Philadelphia's Left Needs To Get Government Right

(November 2019)

In Philadelphia, the heroes of the political left have got it right when it comes to getting elected. But, the challenge for Philadelphia's progressive officials remains figuring out how to govern right -- as in correctly, not conservatively -- to make this a better city for the Philadelphians who elect them. Local liberal-minded officials have articulated a compelling vision to voters and have effectively organized to defeat what passes for the local political machines. But, despite the recent influx of new and talented and passionate leaders, the continuous failures of local government show that our left-leaning officials need to do much more to focus on getting government right.

In stark contrast to the conservative battle cry that there is no government like no government, liberals passionately believe that government can make a sustained and positive difference in people's lives. I absolutely and unequivocally place myself in this camp. Locally, our lives are improved by the quality of our public schools, by the effectiveness of our public-safety agencies, and by the soundness of so many public-policy initiatives. Of course, the reverse is true as well and Philadelphia is the perfect case study for a city where the failures of government have negatively affected the lives of its citizens. Our liberal firebrands must, therefore, complement their passion for important values with demands for efficient, effective, and clean government if Philadelphia is to ever be the city that we deserve.

A focus on progressive thinking in Philadelphia has not been matched by a call for government to deliver a better product at a lower cost. It costs far too much to run Philadelphia poorly, but too few on the city's political left focus on government efficiency. When government costs more, that burden falls disproportionately on our lowest-income citizens. When government services cost too much, we cannot extend them to people who need help. There is a reason that Philadelphia is the poorest of the nation's largest cities and it is not that our city is run by right-wingers. We need to demand government efficiency with the same loud and clear voice as we demand equality and tolerance.

Passionate calls for social justice in Philadelphia have not been matched by impatient demand for government competence. Students at Benjamin Franklin High and Science Leadership Academy were failed by School District incompetence not a lack of progressive ideology. Accounting errors and financial mismanagement in city government are failures of city-finance leadership, not a problem of political leaning. Our level of tolerance in Philadelphia for governmental ineptitude is astounding and until we recognize that effective service delivery by a government that works is an important civil right, we will continue to endure second-rate service and failed government initiatives.

As so many local voices have focused on the corruption and malfeasance of the Trump administration in Washington, too few have been willing to publicly condemn the corruption in Philadelphia that continues to be the shame of our city. That collective silence serves to consent to continued corruption. The "corrupt and contented" Philadelphia is not a relic of the past but a continuing embarrassment that plays out year after year in and around our city government. The nature and scope of the corruption have evolved, but the tendency to abuse power and use public resources for private purposes endures. Much worse, despite the election of independent-minded newcomers, the tendency to excuse the corruption endures as well. Until our officials are as outspoken about the corruption that permeates Philadelphia civic affairs as they are about the abuses we see in Washington, we will suffer in the city of the "little fix," paying a corruption tax so that a select few can enrich themselves and empower their cronies at our expense.

Every positive policy from delivering citywide street cleaning to realizing the benefits of Vision Zero, and from addressing sexual harassment in city government to expanding diversity on city construction sites, is held back by the actions of Philadelphia's insular class of insipid leaders. The influx of new energy from Philadelphia progressives has the potential to not only call out our city's injustices, but to demand better in terms of results from local government. 

If the more-liberal-minded Philadelphians who have proven so adept at organizing and electing newcomers to office can put as much energy into making a Philadelphia that works for its citizens as it has on articulating a vision for bluer political wave and greener planet, not only will they dominate elections, but they will transform the city for the better. To do so, will take a concerted effort to deliver higher-quality government services at lower costs, a commitment to provide accountability and transparency throughout city government, and a zeal to fight the corruption that corrodes city government. 

When Philadelphia's left focuses on government done right, we can make ours the greatest city.