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.

But all of this only explains so much. Other cities have major problems. Other cities have critical press corps. Other cities have recalcitrant councils. And yet other cities manage pretty frequently to elect mayors who haven’t been born and raised in the fetid wading pool that is municipal politics. Indeed, of the 50 biggest cities in the U.S., close to half are right now being led by mayors who have had largely non-political careers.

There is no guarantee, of course, that political newcomers make for better mayors than City Hall veterans. Their record is mixed, just as it is for lifelong politicos. But surely there are times when it makes sense to refresh a stagnant leadership pool with some outside perspective. Even if the outsider bids end in failure, the injection of new ideas and new thinking about how government can and ought to work would do Philadelphia good.

So what’s stopping that from happening? What are the real hang-ups?

  • There’s a baked-in cowardice to Philadelphia’s established leadership class that’s missing in more dynamic cities. Consider the decades of developer kowtowing to building-trades unions that are shedding members and dwindling in size. It took a couple of out-of-town 30-something developers, the Pestronk brothers, to show Philadelphia that it was possible to stand up to the building trades and their often-thuggish tactics and still get something built.
  • It’s not just the developers. Philadelphia’s business culture as a whole is too often financially dependent on political actors for sweetheart tax breaks and contracts. Big business in this city hedges its bets, plays it safe, and tries to get on the side of the eventual winner. The notion of making a winner, or of putting forward a capable executive to champion business interests, is fodder for idle conversation and nothing more.
  • The nonprofit sector considers it unseemly—and potentially improper, given legal restrictions on political activities—to broadly engage the city’s political system. Nonprofit leaders will lobby on narrow issues, but few will take strong stands on broad questions about the direction of city government. And those few who do, like the William Penn Foundation’s recently deposed Jeremy Nowak, find they have little institutional support.
  • The political system is built to discourage outsider candidates. Philadelphia is part of a dwindling minority of big cities that still conduct partisan municipal elections. Given the paltry number of registered Republicans in town and the sorry state of the city GOP, the winner of the Democratic primary always goes on to win the general election.

These are real obstacles. But none is insurmountable. Indeed, most are self-imposed. Philadelphia’s political class is imbued with powers entirely disproportionate to its abilities and past performance mostly because the private and nonprofit sectors have, time and again, surrendered that power without a fight.

What about the relatively new contention that leaders can make a bigger difference outside of City Hall than within? It’s rank defeatism, just the latest iteration of a decades-long capitulation to the hacks. You don’t simply cede control of a $3.8 billion enterprise to the very people who, over decades, have made that enterprise so ineffective.

And yet that is exactly what Philadelphia appears poised to do. Again.

In a too-tight neon yellow t-shirt, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams—considered by many to be the candidate with the clearest path to the mayor’s office—dances wildly on a sidewalk in Point Breeze, his ample midsection jiggling away while he waves his hands awkwardly in the air.

This degrading little piece of performance art is in service of the public good. Williams is promoting the city’s cleanup day, and with the help of some volunteers, he has put together his own version of the Harlem Shake (and posted it on YouTube, no less). Somehow, this display comes off as endearing, like Nutter’s (admittedly overdone) renditions of “Rapper’s Delight,” or that photo of Ed Rendell scrubbing the floor of a City Hall bathroom.

But Williams’s advantages in the forthcoming mayoral race go well beyond his willingness to look silly in service of politics. They include a well-established political organization—albeit smaller than some—and money. Perhaps lots of money. The state senator is one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent supporters of charter schools and vouchers, a position that has, in the past, won him the financial backing of a trio of very wealthy executives at Susquehanna International Group L.L.P., a Bala Cynwyd investment group. They contributed more than $5 million to Williams’s gubernatorial run in 2010, and the presumption among political operatives is that they will once again open their checkbooks if it will help put a committed school reformer in the mayor’s office. (That could be a bit tricky, given Philadelphia’s strict caps on campaign finance contributions. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling gutting campaign finance controls seems to at least open up the possibility for Super PACs—last seen rampaging across the airwaves during the presidential election—to do an end run around Philadelphia’s ordinances.)

But money isn’t even Williams’s greatest advantage. Right now, his big edge is the lack of other prominent African-American candidates. If Williams runs as the only viable black candidate in a mayoral field crowded with white candidates, he could cruise to the Democratic nomination.

Here, Williams has mostly just gotten lucky. He has no shortage of powerful opponents in the city’s other black power centers, and in normal times, leaders of these factions wouldn’t dream of letting him jog to the nomination. But those factions have bigger problems right now. For instance, Congressman Chaka Fattah’s organization’s leading contender for a 2015 bid—Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown—has self-destructed with a raft of unusually stupid campaign finance violations.

State Rep Dwight Evans and his allies are just as badly hamstrung. Fellow Democrats stripped him of his post atop the all-powerful appropriations committee in December 2010. The state is poking into his dealings with a well-funded Ogontz nonprofit he founded. And memories of his well-documented Godfather-esque machinations to steer school cash to a favored contractor are still fresh. Evans lieutenant Marian Tasco is likely too old to run, and in any event is now best known as the leading champion of the city’s politically toxic DROP program. An intriguing option might be State Rep Cherelle Parker, who chairs the city’s Harrisburg delegation. But she was convicted on a drunk-driving charge earlier this year. (Parker is appealing the decision.)

Who else is there? On City Council, Darrell Clarke or Wilson Goode Jr. could give Williams a run for his money. At minimum, Williams wouldn’t be such a prohibitive favorite if either entered the race. But they’d have to quit their day jobs first, and neither looks particularly inclined to do so. District Attorney Seth Williams could be more formidable still, despite some missteps. But the two Williamses are close, and it seems unlikely they’ll go head-to-head. State Senator Vincent Hughes has served in Harrisburg about as long as Anthony Williams, but Williams has been assiduously courting him, and it seems to be working. Word is that Hughes won’t run.

All of which is very bad news for the glut of white men openly considering mayoral bids. In addition to Council members Green and Kenney, City Controller Alan Butkovitz has been mentioned as a possible candidate, and former Republican councilman Frank Rizzo has suggested he might run, too (though as a Democrat this time). Then there are Knox and Katz and, who knows, maybe even former city controller Jonathan Saidel.

Of course, we’re still far from the election, and the field is sure to change in ways that are hard to predict. There will likely be fewer white candidates and more black ones. Long-shot pretenders will reconsider, or be convinced to bow out with promises of patronage jobs or city business. But the end result is still likely to be this: the same old same old, with little promise of excitement or change.