by Jay A. McCalla
“Victory has 100 fathers, and defeat is an orphan.”
While this saying was popularized by John F. Kennedy, it is recorded to have been first said by Count Galeazzo Chiano, an insightful son-in-law of Mussolini (who later had Chiano executed by firing squad).
Anybody who’s ever been to a government-sponsored groundbreaking or ribbon-cutting can tell you about the tsunami of politicians and bureaucrats who happily interrupt their day to descend like volcanic lava upon an unsuspecting village for a “Credit Taking Festival.”
Credit is so important that the Giant Scissor was invented so that a gang of self-promoters could simultaneously appear to cut a bright satin ribbon stretched across some doorway.
Credit is so important that groundbreakings no longer have The Lone Shovel, held by several. Now, there’s a bunch – maybe 10 – often painted gold. The image of politicians holding shovels is as metaphoric as it is redundant.
On the flip side are those who ought to be trumpeting our “defeats,” pointing us towards our challenges and agitating for positive change. I speak frankly of black politicians.
We need look no further than the tuber-controversial “stop and frisk” to see a deep divergence of interests between black citizens, who have a profound interest in police conduct, and black politicians.
When Kenney pledged to end the programs – “no question” – those pols happily pushed him to their voters. At recreation centers, in church basements and on street corners, they took credit. Jim’s our guy. Vote for Jim!
Within a few weeks of taking his oath of office, Kenney announced he may have been misunderstood when he said “no question.” Some black activists and some clergy cried foul.
At the end of April ‘this year, the Rev Gregory Holston hosted a Town Hall at the New Vision United Methodist Church where more than 1,000 angry, vocal community leaders and residents gathered. The mayor was present. The police commissioner was present. Not one single, solitary black elected official bothered to come.
There you have it: The Grand Disconnect.
Black politicians came into sharp focus with the role they played in delivering the decisive black vote to Jim Kenney over Anthony Williams, the black candidate, in last year’s Democratic primary.
Those key pols involved in that endorsement have done quite well for themselves.
Retiring Councilperson Marian Tasco had two protégés (Cherelle Parker and Derek Green) elected to City Council and was named as Kenney’s personal representative to the Democratic National Committee.
Dwight Evans acquired the money and political muscle to defeat an 11-term incumbent for Congress.
Yep. They’ve all done well.
Simultaneous with their personal political prosperity exists a city with the graying cadaver of a public school system, an alarmingly underfunded pension fund, 26 percent poverty rate and a police force that religiously conducts 20,000 “stop and frisks” monthly, in poor black and brown neighborhoods.
Citizens have not fared as well.
Since the early 1980’s, blacks have been powerfully represented in city government. W. Wilson Goode Sr. served as the first black managing director. Dr. Constance Clayton was the first black school superintendent. Dr. Joseph E. Coleman Esq. was the first black president of City Council.
That power only expanded as ground-breakers were replaced by other blacks and supplemented by a growing majority on Council, a couple of sheriffs, a district attorney and a couple of mayors.
Despite a 35-year robust expansion of black political power in Philly, we are painfully struck by the irony that our most intractable problems are the ones that afflict our black and brown citizens. “Someone” has been asleep at the wheel for a long time.
I first witnessed their detachment from black concerns in November of 2015, while playing a modest role in challenging a zoning variance for an out-of-state casino that had allegedly racially discriminated.
Despite an all-day hearing before council’s Rules Committee and the presence of the alleged victims (who traveled at their own expense) not one black councilperson asked a single question regarding discrimination. No questions for the casino. No questions for the alleged victims who testified under oath. It was as though the issue didn’t exist.
POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild) recently hosted a huge poverty summit. It drew a huge audience, but black elected officials stayed away.
When politicians don’t even show up to pander, questions must be asked.
Historically, black politicians have lent their voices to the diminished and marginalized. The late State Rep David P. Richardson (his first campaign was funded by mothers in his neighborhood) advocated for welfare recipients and prisoners’ rights. Even State Rep T. Milton Street was fighting to keep people warm in their homes through a weatherization program he created.
Today, the path into black politics is fairly traditional and stifling. Assemble a coalition of elected officials and ward leaders. Solicit money from unions, developers, lawyers and lobbyists. At the end of this demeaning process, the candidate has been advised, revised, analyzed and compromised. They have so many pipers calling their tune that they dare not dance. Noble advocacy for the weak and vulnerable has been replaced with careerism and our city is poorer for it.
I’m not honestly blaming black politicians for the huge failures that transcend several mayors. I’m pointing out the metamorphosis and how our politics suffer for the lack of a conspicuous social conscience that black pols once provided.
Put another way, Goode’s successful election as mayor was in part due to the commitment of churches to sell chicken dinners for him. Our last black mayoral candidate had pro-charter school millionaires form a PAC and pump millions in his direction. The change is real.
In the meantime, our entire city will await the arrival of the next Richardson Dilworth — be he or she black or white — who can unite us against our problems and part a few clouds.
They always come and we’re the better for it.