fashion, and lured Google to his city to build the nation’s fastest Internet service. Julián Castro was 34 years old when he was elected mayor of San Antonio after just four years on city council. Last year he electrified the Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech. So did Newark mayor Cory Booker, who also won office after a single term on council. And before Narberth native John Hickenlooper became one of the most popular governors in the country, he was mayor of Denver, a job he won having never run for public office before.

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And in Philadelphia? In Philadelphia, we get parochial hacks. Over and over and over again.

The early lineup for the 2015 mayoral election is an insipid collection of Council members, has-beens and legacy admits. Some are fundamentally unfit for the job. Most are ardent defenders of the status quo. And every last one of them would likely lose to Mayor Nutter—himself a pale shadow of what his supporters had hoped for—could he run for a third term.

The sons of as many as three former mayors may make bids, and the most di­sruptive of these—Councilman Bill Green—appears to have both lost his pep and alienated many potential supporters with his sometimes-abrasive personality. The current front-runner, Anthony Hardy Wi­lliams, is the lethargic heir to a West Philadelphia political machine who has spent nearly a quarter-century in the state House and Senate, with shockingly few accomplishments to show for it. Councilman-at-large Jim Kenney has logged more than two decades in City Hall, much of it in the service of the now-defunct Fumo organization. He seems to be in the mayoral mix mostly because he’s bored out of his mind on Council. The most-mentioned female candidate is septuagenarian former district attorney Lynne Abraham. The non-politicos openly flirting with bids are perennial electoral losers: Sam Katz, who has run for mayor three times and governor once (going 0-for-4), and millionaire Tom Knox, who floats his name for so many offices that he is fast becoming a punch line.

All of this would be distressing enough if Philadelphia were a perfectly average city with a well-run bureaucracy and a readily manageable set of problems. But it’s not. Instead, Philadelphia has the highest rate of deep poverty of any big city in the country, and is getting poorer every year. In the eyes of at least some Wall Street analysts, the city is a prime candidate for bankruptcy. Outside the expanding bubble of Center City, crime and blight are endemic. The school district is atrocious and only stands to get worse with catastrophic spending cuts looming.

And yet, even so, this is a moment of incredible opportunity for Philadelphia. The city is growing again. New arrivals from Bensalem and Brooklyn and Bangladesh are flocking here, in spite of City Hall’s fumbling. The millennials—God bless them—are giving the city a fighting chance.

It’s now entirely plausible to imagine Philadelphia evolving into a far more prosperous, better-educated and less violent place: a metropolis with character and grit and grace that finally reclaims its rightful crown as one of the world’s great cities.

But it’s equally easy to imagine the opposite. The calamitous conditions in low-income neighborhoods could slow and ultimately reverse Center City’s growth. A less prudent mayor than Nutter could quickly spend and borrow the city into outright insolvency. A collapsing school system could lead middle- and upper-class families to desert the city in droves, just as earlier generations did.

The point is that Philadelphia is—right now—in the midst of radical change. The city could tip one way (call it the way of tech-and-research hive Boston). Or it could tip the other (Detroit). Some years
matter more than others in a city’s trajectory. Some moments—and the chance to beat back 60 years of population decline is one of them—come along only once every few decades.

This is the opportunity that the city is poised to entrust to one of the usual suspects?

If only there were someone else.