by Jay A. McCalla
I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m feeling confused, frustrated and suspicious.
You see, on the day before City Council adjourned for its almost 90-day summer vacation, Majority Leader Bobby Henon and others introduced bills that would make it easier for average citizens to challenge incumbent office holders because of a generous matching funds formula provided therein.
Under these bills, local candidates would raise a minimum amount, differing for each office, and receive a 5:1 match from the city treasury. Under the Henon formula, a candidate for Council will emerge with $100,000 and a mayoral run would receive $1 million. Without question, this bill will make it easier and more practical to run for public office and holds the potential for increasing voter turnout in our electorally adverse city.
This reform is not budgetarily costly and has the added virtue of providing a role for the under-worked Ethics Board.
This proposed Henon Revolution in how we elect officials is manifest in three bills (#170681, #170680 and #170696) and seems to represent the most progressive steps in self-governance since the Charter Change of 1952. I’ve read all three bills and believe they will extend political access to previously unheard voices and incalculably enrich our struggling democracy.
Here’s my problem: Bobby Henon ain’t no reformer.
Henon made his bones as political director to John Dougherty’s Local 98, where he was successful with the use of union cash and muscle in getting Doc’s favored candidates elected. He enjoyed sufficient favor with the labor leader that he was Local 98’s candidate for City Council, ultimately replacing a previous Doc minion, Rick Mariano.
The relationship between Doc and Henon only expanded when the former allowed the latter to remain on the union payroll while serving on Council, adding more than $70,000 to his city salary. Doc went on to corral the votes needed to make Henon majority leader of City Council, over the initial objections of Council President Clarke.
It is his service and relationship to Doc that has made him an ongoing object of intense investigation by the FBI. It was less than a year ago that federal agents convinced a judge to allow the search of his home and office. And, for good measure, Henon’s chief of staff is also under investigation by the United States Justice Department.
I’ll say it again, Bobby Henon ain’t no reformer.
Progressive electoral changes are usually the result of hard fought battles, as was the case with the Charter Change Movement of 1951 and ‘52. In this case, there was no movement. There was just a privy meeting of pols, one of which is the paid, political mastermind for Johnny Doc’s political machine.
In Philadelphia, most incumbents have mastered the high art of eliminating challengers by very aggressively contesting every aspect of the nominating petitions they gather. Penmanship, residence, circulation, dates, use or absence of middle initials, etc., all provide fertile opportunities to disqualify signatures, whittling the challenger below the minimum number required. In Philly, challenging petitions is a well-compensated specialty.
Incumbents demand the support of their ward leaders and Democratic City Committee, because they are determined to increase their chances of staying in office. And that means monopolizing the political machinery.
It is completely counterintuitive and baffling that a secret, backroom chat amongst pols would produce legislation that appears to increase jeopardy for incumbents – unless it does not.
One of the best lessons I ever learned was from Mr. Shaw, my high school algebra teacher. On the first day of class, to dazzle us, he wrote a very long and complicated problem on the blackboard. The answer he presented was “1 = 2.” Of course, that couldn’t be right. After we gathered our blown minds, he patiently walked us back through the Gordian formula to show us where he tricked us.
I assess these three bills and the Henon Revolution with the lesson taught me by Mr. Shaw – if the answer doesn’t square with reality, look for the trick.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.