To paraphrase Amos, a prophet of the Old Testament, the prudent stay quiet in evil times. This may explain why our business community, clergy, labor movement and civic nonprofit corporations have all “taken a knee” when it comes to acknowledging – much less, confronting – the clamorous corruption that seems to impact every nook and cranny of Philadelphia politics and government.
Specifically, I marvel at the nine-month stretch of uninterrupted silence from the political community over the dazzling FBI raids of Uber Power Player John Dougherty and Council Majority Leader Bobby Henon that took place in August of 2016.
Gone are the days when a young Councilperson John Street would publicly and abrasively challenge Council President George Schwartz over having been caught in the now infamous FBI sting called Abscam.
Given that we are awash in Silent Sams, it’s all the more unforeseen that a credible, influential “bigfoot” would take notice of the swarms of pols forced to vacate their offices and offer some interesting thoughts on reform. That bigfoot is Ed Rendell.
Last week, our former DA, Mayor, Governor, and Democratic Party Chair, weighed in with some recommendations he believed will improve the political process by curbing the power of ward leaders. One idea is to have all 4,000 Democratic committeepeople confer endorsements instead of the current method of relying solely on the 66 Ward Leaders. This would make endorsements far more transparent and, well, democratic.
Rendell also wants the Democratic City Committee to not endorse judicial candidates who aren’t rated “qualified” by the Philadelphia Bar Association. While the bar occasionally makes mistakes (as in the case of Judge Thomas Nocella) this change would be a positive one. But, in light of the party’s practice of charging for judicial endorsements, there may not be an appetite for anything that may impact their prerogatives.
As important as Rendell’s involvement is, anti-corruption measures have to extend far beyond rule changes at City Committee. Of the almost 20 elected officials who were recently prosecuted, none were acting in collusion with the party. None were defended by the party.
The real issue is the character of those who seek public office. Stealing thousands from your mom, billing the state for vacuum cleaners, pilfering $1 million from the feds, taking envelopes of cash, fixing tickets and using your official staff to raise campaign money all go directly to character.
It’s instructive to know the biggest change to the composition of City Council in a generation wasn’t as a result of death or political defeat – it was the retirement of four or five members who took almost $2 million in DROP payments to which they weren’t entitled. Character.
It is tempting to reduce Party Chair Bob Brady to an unpolished buffoon who herds cats for a living. Quite the opposite. Brady has balanced the party and candidacies to reflect very modern concerns. If there is an African American, Hispanic or woman on the bench, most would owe a nod to Brady.
While there are several excellent reasons to overhaul the Democratic Party, the thieving ways of our elected officials isn’t one. The party cannot reasonably be held accountable for the long-term behavior of those they endorse. Though, I admit to bewilderment at the endorsement of Congressman Chaka Fattah post indictment.
The FBI has done a nice job of putting away our politicians, but there is more we can do for ourselves. Close your eyes and imagine Mayor Kenney, sick of corruption, announces a Mayoral Commission or Special Prosecutor to doggedly root out corruption at every level of our town, letting the chips fall where they may. No. I can’t imagine it either, and that partially illustrates the dilemma. Diogenes is AWOL.
Despite an Inspector General, City Controller, District Attorney and Ethics Board, criminal behavior amongst our leaders abounds. In fact, Mayor Nutter’s Inspector General recommended the firing of his City Representative for the personal use of thousands of dollars of city funds. Nutter chose to ignore his IG, deliberately extracting teeth from his watchdog.
Rendell may be the only Philadelphian with the stature to focus sustained attention on our tsunami of crooks and advocate for new approaches that might discourage the determined rascals. But, we need a holistic exam that goes far beyond the party and puts the fear of God into the well-dressed crew that is lining its own pockets.