by Jay A. McCalla
With 8.5 million people and five boroughs, New York is a city where one can easily disappear from notice. Media, corporate and political elites whisk past in chauffeured anonymity allowing only a precious glimpse as they climb in and out.
Philadelphia? Not so much.
With a fifth of New York’s population and a mere 141 square miles, everything is closer and more intimate. We’re far more likely to see our public figures at the supermarket, dry cleaners or baseball game.
What I’m getting at is, when disaster strikes a public figure (self-inflicted or otherwise), it’s quite possible that you’ve met that person and have an opinion of them and their “disaster.”
This is the case with Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams and me. In 2009, I lent a hand towards his election, and we’ve maintained a genial relationship, ever since. I like him.
His first term bordered on brilliant. He jailed the ghastly Dr. Kermit Gosnell, shutting down a despicable, unholy butcher shop that cynically masqueraded as a family planning center.
The next item on Seth’s agenda was negotiating a deal whereby Mumia Abul Jamal would not face the death penalty. Impressively, he was able to get the widow of slain Officer Daniel Faulkner on board. That gesture took an enormous amount of steam and bile from this decades old controversy.
As a staunch Roman Catholic, he displayed singular courage by being the only DA in America to prosecute church hierarchy for concealing sexual abuse by priests.
Seth Williams was enormously popular and could easily have run for mayor during the last primary and I would have been glad to help him.
We now know that his excellent work and commitment to courageous prosecutions was simply one side of a very thick coin. On the other side, he had amassed a stunning list of gifts that included everything except the proverbial kitchen sink.
The damnable fact about all this gift giving and taking is that – barring a quid pro quo – it’s all legal.
If there were a law that allowed 9-year-old kids to stay up until midnight, you can rest assured that law was written by a 9-year-old for the sole benefit of 9-year-old kids. When a law makes it legal for an elected official to accept gifts, you can rest assured it was written for the sole benefit of elected officials.
In January of 2014, Mayor Nutter signed a bill allowing many city workers to accept up to $99 from members of the public. We are now free to “tip” Council staffers, employees of the Register of Wills, etc. Yippee!
Our local government is decidedly geared towards enabling ethical conflicts, with our City Charter defining City Council as a part-time job. We should find it curious that Jim Kenney, in his last year on Council, earned almost $350,000 in outside work, more than doubling his official salary of $127,000.
We live in a world where bribes and gifts are deliberately indistinguishable.
Seth Williams now becomes a case study in self-inflicted adversity and how to manage it. With “baby steps,” he has begun a road of atonement by apologizing for “negative publicity” to his staff and donors. There is so much more to be said, however.
Perhaps our DA can look to the almost miraculous revival experienced by Dwight Evans. Some will recall Evans was under investigation by the state and federal government, with Gov. Tom Corbett among his primary antagonists. Turn a few pages and we see Evans headed to Congress.
Ed Rendell, in 1991, was a two-time loser who “lucked out” by having several black competitors for his party’s mayoral nomination. He clobbered them all.
Seth’s greatest asset is those many citizens who like him personally and were impressed by his first term. His second best asset is the very high likelihood that Democratic City Committee will endorse him for a third term.
Apart from those assets, it will be a struggle to restore faith and be redeemed in the eyes of citizens. To be honest, I must confess to wholeheartedly wishing him the redemption he requires.