by Jay A. McCalla
“Dis is Philly” is a local idiom with multiple, didactic applications for the visitor who wants to understand our city quickly. For example:
Question: How is it legal for our Council people to have outside, full-time employment? .
Answer: Dis is Philly.
See what I mean ? The phrase explains in a way that assumes no real explanation is required.
Let’s try that again.
Q. Why do Democrats always beat Republicans for mayor.
A. Dis is Philly.
It’s a glib retort that informs “Dorothy” – she is now in Oz – and expectations must be adjusted. But even that “old standby” can no longer explain the absolute invincibility of Democratic mayoral candidates that has endured since 1952 in the face of mounting evidence that neither prosperity nor sacrifice is shared, and that mayors spend too much and tax too much and borrow too much.
Republican rule, which ended in 1952 with Mayor Barney Samuels, certainly had its conspicuous flaws. Unencumbered by a civil service, cops, firemen — all city workers — could be hired or fired on the whim of a Republican pol. The power to hand out jobs naturally gave way to the sale of jobs. Corruption was rampant.
Between Barney Samuels’ last day in office and today, Republicans have lost almost 16 consecutive mayoral elections. Sure, there’s an embarrassingly lopsided voter registration that favors Democrats. But, how on earth has that been sustained so uncritically for three quarters of a century?
The historical epicenter of brand loyalty was 1987, when incumbent Mayor W. Wilson Goode beat challenger Frank Rizzo, in the general election. It was just two years earlier that Goode had presided over the firebombing of the MOVE compound, an abominable fiasco that resulted in death and destruction that scarred our image worldwide. The margin was close, but a win is a win.
Since local Democratic politics is rarely organized around values, they can only be judged by their public stewardship. It’s my view that Democratic stewardship in Philadelphia has been provably and simply awful.
Sure, we witnessed the supernova known as Ed Rendell, who saved us from bankruptcy, built hotels and successfully encouraged us to “make it a night” in Center City. But, he ignored the expanding deficit in our pension fund and invested very little in parks, libraries and recreation centers. Poverty expanded and schools continued their downward slide.
The things Rendell ignored have been equally ignored by every mayor — Democrats, all — since. In fact, the justification for Jim Kenney’s $400 million “Rebuild” is the decades of mayoral neglect.
Speaking of Kenney, if this were a politically dynamic and competitive town, I’m confident he would be the mayor most likely to break the Democratic winning streak.
Almost immediately upon taking office, he tempted a potential black challenger by going back on his campaign promise to end stop-and- frisk, which is unpopular with minorities. Recently, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart caught Kenney in a major deception concerning his “precious” soda tax. Kenney said the tax was for “the kids” and that was just not true. Far more than 75 percent goes straight to the General Fund. What remains is split between Rebuild and “the kids.”
Kenney’s office told Philadelphia Magazine last week that Rhynhart’s report on the soda tax was misleading.
“It is extremely disappointing that the controller chose to issue such misleading and inaccurate information,” Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said. “In short, all of the money that is in reserve is going to be spent on the programs. This was made clear when Mayor Jim Kenney proposed the tax two years ago, it was made clear during last year’s budget process, and it was made clear on March 1st of this year, when we announced to reporters the revised projections for the beverage tax.”
Kenney’s recent refusal to disclose the cost of our Super Bowl parade only adds to the aforementioned shortcomings in the Candor Department.
Character aside, Kenney is raising real estate taxes by almost $1 billion, adding $600 million to annual spending and piling on new debt that may approach yet another $1 billion.
In most other cities, an incumbent with these vulnerabilities would have challengers dropping from the sky. Republicans would be jogging in place, getting ready to clobber Kenney and his “borrow, tax and spend” administration.
But, Dis is Philly, and there’s every indication Kenney will run unopposed in the Democratic primary and crush his Republican opponent the following November. His performance in office will matter very little, given most citizens will stay home, leaving the election to be dominated by party loyalists.
The good news is that a city can renew itself in vital ways. Immigrants arrive, suburbanites move in and local college graduates stay to build their lives. As they integrate into Mother Philly, they bring fresh ideas, new sensibilities and smart questions that can change our fortunes, making our governance a model from which we all benefit.