Hard To Tell The Reformers From The Hacks

(March 2017)

Philadelphia is not the city we know it should be and a big reason for our municipal shortcomings is that we tolerate the excesses of our ethically challenged political class.  We endure the malfeasance of the hackocracy even when it results in tragedies.  We accept mediocrity from our insipid cadre of elected officials.

Instead of throwing the bums out, draining the swamp, and turning over a new leaf, we maintain the status quo and cross our fingers that things might get a little better for the issues we care about even if the rest of the civic fabric remains frayed and tattered.

The local press covers Philadelphia politics and government like the weather, giving us the forecast without giving us much of a sense we can do anything about it.  It's always shady with a chance of waste, fraud, and abuse.  The occasional outbursts of sunlight and transparency are always followed by another storm.

Et Tu?

The recent revelation that reform-oriented mayor Michael Nutter and his top Finance and Integrity officials conspired to look the other way and tolerate fraudulent misspending by a key agency head is just another reminder of how hard it is for our governmental umpires to call a consistent strike zone for a full nine innings.  

The avalanche of articles detailing abuses at the Philadelphia Parking Authority hardly come as a surprise, but the fact that the administrative atrocities have occurred under the not-so-watchful eyes of a number of otherwise-principled Philadelphians who sit on the Parking Authority Board is a sickening kick to the civic groin.

To those of us on the outside, the effect is best captured by George Orwell's classic observation from the end of Animal Farm:  "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

There But For...

I can only imagine that, when on the inside, one rationalizes that tolerating theft of honest services here, allows one to make improvements elsewhere; that allowing abuses to continue there, allows a promising project to move forward somewhere else; and that turning a blind eye to actions that will result in calamity in one part of the city, facilitates progress somewhere else.  Maybe every one of these officials looks in the mirror each day and equivocates to convince him- or herself that it is only by tolerating some wrongdoing that the good he or she is trying to advance can occur.  

I would like to think that such ethical compromises might only be justified if they could result in some grand and fundamental improvement for the city, but they too often seem to simply be part of the everyday transactional nature of Philadelphia politics that allows individuals to continue to hold office.  The cost of doing political business in Philadelphia is simply to not draw attention to everything that is wrong.

As someone who has run for office, I know I put my hat in the ring because I believed I could exercise the powers and responsibilities of the office I sought to make Philadelphia a better city.  Running for City Controller, I stressed that I would root out the shenanigans that too many Philadelphia officials ignore, that I would provide Philadelphians with information about government spending that is currently kept from view, and that I would not pull my punches in fighting for a better Philadelphia.

But, in seeking office, I saw the ghosts of future compromises in the shadows of my campaign focused on sunlight.  The issues stressed in the campaign were crafted by professionals based on political calculations designed to sway undecided voters, but also not to spook political supporters.  In communicating with the political class, I was constantly counseled to stress approachability and flexibility.  Political allies stressed that an insistence on unbending integrity in office would have to be preceded by a certain political malleability on the campaign trail.

I believe that I -- and many frustrated others -- could make a positive difference in an official position, but I often wonder whether I would be swept in by the undertow that seems to pull so many Philadelphia into the look-the-other way abyss.  I have seen it happen to too many individuals I liked and respected and each time I see bad behavior by someone I had thought of as "one of the good guys," I wonder if it is simply impossible to not become part of this problem.

A Corrupt And Contented Legacy

Perhaps the greatest disservice that the better among Philadelphia's political class performs is to assimilate into the I'll-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-my-back Philadelphia way so that citizens find it hard to tell the difference between the hacks and the reformers -- and it becomes impossible to believe any candidate who pledges to make real change.

If everyone thinks that the poetry of campaigning will be replaced, not with the prose of government, but with the plunder of a kleptocracy, then it will be impossible for even the most well-intentioned reformer to convince voters that he or she might be truly different.

Philadelphia's pitifully low turnout for local elections and our collective fatalism that change for the better will never come, can then be seen not as civic capitulation, but a cold-but-realistic calculation.