Media-driven furor changed City Council

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer


Media-driven furor changed City Council
The election revealed the power of an engaged press.
May 20, 2011

By Brett Mandel

How did a wonky Democratic newcomer defeat an incumbent party stalwart who's been a city commissioner since the Flyers' last Stanley Cup? How did the son of an iconic mayor fail to be nominated for reelection as an at-large Republican city councilman? And why did long-serving district Council members decide to leave a legislative body whose members usually seem to stay until death or imprisonment?

In this week's primary election, it was a swift media DROP-kick that made the difference between the outsiders who defeated "machine" pols and the other worthy challengers who fell short.

The election saw long-entrenched incumbents defeated, Council being changed by behind-the-scenes forces, and a long-dormant opposition party showing signs of life. But above all, it showed that when the media offers engaging, informative reporting, voters can identify better leaders to chart a better future for Philadelphia. A combination of substantive and sustained media coverage, candidates who are serious about reform, and a citizenry prepared to support and turn out for worthy leaders can effect real change.

At the beginning of the campaign season, it was easy to imagine media inattention and voter apathy conspiring to protect the status quo and reelect a cadre of uninspiring incumbents. But the public responded to the media's consistent criticism of the politicians who had enrolled in the city's DROP program with the intention of collecting a payout for "retiring" and then returning to the payroll. And the intensive press coverage energized the challengers' campaigns.

This year, instead of the usual closely connected party hacks, we saw a number of more independent candidates challenge incumbents and even challenge the notion that some elected offices should exist in the first place. Some of these candidates found it much easier to connect with voters because of the media's involvement.

While DROP (which stands for Deferred Retirement Option Plan) is far from the most important issue facing the city, it resonated with voters. It served as a symbol of everything that frustrates the public about long-serving officials who seem intent on making public service about personal benefits.

For months before the election, Philadelphians were treated to prominent headlines and stories that beat the DROP drum week after week. In races in which DROP was an issue because the incumbent had enrolled in the program, that gave candidates the opportunity to engage voters. But in the races that generated only the standard candidate profiles and precious little television time, the challengers never had the opportunity to get the same kind of attention.

The media did not focus in a sustained manner on the city's unfunded pension obligations, looming budget deficit, or alarming crime statistics. If they had covered those other important city issues and campaigns with the steadfastness and persistence they dedicated to DROP and the races in which it figured, an informed electorate would certainly have responded by paying attention to all the candidates who communicated a positive vision of Philadelphia's future.

Looking to the future, we can hope that this election was a sign of good things to come in subsequent elections. When the media engage voters, reformers have an opportunity to win. But when the media don't offer that kind of sustained coverage, challengers are hard-pressed to generate the attention they need to be successful against incumbents.

Nor is it as simple as "If you cover it, they can win." In the end, it's still up to us, the people, to give a damn and do something about it.

In this 2011 primary election, voter turnout was a lackluster 17 percent. Had only one in four of those who stayed home shown up at the polls, the additional votes would have been enough to win any race. And if every voter who stayed home had donated just $10 to a candidate, it would have been much, much more than was raised by any other candidate on the ballot.

Let's learn these lessons. If the media provide the coverage necessary to capture the public's attention, and if Philadelphians open their wallets to contribute to candidates and get off their behinds to vote for them, reform candidates can challenge the establishment and win.