The Case for Philly Statehood

If the rest of Pennsylvania doesn’t want us, maybe it’s time to strike out on our own.

Illustration by GlueKit

Illustration by Gluekit

Back in July, as the world was reeling from the U.K.’s Brexit vote, Harper Polling asked Pennsylvanians which part of the state they’d like to see exit the Commonwealth. Half of respondents weren’t sure, but nearly-two thirds of those who were said it should be “Philadelphia and the Southeast.”

Let’s start with the obvious: The Philly region will never become a state. Ever. Legislators in Harrisburg wouldn’t let its southeastern population center and economic engine ghost. Nor would a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress admit a new, predominantly Democratic state to the union. But that doesn’t mean Philly, and what have become its increasingly like-minded surrounding counties, couldn’t go it alone. 

This thought exercise isn’t just about the result of the recent, bitterly divisive election. Yes, 2016 saw Philadelphia’s immediate suburbs turn more blue than in 2012 even as most of the rest of the state got way redder. This was part of a national trend in which economically booming cities and suburbs chose Hillary Clinton on November 8th while more sparsely populated areas, suffering economically and perhaps wary of a changing country, voted for Donald Trump. Some see Clinton’s loss — despite her two-million-plus popular-vote edge — as a feature rather than a bug of America’s electoral calculus. But the problems attendant to the fact that how close you live to your neighbors can amplify or damper your vote extend beyond the Electoral College and the influence-distorting U.S. Senate.

How? The University of Maryland’s Frances Lee says even in the U.S. House and state legislatures, rural voters are edging out urban voters based on, well, placement. “In the House, Republican voters are distributed more efficiently across districts,” she says. “Democrats waste votes because they win overwhelmingly where they win. It’s quite common for Democrats to win the majority of votes but not win the majority of House districts.”

Which helps explain how Americans elected Barack Obama twice as they seated a Congress hell-bent on blocking his agenda. On the state level, Democrats win congressional seats by huge margins, while Republicans ride modest wins in their districts to majorities in the state House. And now that city-friendly suburban Republicans have been bounced from leadership positions in Harrisburg, socially conservative figureheads like Daryl Metcalfe hold disproportionate sway over the future of policies most here would like to enact — including police reform, legalized weed and LGBTQ protections.

So what’s a region that’s at odds with its arbitrarily delineated state to do? In 1980, a New Jersey man named Joel Jacovitz pondered such a problem in his state and came up with … the Committee to Free South Jersey. Jacovitz, then an Egg Harbor committeeman, felt that South Jersey was getting short shrift in Trenton. So he started a jocular movement that tapped into that sense of disenfranchisement, and landed a non-binding referendum that called for leaving the state of New Jersey on the ballot in six South Jersey counties. (It passed in five.) The CFSJ published “newspapers” trumpeting its cause and even had an honest-to-God campaign song. Ultimately, new GOP governor Tom Kean showed South Jerseyans some love, and the movement lost steam.

Could a Committee to Free Southeast Pennsylvania have at least symbolic power? Part of the answer lies in settling the age-old question of who needs whom most: Does Philly siphon off more in state funds than it contributes? “Philadelphia itself might get more from the state than it sends in taxes, but the five-county region certainly does not,” says Marc Stier, of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. Region-wide secession presupposes that Philly’s neighboring counties also feel underrepresented — not a given. But if they do, our new state could, theoretically, be able to sustain itself.

In 2015, the PBPC floated the idea of tinkering with the way wealth is taxed to help plug the state’s $2 billion budget deficit. Some $1.5 billion of the gains would have come from the five-county region. All of which is to say, given the power to tax more progressively, Philly and its surrounding counties could be just fine without the state that doesn’t seem to want them much.

Free Southeast Pennsylvania indeed. Who wants to write the rally song?

Published as “The Case for Philly Statehood” in the January 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.