How Philly's 'toxic political culture' threatens the city's success
By David Thornburgh - President & CEO - Committee of Seventy

In many respects, Philadelphia’s on a roll these days. We’re experiencing a real building boom, we’re adding population (and even a few jobs) and we’ll certainly gain international exposure from multiple high-profile events in the coming months. Philadelphia’s business community should be rightly proud of the city showing its vitality and garnering positive attention, but we’re also cognizant that Philadelphia’s brand continues to be tarnished in ways that it shouldn’t be. We as a city continue to suffer from generational apathy to the problem which may be most damaging to Philadelphia’s reputation: our toxic political culture.

I began my tenure at the Committee of Seventy December 1, 2014. Just since then, here’s the roll call of public officials in Pennsylvania charged with or who pled guilty to serious charges of public corruption and illegal activity: former state Treasurer Rob McCord; Congressman Chaka Fattah; Attorney General Kathleen Kane; Harrisburg Mayor Steve Reed; former State Representatives Ron Waters and Vanessa Brown. Mayoral offices in Reading and Allentown are under investigation. One of Philadelphia’s elected City Commissioners, Anthony Clark, seems to have a severe allergy to showing up for his $140,000 job. District Attorney Seth Williams struggles to defend members of his staff who’ve sent and received pornographic emails.

And on and on.

Left unchecked, Philadelphia’s shabby reputation for ethical lapses will likely continue its downward spiral. This only contributes to Philadelphians cynicism about politics and government, leading to apathy about the future of the city and lowered expectations for what we can achieve. Yes, long term challenges like poverty and a dysfunctional public school system rightly receive the most attention among Philadelphia’s scourges, but these affect most large cities. Where Philadelphia, unfortunately, distinguishes itself is our tacit acceptance of public officials’ unethical behavior. This is no way to burnish Philly’s brand as the birthplace of American Democracy.

What we often miss in passively accepting this behavior is that public corruption is not a victimless crime: for every dollar misspent, fewer Philadelphians receive the services they need, and with the reduced confidence in government, talented leaders are discouraged from government service. This diminishes Philadelphia’s prospects by tolerating a lack of innovation and a race to the bottom among elected officials just trying to hold on to power. As Philadelphia seeks to build its reputation as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, we must expect the same of our government.

My father, Dick Thornburgh, served as Pennsylvania’s governor from 1979 to 1987. He was elected as a corruption-busting US Attorney in Pittsburgh, but even he noted in a 1978 campaign commercial that [while] “… it’s important to have an aggressive effort to drive corruption out of government. But in the final analysis, it’s not so important to put corrupt public officials in jail as it is to put honest ones in public office.”

My translation: even as we sanction and condone those public officials who cross the line, we have to recognize and applaud effective leaders, particularly those who demonstrate their role as champions of public integrity. That’s just what the Committee of Seventy is doing at our post-election annual luncheon (November 12 at the Loews Philadelphia). First, we’re recognizing as our presenting sponsor Brandywine Realty Trust, whose CEO Jerry Sweeney has shown great civic leadership on issues as diverse as tax policy, public space development and public media over the past few years. We’re proud to have their support of Seventy’s mission to make Philadelphia a better place through better politics and better government. Second, we’re pleased to honor Mayor Michael A. Nutter as the first Joan Markman Champion of Integrity in Government. Markman, who passed away earlier this year, dedicated her career to prosecuting public corruption and served as the city’s first Chief Integrity Officer. We’re proud to recognize her boss, Mayor Nutter, for his great commitment to ethics and integrity during his two terms in office.

As Seventy prepares for the event, I hope we can deliver a new message to Philadelphia, and that our business and civic communities will support our efforts to change the game and change the players:

  • Change the game: Seventy will advocate for election reforms to make sure that every voter and every vote counts. We applaud the Wolf administration’s recent implementation of online voter registration, and we’re considering support for other reforms that would make voting more accessible and give independent voters (now almost as large a cohort in the city as Republicans) a greater voice.

  • Change the players: Improving the way we choose our public officials is only half of the equation: Philadelphia must create an environment to encourage more competitive elections. This is a tall task in this essentially one party town where new candidates face high barriers to entry. To combat this, Seventy has plans to develop improved nonpartisan candidate training, to provide tools to help level the playing field for newcomers, and to partner with civic technology groups like Silicon Valley’s Crowdpac, who provide candidate information in a format that allows voters to break through the opaque offerings of the political establishment.

We know this is an uphill climb, but our future as a dynamic city depends on it. While political malfeasance and isolated election-day outrage grab headlines, the true crisis brewing in the city is our stale political culture and the voter apathy (12% turnout among young voters this past primary) that allows it to exist. Philadelphia’s politics evolved to this point over decades. It will take time and effort and a creative and diverse multi-pronged approach to begin to move the needle in the other direction, to build confidence in government, and eventually bring more people to the polls. Philadelphia’s business community can help us in this effort by standing with us to support better government policies and higher expectations for our elections, particularly as we prepare to inaugurate a new mayor and host a national political convention. We hope you will consider joining us to support this agenda, and show the city’s business community is committed to a better Philadelphia.

David Thornburgh is president and CEO of Committee of Seventy, the independent nonprofit advocate for better politics and better government in Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Seventy’s annual post-election luncheon will be held on November 12 at noon at the Loews Philadelphia. More information at www.seventy.org.