It Takes A Commitment To Run A City

(January 2014)

I am not shy about criticizing things that are wrong in Philadelphia, but make no mistake, I am a four-for-four, love-it-or-leave-it, don't-ever-take-sides-with-anyone-against-the-Family, Philly homer.  You definitely don’t have to be born here to have an opinion about our challenges, but if you want to have a say in any of the solutions, I want to know that you are living those challenges and not just observing them from a comfortable distance.  I want to know that you share the same rights and responsibilities as I do as a citizen -- not just a taxpayer or an interested friend.

It is nice that folks want to call themselves Philadelphians, root for city sports teams, and take pride in the city’s assets and amenities.  But that doesn't make them Philadelphians.  "Philadelphia" is not a state of mind, it is an actual place with defined borders where some of us really live -- and I sincerely believe that this place would be better if all of Philadelphia’s civic leaders and movers and shakers actually lived IN the city.

There is a difference between thinking about the city’s financial decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions.  There is a difference between having an informed opinion about city schools and having to make a real decision about where to send a child to receive an education.  There is a difference between attending events in Philadelphia and being part of a neighborhood where those events occur.  Some get to opine about life in the big city but some of us -- who have our trash collected by the Streets Department, have to call L&I to complain about a dangerous property, and have our gas supplied by PGW -- actually live it.

I won't tell you that the individuals who opine about Philadelphia from the comfort of their homes outside the city are wrong for having an opinion, but I will say that the weight of their arguments is diminished when they have to admit that whatever they are saying affects them in theory while it affects 1.5 million other Philadelphians and me directly.  Aboard a ship taking on water, I'm looking for advice and counsel from anyone who can help me out, but I will place my trust in those of us who are in it together -- the ones who will share my fate -- over those who are observing from the shore.

When I ran the advocacy organization Philadelphia Forward and spent a lot of time talking about Philadelphia's (ongoing) need for tax reform, I had a lot of opportunities to appear on television or radio to make my case for change.  Many times, after a commercial break, I would listen to the host declare, "We're back and coming to you live from Philadelphia to talk tax reform with Brett Mandel." I would think to myself, "No, we're coming to you live from Bala Cynwyd because this station wants to make money in the Philadelphia marketplace but avoid Philadelphia taxes." 

Another funny story.  I was being interviewed by a top muckity-muck at a powerful local foundation for a job focusing a past Philadelphia mayoral race on issues of substance. Of course, the interviewer assured me, the Board overseeing my work would be "balanced" with a diverse leadership -- by party, ethnicity, and city/suburban residence. Why, I asked, would this effort to be led by anyone who could not participate as a voter in the mayoral election?  The response (from the interviewer who, you guessed it, lived in the 'burbs) was that what happens in Philadelphia is very important to those who live outside the city so they would want to influence the effort.  I said that what happens in a lot of places is important to me, and that I had a right to an opinion about those places, but not a true stake in what happens there.  We agreed to disagree and then looked at my resume to talk about my experience.  When my suburban interviewer saw I was working for the then-City Controller, he asked, "who is the Controller now?" (My boss had been in office for a DECADE.) I answered, and he nodded knowingly and said "that's right, I remember him as a Councilman" (NEVER happened). This uninformed small talk was from the guy telling me that we needed to have non-Philadelphians focusing our mayoral race on issues important to them.  Sigh.

"But I care deeply about the city," "but I know that city’s health affects the suburbs," and "but I pay the Wage Tax" some respond, but it is as simple as a plate of bacon and eggs -- the chicken makes a contribution, but the pig makes a real commitment.  Happily, nobody needs to give up a pound of flesh to have real standing, but if you want a say in how city money is spent, in how neighborhoods are planned, in how our schools work, then I want to know you are making the same commitment as the rest of us.  I want to know you consume the services our money pays for and live with the same consequences of city decisions as a part of Philadelphia.  Otherwise, feel free to root for our teams, visit Center City for a night out, and even tell that you are "from Philadelphia" when you travel.  We appreciate your contribution but are looking to those of us who have made a commitment to run this town.