By Brett Mandel
This commentary was first published on Mr. Mandel’s website and is republished here with permission.
Democrat-dominated Philadelphia voted overwhelmingly against President-Elect Donald Trump, yet Trump’s election has given some in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party a reason to celebrate. Trump in the White House will allow local leaders to blame an outsider for local woes — and focus reformers and activists on acting globally (or at least nationally) instead of thinking locally.
This is a ploy that has worked effectively for decades.
Democrats have dominated Philadelphia politics for more than six decades, asserting a kind of Harlem-Globetrotters-Over-The-Washington-Generals dominance that, unfortunately, has mattered almost as little as those farcical basketball exhibitions. Those Globetrotter wins may be fun to watch, but they don’t count in any league standing just like decades of Democratic electoral dominance have been fun for Party leaders but less satisfying for Philadelphians who have endured more urban woes than residents of other large US cities.
In recent decades, Philadelphia’s Democratic Party has governed under Democratic Presidents in 16 of the last 24 years and Democratic Governors in 18 of the last 30 years. Democrats have been in and out of power in Congress and the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Philadelphia’s shortcomings as a city have endured as power has shifted in Washington and Harrisburg and through economic booms and busts. Certainly, local leaders could not stop the decline of American manufacturing or the horrors of the national crack epidemic, but the fact that Philadelphia’s decades of population and job loss were worse than competitor cities suggests we could have done better. The reality that recent growth and resurgence have not been as robust as in competitor cities confirms we are not doing enough to take advantage of favorable trends.
I am certainly not convinced that, as president, Trump will turn his campaign rhetoric about reviving inner cities into action that will suddenly allow Philadelphia to reverse this history. So why would that be good for Philadelphia’s Democratic Party?
Party Of One
Our local ruling cabal likes nothing more than an external enemy to blame for our local woes. A common enemy allows Philadelphia leaders to deflect reform energy away from the local failures, the undemocratic nature of our local Democratic Party, and the parade of local officials who do their terms in office before they do their terms in jail.
When local frustration boils over, party Pooh-Bahs can point fingers to Washington or Harrisburg to urge activists to unite against common enemies. But that doesn’t integrate the building trades, reduce our overly burdensome Wage Tax, bring our murder rate below the big-city average, or lower the poverty that grips more than one-in-four residents.
Now, the Trump Presidency has bought Philadelphia’s in-crowd at least four years during which it can play the blame game and push local reformers toward fighting national political battles and away from the effort to produce much-needed local changes.
As another former local Democratic Congressman heads to jail (following many more elected officials who preceded him in recent years and preceding more headed there soon), it is beyond clear that the Philadelphia Democratic Party is a major barrier to better governance. But party leaders will continue their hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evil approach to reform efforts unless we demand change.
Just as all politics is local, all reform is just as local.
If we want to generate more enthusiastic Philadelphia election turnouts, it would be great if we could prove we can run a city well and make it truly a preferred place to live, work, and visit. If we want to see leaders favored by Philadelphians win statewide and national elections, it would help a lot if Philadelphia officials didn’t keep giving the state’s and the nation’s voters reasons to believe our city’s leaders are corrupt. If we want state and federal investment in Philadelphia, it would be great if our leaders would spend efficiently and effectively to produce desired outcomes so we can show dividends in progress. If we want to change the party that governs in Harrisburg and in Washington, it would be best to make change in the party that governs in Philadelphia.
Brett Mandel is a civic activist in Philadelphia. Previously, Brett ran for Philadelphia City Controller and served as the Executive Director of the citizens’ group, Philadelphia Forward and as the Director of Financial and Policy Analysts for the Office of the City Controller.