by Pete Mazzaccaro
Jim Foster – one of Northwest Philadelphia’s most dedicated political gadflies, a man who has been critical of nearly every facet of local and national political power both as a citizen, political candidate and as publisher of the Independent Voice newspaper – is officially on the ballot for the race to be the next mayor of the City of Philadelphia.
“This decision was a lot less planned than people might think,” Foster said in an interview at the small Germantown office of the Independent Voice. “Frankly I was very discouraged by the primary election. It was an outrageous sham in so many ways.”
Foster said he was appalled by the poor voter turnout in the Democratic Primary (only 27 percent of registered voters in the city bothered to vote) but he was encouraged by the fact that popular politicians – particularly two-time Republican candidate and entrepreneur Sam Katz and former City Councilman Bill Green Jr. – had registered as independents. He was certain they’d run and prevent, if nothing else, a swift and complete Democratic victory in November. It’s what he calls “coronation without participation.”
Foster is familiar with the story. A lifelong Philadelphian, he’s seen the city transition from the Democratic revolution of 1951 that kicked out a centuries-old Republican machine only to spend the next 60 years perfecting its own version of the same.
He’s been active in politics for at least a generation and has run uphill campaigns in recent years for both the 8th City Council District (currently occupied by Cindy Bass) and the 2nd U.S. Congressional District (occupied, at least for now, by the recently indicted Chakka Fattah). He’s an encyclopedia of Philadelphia’s modern political history. It’s a history, he says, that is characterized by unchecked municipal corruption that is the driving force behind the city’s inability to pay its bills and invest in its future.
“Philadelphia city leadership runs a distraction government,” he said, referencing initiatives like bike lanes and tree plantings – nice things, sure, but not relevant, Foster says, to securing the city’s financial future. “They want to distract you from the things you should know about. They want to pacify enough folks who say ‘I guess this is good enough,’” and those folks who have already given up.
If you consider that voter participation in an election to decide this city’s top office was only 27 percent, it’s a viewpoint that’s hard to dispute.
Foster says he’s been a lifelong independent. He registered that way at the age of 21 (this was prior to the federal law that changed the registration age to 18).
“I’m not someone who changed my registration to get around the party system,” he is clear to explain.
Foster’s political philosophy leans to conservative but might best be described as Libertarian. He is fiscally conservative in that his chief political concern is finances. And when he begins to speak about political reform in the city, his starting point is the budget. And he’s not interested simply in the usual conservative remedy of finding efficiencies. He thinks the entire document is sham.
“In my opinion, the budgets of Philadelphia are falsified,” Foster said. “They are never reviewed by a third party. Philadelphia is the only city in United States in which the budget isn’t reviewed by an organization that follows a method recognized by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.”
Foster attended the July 20 meeting of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority board, during which City Controller Alan Butkovitz leveled a similarly toned critique of the city’s five-year plan, urging lawmakers to reject the proposal. Despite Butkovitz’s objections, PICA endorsed the city’s plan.
“How the hell does a PICA board approve a five-year plan that doesn’t show the city breaking even until year five?” Foster asked.
And even that level of optimism, Foster says, is based on faulty financial prognostication.
“The level of unpaid real estate taxes is roughly half-a-billion dollars,” Foster said. “They carry that half a billion dollars on their balance sheet as an uncollected assets even though some estimate as much as 70 percent of that amount is not collectible. You can’t carry those as collectible and cash. It’s a dog and pony show.”
The city’s accounting doesn’t add up, Foster said. It’s optimism at best – deception at worst.
Two other major financial issues that ace the city that need attention are unfunded and underperforming pensions and school funding.
Pension obligations, Foster believes, could very easily result in a catastrophe in the near future.
“The Philadelphia pension situation may be most underfunded in the nation,” he said. “This year it earned less than 1 percent on its investments. None of this stuff is discussed. The true condition of the financial situation will be learned, and we’ll have a repeat of 1991. Bond ratings will go down and the cost of funding those deficits will go through the roof – major tax increases and curtailed services. We’re not that far away from a Detroit situation.”
On school funding, Foster said he is skeptical of unionized teacher contracts but doesn’t believe that teacher salaries and perks are the sole problem with the constant funding shortfalls for schools.
“The question is not just ‘When are we going to get the money we want?’,” he said “ It’s ‘Why do we need that much money?’, ‘How many more times is this going to be the way we deal with the budget?’, ‘What is the true cost of managing the school district and all of its facilities?’”
All of it ends up contributing to the city’s constant, prevailing position of being too cash poor to pay its bills. How would Foster fix these things? He sees two main issues that need to be addressed.
The first is the tax base.
“Our whole taxing structure is out of balance,” Foster said. “Ten-year tax abatements? No way in hell. We own too much real estate. None of it pays any taxes. We’ve picked up abandoned real estate and we just hold onto it. There are no attempts to collect money on it. The result is swaths of city that are left fallow with no investments opportunities.
“Look at Southwest Philly where we used to have GE and Westinghouse,” he said. “It’s just a fallen down tragedy down there. No one is paying taxes. In fact it’s costing us money. City chases those businesses out of town, and all the industrial base that paid taxes is gone. No effort to use even public money to replace it.”
But in order to address that tax base and the policies that Foster sees as exacerbating the problem with it, the city needs to tackle its number one problem: corruption. On this subject, Foster is at his most expansive.
“We do, as a city, have a higher level of municipal corruption today than the Republican government of the ’50s,” Foster said. “Our political system is rife with criminal indictments and convictions and jail terms and more to come. The level of FBI investigations has increased significantly, so there’s clearly renewed investigative attention into city corruption. We don’t even know all there is out there. We have no idea what else is going on.
“Take Fattah. Chaka Fattah presides over the 2nd Congressional District. It is the part of Philadelphia that has he deepest pockets of deep poverty in the United States. Twenty-five percent of the city lives in deep poverty. Does anybody talk about it?”
Fattah, of course, was indicted last month on nearly 30 counts of corruption for a number of things, including, Federal investigators said, using campaign money to enrich himself. Foster said he’s done little while in office to help the poor in his district.
“For the 22 years he’s been in office a majority of the money he’s brought in has gone to elites,” Foster said. “Between Sept 2011 and 2012 he brought to the U of Penn $1 million a week while Southwest Philadelphians fall further and further into the abyss.”
Foster says the same level of corruption continues to evidence itself in city government – in City Council and in the state house. The system of favors and patronage are taking a huge toll on the city.
“That’s how this city has operated for a long time, he said. “They don’t give a damn. They have nice jobs and salaries and it’s all because of patronage.”
Could that be stopped?
“You can control it,” Foster said. “If politicians were only skimming 5 to 10 percent for their friends – Nirvana!”
But does Foster realistically have a chance to be the guy to tackle these issues? He acknowledges the uphill battle posed by an electoral process that favors Democratic nominee Jim Kenney. And his campaign is still young, in need of staff and funds to get his message beyond the circulation area of the Independent Voice. As of this writing the only info on him can be found at his paper’s website: germantownnewspapers.com.
His hope, he said, is that he can benefit from the widespread dissatisfaction with city government – a dissatisfaction he said is evidenced in a 27 percent voter turnout in this year’s primary.
His hope now is that he can travel to every neighborhood in the city and that he can get a seat at mayoral debates scheduled in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 election. He’s currently one of three third party candidates on the ballot with Jim Kenney and Republican nominee Melissa Murray Bailey
“Can I win this election? Sure,” he says. “I’m just getting moving.”