The Ugly Philly-Centric Feud at the Center of America’s 250th Birthday Celebration

Two opposing camps in Philadelphia are vying to dictate how the country celebrates its upcoming Semiquincentennial, complete with accusations of cronyism, sexism, double-dealing and bad faith. But hey, why should our 250th anniversary be different from anything else these days?

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The fight for USA’s 250th birthday is starting to look like The Battle of Bunker’s Hill. Painting by John Trumbull/Yale University Art Gallery

Independence Hall. A glorious spring day. Enthused parents and less-enthused teenagers march around, gazing up at the bronze statue of Commodore John Barry, his outstretched arm pointing majestically into the distance. Andrew Hohns sits on a wooden park bench, taking in the scene. As a kid, Hohns used to pass beneath the arches of Independence Hall on walks across the city — historical engagement via osmosis. Now, he’s looking soberly at the fences and bollards restricting access. “It turns the building into something held apart,” he says, “when in fact, I think it’s actually something that’s very much a part of the city and the landscape.”

If there’s one thing Hohns would change about Independence Hall, it might be this. And Hohns has been thinking a lot about what he might change lately — not just inside Independence National Historical Park, but across the city, because in four years, the United States will celebrate its Semiquincentennial, the convolutedly named occasion of its 250th anniversary. Hohns has an almost mystical faith in the power of round numbers, and as far as round numbers go, you can’t do much better than 250 — a quarter-millennium! In 2011, Hohns, who’s the CEO of an investment firm, founded USA250, a nonprofit with the self-appointed task of planning for the nationwide celebration and ensuring that it be headquartered in Philadelphia. What Hohns has in mind for 2026 is less a big party (though there’s that, too) and more a giant wave of investment that he hopes will set off a cascade of development, infrastructure improvements, and historical preservation that will last, at least, through the next 50 years. “The minimum budget for the celebration should be $2.5 billion,” says Hohns. “But better yet, $20.26 billion!”

On this April day at the park, Hohns, who’s 44 — tall and well-dressed, with a boyish shock of black hair just beginning to show signs of gray — is taking me on a tour across the city to the sites of the 1876 Centennial, the 1926 Sesquicentennial, and the 1976 Bicentennial, as a kind of historical proof of concept that his ambitious vision for 2026, far from being exceptional, has been the historical norm for Philly.

“We’re surrounded by the Semiquincentennial in the form of trees,” Hohns says, beginning our tour from the bench. He turns and points to a tree behind him: It’s an emaciated thing, a late bloomer, with only the faintest signs of green buds. “This tree was the first patriotic gift in honor of the Semiquincentennial,” he says — one of 76 saplings planted alongside Independence Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. This is meant as an optimistic point about progress already under way — new life, future growth. It’s difficult to suppress, however, the creeping thought that this skeleton of a tree is doing a pretty good job symbolizing how the planning for the 2026 Semiquincentennial has been going so far: not well.

In 2016, after considerable lobbying on the part of Hohns, Congress passed a law creating the United States Semiquincentennial Commission, the official body tasked with planning the celebration. Despite its national provenance, the commission, made up of eight elected officials and 16 private citizens appointed by leadership in Congress, has retained a distinctly local flavor: Seven of its members, including its two top officials, are from Pennsylvania. All seven are men; all but one are white. There’s the political and power-broker cohort: senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey; U.S. Representative Dwight Evans; former Representative Bob Brady; former Comcast exec and current ambassador to Canada David L. Cohen. Then there’s the Union League cohort: chairman Dan DiLella, a real estate CEO and former Union League president who has been a major contributor to Toomey’s campaigns and was asked to join by him, plus Frank Giordano, Philly POPs president and fellow former Union League president, who was appointed executive director by DiLella. (DiLella and Giordano are longtime friends, and DiLella serves on the board of the Philly POPs.) Hohns, too, is a commissioner, and he, too, is part of the Union League, his membership a gift from when he graduated from Penn.


Andrew Hohns, founder of USA250, at Independence Hall in May / Photograph by Dan Lidon

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the insular, tribal group of Philly power players who make up its membership, the commission has been beset by infighting more or less from the moment it was created. One of DiLella’s first acts, in November 2018, was to name Giordano executive director without performing a national search, which infuriated Hohns. (The commission responded by voting to perform a national search, but DiLella reported back, after a year, that he’d been unable to hire a pro bono search firm, and Giordano was permanently confirmed.) Nor does Hohns feel that the commission has sufficiently monitored the America250 Foundation, the nonprofit partner that was created in 2019 to run the day-to-day planning for the Semiquincentennial. “I’ve been spending four years dealing with almost a tragicomic degree of corporate misgovernance,” he says. According to Hohns, the commission, in contravention of its own bylaws, has never approved any of the foundation’s contracts or annual budgets, despite the fact that the foundation has received, through the federal commission, nearly $20 million in appropriations. There have been contentious meetings, mid-speech mutes on Zoom, and more righteous sermons about procedures and freedom of speech than one would think possible. Additionally, in February, four female former executives sued the foundation, alleging a sexist work environment and unequal pay practices and citing a series of non-competitive contracts they claimed had been doled out to companies and consultants with close ties to Giordano and DiLella. The contracts, the suit alleges, amount to “fraud, waste and abuse of federal funds.” All of which points to the fundamental dilemma: To place a celebration of American history in Philadelphia is to inevitably run up against this city’s own history of self-dealing or, depending on one’s level of charitableness, corruption. Now, Hohns is growing worried that the Semiquincentennial has already fallen into the familiar trap and is at grave risk of being stillborn years before it’s even set to begin. 

For obvious reasons,  Philadelphia has long played a central role in America’s round-number anniversaries. As Hohns explains repeatedly on our tour, no small part of the city’s current environment has links to 1776. We make our way to Fairmount Park, site of the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair. The fairgrounds are long gone, so Hohns heads to the Please Touch Museum to provide the next best thing. Dodging children, we descend to the basement, where Hohns stands reverently before a giant glass-encased box that looks like one of those three-dimensional maps generals use for war planning: a scale model of the 1876 fairgrounds. That year’s World’s Fair was both a massive expenditure — $11 million total, equivalent to $300 million today —  and a massive success, with 10 million people, or roughly 25 percent of the nation’s population, attending the festivities.

Hohns points out the main exhibition space, an ornate but temporary 21-acre hall that was the largest building ever constructed at the time; the torch of the Statue of Liberty, which attendees could ascend; the exposition pavilions of 24 states, where people could meet local elected officials and learn about what goes on in Mississippi or Nevada. There were more than 200 buildings in all, including, as it happens, the one we’re standing in. What now houses the Please Touch Museum was once known as Memorial Hall, home to the Centennial’s art exhibit. “This was all built within, like, two years,” Hohns says as he walks around the model. “We can do this. We can do this.” It sounds more like a plea than a promise.

The other commemorations haven’t been quite as exceptional. The best thing you can say about the 1926 Sesquicentennial is that no one is alive to remember it. As historian Thomas Keel writes in Sesqui!: Greed Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926, the City of Philadelphia lost at least $10 million (more than $100 million today) on the celebration, which took place amid a combination heat-and-rain wave; it rained on 107 of the fair’s 184 days. Scandalously, the fairgrounds were built, not in Fairmount Park, but in the theretofore uninhabited swamplands of South Philadelphia, thanks to “omnipotent political boss” William S. Vare, whose puppet mayor, Freeland Kendrick, a former pawnshop owner, ensured the fair would be held in his benefactor’s political stronghold. Still, even this corrupt, dilapidated celebration managed to produce lasting projects. Those swamplands? They’re now FDR Park. And the stadium complex? We owe that to the Sesquicentennial, too; the Municipal Stadium, which stood until 1992, was built for it. 

And then there’s the Bicentennial, still remembered by many city residents as an epic flop that produced a series of only-in-Philadelphia unfortunate events: then-mayor Frank Rizzo ordering out-of-towners who were “bent on violence” to stay away from the city and requesting (to no avail) 15,000 federal troops for protection; labor conflicts leading to the untimely closure of exhibitions, including the Art Museum on July 5th; hugely ambitious plans, like a proposed $1 billion structure to be built above 30th Street Station to house the festivities, left unrealized. (There was one bit of monumental architecture: a five-story, 49,000-pound birthday cake, covered in red, white and blue icing, on display in Fairmount Park.) The planning of the Bicentennial, historian Scott Gabriel Knowles writes in Imagining Philadelphia, ultimately served to “reflect the clashing ambitions of citizens caught in a declining American industrial metropolis.”

Setting aside any present-day historical parallels, Hohns has a different take on the Bicentennial. If nothing else, he argues, it triggered, not unlike the Sesquicentennial before it, a significant amount of infrastructure: the Declaration House at 7th and Market streets, where Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence (now part of Independence National Park); the African American Museum; the Mummers Museum. “What if every 50 years there was a wave of major investment in the nation’s founding city?” Hohns says. “Wouldn’t that be good?”

Hohns has a kind of innate magnetic pull toward gigantic ideas — including for himself. By the time he was 26, he’d already run for (and lost) the state House twice and was openly talking of one day running for mayor. He never did make that run — at least, not yet — and these days, he seems to have transferred his civic energy to the Semiquincentennial.

Members of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission at the White House in January 2020: from left, Pat Toomey, Robert Aderholt, Lynn Forney Young, David L. Cohen, Cathy Gillespie, Mike Pence; James L. Swanson; Dan DiLella, Rosie Gumataotao Rios and Frank Giordano. / Photograph via Danvis Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

“What are the things that we can motivate in connection with the 250th anniversary that might otherwise not be possible within that kind of window?” he asks. In typical Hohns-ian fashion, he’s got no shortage of answers. He proposes new infrastructure at Independence Hall (classroom space for students; a room devoted to the nation’s historic flags), new investment programs (“Commercial programs to renovate facades, incentives to get all of the building owners to make generational investments. Why not? It’s worth it!”), and a suite of events — all 50 state legislatures holding honorary sessions inside Independence Hall in 2026, say, and a roving open-air exhibition, held on barges, that would travel from city to city, culminating here, on the banks of the Delaware. This wasn’t mere daydreaming. By 2014, Hohns’s USA250 nonprofit had hired a full-time executive director and secured millions of dollars in provisional commitments from big-name companies, including Walmart and Johnson & Johnson.

In 2018, when it came time for the federal government to select the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission’s official nonprofit partner, Hohns figured USA250, as the undisputed leader in Semiquincentennial planning — not to mention the only ­nonprofit with millions in sponsorship commitments — would be a shoo-in. But the government didn’t choose USA250; it selected the American Battlefield Trust, an older nonprofit whose main line of work involves restoring Civil War battlefields. (It also had ties to the Trump administration; the brother of the trust’s president was the U.S. Trade Representative, a cabinet-level position.) This left Hohns perplexed. He became even more perplexed when, four months later, the trust decided it wasn’t equipped to plan the celebration after all, which led to the creation of the America250 Foundation, the nonprofit that remains the main planning entity today. “I mean, why did [the trust] even apply for this role?” Hohns says. “I don’t understand.”

Hohns did understand this much: He had moved, along with USA250, from the forefront to the sidelines. 

Anna laymon had been warned. It was January of 2021, and she’d just capped a successful tour as executive director of the federal commission charged with commemorating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. The world of federal commissions planning the nation’s various anniversary celebrations is small, and Laymon was already beginning to hear about the America250 Foundation. “They had a reputation for being a total disaster,” she says. Still, when she was offered a job as the foundation’s vice president of programs and ­planning — ­essentially the chief planner for the Semiquincentennial — she decided it was worth the risk. “Well, I can make this place better,” she thought. “And if I turn my back on it, it’s not going to get any better.”

It didn’t take long for Laymon to realize the warnings were justified. Because most of the staff had been hired as consultants, there was little internal structure. Laymon had a hard time figuring out which employees actually worked full-time at the foundation and what, exactly, anyone did. Renee Burchard, who was hired in April 2020 as the chief administrative officer, says there was a kind of start-up atmosphere in the early days — a scrappiness, not to mention an awareness of the enormity of the task before them. The issue, she says: “We never got to the point where we weren’t acting just like a crazy start-up.”

The longer Laymon and Burchard worked at the foundation, the less sense the organization seemed to make. Simple questions — Who’s in charge? — led to complicated answers. The foundation had its own CEO, a former professor of management at Ohio State named Tony Rucci, but then there were Dan DiLella and Frank Giordano, who held the top two roles at the federal commission overseeing the foundation and appeared to have final decision-making authority. According to the lawsuit that Burchard and Laymon, along with Keri Potts, vice president of communications, and Kirsti Garlock, the former chief legal officer, would later file against America250, Giordano worked as little as 10 hours a week despite collecting a $165,000 salary as executive director. He would allegedly sleep through meetings. Once, he Zoomed into a call in the middle of a croquet game, wearing his all-whites. (In addition to his work at the commission, Giordano is still the CEO at his family trucking business and president of the nonprofit Philly POPs, where he used to draw a six-figure salary but has been working pro bono since July 2020.) According to a commission spokesperson, Giordano often works more than 40 hours a week for the commission and vehemently denies ever sleeping through meetings. The time he took a call in croquet gear, he interrupted his vacation to do so, according to the spokesperson. 

As time went on, the four employees began to notice that a number of ­America250’s contracts went to groups with personal ties to DiLella and Giordano. The foundation had been paying $40,000 a month to a Philly public relations firm called Maven Communications, which did PR for DiLella’s real estate company, Equus. At the time, America250 had only a couple thousand followers on social media and was receiving little press coverage. “It was outrageous,” says Potts, who previously worked doing PR for large companies like ESPN. (According to a foundation finance report from December, Maven has been paid more than $600,000 to date.) There was the foundation’s general counsel, Tom McGarrigle, a friend of Giordano and DiLella who serves on the Union League board. He worked pro bono, but his law firm, Reed Smith, later began billing the foundation for other lawyers’ time. There was a similar arrangement with the commission’s general counsel, Joseph Del Raso, who serves as chairman of the Philly POPs board. According to the suit, when Rucci tried to end the contract with Reed Smith, DiLella and Giordano stepped in to reinstate it. DiLella also hired the daughter of an Equus executive to work for him as a “director of operations and communications” — “a job without any clear duties,” Laymon says — at a six-figure salary, according to multiple sources.

DiLella says that in the early days of the foundation, there was “no money, no structure, no input and no help.” It was his job to staff up the foundation, and with his supply of prospective employees limited to those who were willing to work for free, he says, he had to rely on consultants — namely, “friends who owed me something.” (Many of them worked pro bono for at least a year.) “This was no cronyism,” he says. “What I did is, I called on the people of Philadelphia.” Including himself: He says he donated $250,000 of his own money to jump-start the process.

Anna Laymon, right, and Renee Burchard, center, with attorney Pam Keith in Washington, D.C., in April / Photograph by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The challenges weren’t lost on Laymon. “Dan is trying to stand this organization up; they aren’t given any federal funds in the beginning, so they really do have to kind of call upon friends and family,” she says. The issue was that when Laymon came on board, it was 2021 — two years later. The Congressional appropriation spigot had turned on, and the contracts had since been converted from pro bono to paid, which she felt could no longer be justified. When the four women employees tried to point this out, they claim, they were stonewalled, which led them to a different conclusion — the one laid out in their lawsuit: “These contracts were benefits given to friends of Mr. DiLella and other senior leaders that circumvented the open RFP process, and were treated as sacrosanct, no matter how absurd they were.”

There were other baffling decisions, among them the foundation’s choice, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, to enter into a $10 million deal with Facebook as its first corporate sponsor. Aside from the obvious irony — America250 partnering with a corporation that’s one of the biggest threats to the celebration of an America300 down the line — Burchard says the arrangement was completely at odds with America250’s sponsorship strategy, which had been to create a series of thematic programming “platforms,” each with its own series of events, that individual companies could exclusively sponsor. The Facebook contract didn’t adhere to the thematic groupings; it promised the company sponsorship rights across all of America250’s events. Burchard says she raised concerns to leadership only to learn that the contract had already been signed, without notification to her or any of the other female executives on staff. (A foundation spokesperson says that “everyone’s perspectives and concerns are acknowledged and respected” but that none of the four plaintiffs were “in a position to make an ultimate decision on corporate sponsorships.” In June, Facebook backed out of the deal entirely, with an anonymous source in the Wall Street Journal citing concerns over “leadership dysfunction.”) According to Burchard, this was typical of how decisions were made — day-to-day employees came up with plans, only to see them disregarded by higher powers who happened to be a group of men, most of whom were friends and had ties to the Union League. “It was kind of like the wizard behind the curtain,” she says. Laymon says the situation amounted to a “big cabal of men, passing down their dictates.”

The all-male leadership team also led, according to the lawsuit, to a workplace that was sexist and “toxic.” When America250 began a search in 2021 to replace Tony Rucci, who had resigned as CEO, there were no women on the search committee, and none of the five finalists were women, according to the lawsuit. When Joe Daniels, previously the CEO of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, was finally hired as Rucci’s replacement, Burchard claims, he asked her to change her duties to effectively act as his secretary, taking notes at meetings and managing his calendar. “He said to me that I need to learn how to serve him,” Burchard says. “I don’t think he said that to the other males that were on the leadership council.” (Daniels declined to address that specific allegation, citing the ongoing lawsuit, but said, “I’ve treated everyone on staff in a way that I would hope my children’s future bosses would treat them.”) Potts, who has spoken openly about surviving a sexual assault in Italy in 2008, alleges in the lawsuit that a member of the America250 staff once disparaged her in a “drunken sexist tirade,” telling a colleague he doubted she’d ever been a victim of sexual assault. She says she was discouraged by her male supervisor from making a formal report of his behavior. 

By December 2021, the four women — the only female executives to have worked at the foundation to that point — had all resigned. Laymon had had six people directly reporting to her: four women and two men. It felt like a confirmation of her decision when, after she left, the foundation promoted two men to replace her — and, according to a 2022 budget, paid one of them $25,000 more than she’d ever made in the role.

Meanwhile, pressure was building from inside the commission. In November 2019, it had approved bylaws stating that it would vote on all annual budgets and contracts, but in the two and a half years since, no such votes had been taken. Hohns grew even more concerned when he saw the allegations of contract malfeasance laid out in the lawsuit, which seemed to prove the importance of monitoring budgets. “The chairman is not the supreme lord and all of his vassals, you know, if they’re favored, maybe get a little fiefdom,” Hohns says. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

“The whole thing has basically been a sham,” says fellow commissioner Noah Griffin, who has worked in politics for decades and was appointed by Nancy Pelosi. Last September, ­Griffin, Hohns, and James Swanson, a New York Times best-selling nonfiction author — decided to interrupt a commission meeting to air their concerns, planning to call for an independent audit into the foundation’s finances and a Congressional investigation. Once the trio had finished reading their prepared remarks and it was time to debate the proposal, though, DiLella responded with a kind of one-man anti-filibuster: the mute button. Neither Hohns nor Swanson got to speak any further. “Dan just shuts everybody down,” Griffin says. “It’s not his commission; it’s the country’s. He’s running it like Trump tried to run the damn government.” For his part, DiLella says he muted the commissioners because they’d chosen to interrupt the meeting instead of waiting for their turn on the agenda. “I have refused to have a shouting match with these people,” he says. “They have been making personal attacks on commissioners, and me, and the commission. They’ve been at it now for years. … I don’t know what it is they want.” (An internal report later confirmed that the commission had failed to vote on budgetary items but suggested these procedures were “guidelines rather than rigid rules.” The report was performed by the law firm Troutman Pepper, one of whose partners is Del Raso, the commission’s general counsel, who serves with DiLella and Giordano on the board of the Philly POPs.) 

At the next meeting, in March 2022, DiLella took a different tack. He proposed new bylaws, striking the entire section titled “issues requiring votes by the Commission.” If the change was approved, apparently nothing would require votes by the commission anymore. DiLella also proposed rules strengthening his control over meetings, including a provision declaring, “Commissioners should refrain from speaking until recognized by the Chairperson.” DiLella also planned to vote on a not-especially-democratic-sounding item that would have approved all past actions of the America250 Foundation that hadn’t yet been voted on. (He eventually scrapped that part.)

This time, the meeting, held on Zoom, proceeded entirely on mute and without debate. Hohns calls this “a direct attack on the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.” Bob Brady sat at a long table flanked by the U.S. and Philadelphia flags; David Cohen sat flanked by Canadian and U.S. flags. Hohns sat before a bookcase, his hair slicked back, looking displeased. Congressman Robert Aderholt, a Republican from Alabama, held a sign reading, “I would like to be heard.” Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey, held a sign reading, “I demand to be heard.” The signs did no good. In the end, the commission approved the new rules, 12 votes to 10, with Brady and Cohen among those voting in favor. (Neither commented for this story.)

At its core, the fight has boiled down to a fundamental disagreement on the roles of the commission and the foundation. DiLella sees the commission as a “board of directors. We basically set the strategy.” He contends it’s been impossible to rely on the commissioners, unpaid volunteers who have other important responsibilities, like being senators and such, for everyday ­decision-making; hence the need for the foundation. “In three and a half years, we’ve had three quorums,” DiLella says. The bylaw changes weren’t a power grab, he insists, but a ­streamlining — subcommittees still take votes on matters of importance, which he says are then brought to the whole commission. Pat Toomey, who tapped DiLella for the commission, says he thinks the body is “functioning extremely well” and that the critiques amount to “agitation by a very small number of malcontents that have been very difficult to work with.”

Laymon and Hohns see it differently. “The outcome of that governance structure is that there is absolutely no oversight of how any federal funds are being spent,” Laymon says. “It functionally allowed them to slide federal funds to a private organization that can slide those funds out.” Hohns claims DiLella is running the commission like it’s his personal business. “I think it’s our business,” Hohns says, “as in the people’s business.”

There is, believe it or not, actual planning taking place for the Semiquincentennial. The foundation created an America250 Award that it gave out at halftime of an NFL game on Thanksgiving, and there have been talks about sponsoring a college football bowl game and creating an ­America250-themed cooking show. Daniels, the new CEO, says there’s more substantive programming — not just ­branding — in the works, too. The foundation partnered with Carpenters’ Hall in Old City to create a “young person’s Congress” in 2024 that will serve as a kind of Semiquincentennial kickoff, bringing high-schoolers from all 50 states to Philadelphia to discuss civics and democracy.

The main event, a National Semiquincentennial Convention, will take place over multiple days two years later in Philly. “We’re talking about an unprecedented mix of a cultural festival, political convention, a whole series of civic engagements in an Olympic Village-style plan,” Daniels says. He imagines an exhibition for all 50 states, just like during the Centennial 150 years ago, where the next generation can continue to learn what’s up with Mississippi and Nevada. There will be concerts, film screenings, art exhibitions, an actual political convention where state ­delegations — everyone from the President to regular people — will come together to debate the issues of the day. “We want to show how dialogue can happen in a serious way,” Daniels says. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even come to blows, just like Congressmen Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon did inside Independence Hall in 1798, beating each other with a cane and metal tongs.

In true decentralized American fashion, other planning efforts are under way at the state and local levels. There’s America250PA, an official America250 offshoot that has a full-time staff of four and whose programs include planting trees in all 67 counties and commissioning local artists to paint bells across the Commonwealth in 2026. At the local level, there’s Philadelphia250, the rechristened version of Hohns’s original USA250. Gone are the lucrative sponsorship agreements with Fortune 500 companies, which were contingent on USA250 actually planning the celebration. These days, Philadelphia250’s ambitions, like those of America250PA, are more circumscribed. The nonprofit is soliciting proposals for ­community-sourced legacy projects — things like repairing rowhouses or creating w­hat executive director Danielle DiLeo Kim calls “more accessible, democratic public space” in parks — that will last beyond 2026. “That is a completely new approach to legacy-­building,” DiLeo Kim says, “which is to go to the people and say, ‘What do you think Philadelphia needs to leave behind?’” You can hear an echo of Hohns in that. The Kenney administration has named Philadelphia250 the official planner for the city celebration, though it’s due to receive just $250,000 from the government this year. 

If some of this sounds a bit inchoate — well, it’s still early. Remember: The great Centennial fairgrounds were built in just a few years. But that was then; this is now. Hohns remains concerned about the lack of progress. “We haven’t yet gotten to the point where we’re even entertaining the idea of what the major public investment could be,” he says. “It’s not about competing visions of what the public investment should be. This is more like a baseline question: Should there be a large public investment in connection with the 250th anniversary?” His answer, as ever, is yes.

Nor is Burchard holding her breath for an earth-shattering celebration by the time 2026 rolls around. Absent leadership changes at the commission, she says, “I do not see any way that this is going to be what the vision was in the beginning.” The dysfunction at the commission, however, has caught the attention of at least a few elected officials. House members Bonnie Watson Coleman and Dwight Evans and Senator Bob Casey, who all serve on the commission themselves, wrote to DiLella in February, expressing concern about the allegations of workplace discrimination and potential misuse of federal funds. (The commission had spent $11 million through 2021 and budgeted another $8 million for this year.) DiLella also announced an independent investigation into the discrimination allegations, though the four women have declined to participate, claiming that the law firm hired by the commission — which states on its website that it has “represented management exclusively” and has experience “defending against wrongful discharge and discrimination claims” — can’t possibly be impartial.

For now, though, the status quo reigns — sort of. Daniels, at least, is saying the right things about cleaning up the foundation and repairing the wounds inside the commission. “If the commission can’t get along, how can we possibly ask the country to come together?” he says. He acknowledges that the commission “should be more diverse than it currently is” and says six of his first eight hires at the foundation have been women. (The five ­highest-paid employees are all men, according to a 2022 budget and a source familiar with internal foundation salaries.) He claims the days of friendly contracts at the foundation are over. According to a foundation spokesperson, Maven ­Communications, for instance, is no longer its communications firm. But it remains unclear how much has changed. Daniels, after all, was accused in the lawsuit of contributing to the sexist work environment at America250 — “There would be no lawsuit against them without Joe Daniels,” says ­Burchard — and DiLella and Giordano remain the two most powerful ­commissioners.

Not everyone believes change is necessary, either. If the fight over America250 is between the DiLella-Giordano vision and the Hohns vision, Philip Auerswald, a professor of public policy at George Mason University who co-chairs one of America250’s many advisory councils, sits firmly in the former camp. Like Hohns, he had formed a nonprofit years ago to begin planning for the Semiquincentennial. Naturally, he decided he needed to meet this Andrew Hohns who was doing similar work in Philly. “His intentions were extremely ­Philadelphia-centric and also worryingly self-serving,” Auerswald says. “He literally pointed to a plot of land outside of his office that he envisioned as being Semiquincentennial Park. And he had an array of Philadelphia development activities that he felt could be set into motion by the planning of America’s 250th.” (Hohns says he doesn’t invest in Philadelphia real estate and that at any rate, the land he was pointing out — the rail yards around 30th Street Station — is federal property. “I guess I had a personal motivation in the sense that my office had a view of that area,” he says.)

Auerswald has a series of simple explanations for the controversy enveloping America250. First: jealousy on Hohns’s part that USA250 was passed over as the Semiquincentennial’s nonprofit partner. Second: “This is like puny on-campus infighting, except that it’s puny Philadelphia society infighting, and it’s an embarrassment to Philadelphia.” He goes on, “There’s a difference between making the best you can out of the reality of your ­relationships” — as he believes DiLella and Giordano have — “and consciously using a national activity for self-serving objectives. And it is deeply, deeply disappointing that at this very early stage, an individual or a group of individuals with the latter set of goals has been so influential in undermining this fragile start.” 

There are very few things Hohns and DiLella seem to agree on, but the assessment that a group of individuals with “self-serving objectives” has undermined the celebration might be one of them. The issue is that both think it applies to the other. Then again, maybe it’s fitting. You could think of the Semiquincentennial celebration as a way of holding up a mirror — to see the country’s reflection, yes, but also to see everything that’s behind us, and to spend some time thinking about the background and foreground coming together to meet in the present. Two divided sides, two diametrically opposed versions of reality, acrimony all around … as the United States approaches its 250th year, what could possibly be more American than that?


Published as “The Battle for America’s Birthday” in the July 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.