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Philadelphia’s Rap Sheet

A contented city never rebels

Image | Nick Youngson

Everyone who has lived in this city long enough has heard Lincoln Steffens’s famous description of Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented.” The full line is, if anything, more damning. Speaking of the crooks running so many of the nation’s cities in 1903, ours stood out to Steffens. “All our municipal governments are more or less bad,” he proclaimed. “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”

Not much has changed, but it may come as a surprise to learn that Philadelphia has never had a mayor go to jail. Baltimore has had two mayors found guilty of crimes just in this century. Detroit has had two, as well. Washington famously had one mayor go to jail not long ago for drug crimes. With all of these municipal executives going down for crimes, Philly crime aficionados must be asking what Phillies fans were asking in 2008: Why Can’t Us?

Given how often Mayor Jim Kenney’s voice was heard on government wiretaps during the trial of City Councilman Bobby Henon and IBEW boss Johnny Doughtery, the possibility that Philadelphia will join the jailed mayor club is improving, though still far from certain. But for corrupt politicians, City Council has always been the place to be. Henon is the latest to be convicted of misusing his office for personal gain, but he is not the first and will not be the last. (To the disgust of all law-abiding Philadelphians, Henon remains a member of City Council following his conviction.)

It is hard to say exactly how many council members have been convicted of crimes in Philly’s history. Before the 1919 city charter was adopted, the council had 190 members. Imagine the circus that would be today! But since the most recent city charter was enacted in 1951, the rogue’s gallery has been reduced to a mere seventeen. Of these, several have fallen afoul of the law.

Victor Moore and John F. Byrne, both Democrats, were indicted for corruption in 1963 but found not guilty. By the early 70s, investigations snared three more: Republican David Silver and Democrats Isadore H. Bellis and Natale F. Carabello were all indicted on unrelated corruption charges thanks to investigations by District Attorney Arlen Specter. (Note to those who have only recently moved to Philadelphia: the district attorney used to consider it worthwhile to investigate corrupt public officials.)

The most famous piece of corruption in our recent history came in 1981 when three city councilmen were indicted in connection with the FBI’s ABSCAM sting. The set-up, which seems faintly ludicrous today, involved FBI agents pretending to be Arab sheiks who wanted political favors and were willing to pay big for them. Seven members of Congress fell all over themselves to take the money, as did City Council members George X. Schwartz, Harry Jannotti, and Louis Johanson, all Democrats. All three did federal time.

Carabello’s successor in the 1st district, Jimmy Tayoun, went to jail for racketeering. The next man to hold that seat, Leland Beloff, did time for extortion. The 7th district’s Rick Mariano’s 2005 arrest for bribery was, until Henon’s conviction, the city’s most recent incident of proven corruption on City Council. There should really be signs at the city limits that read “53 Days Since a City Council Member Was Convicted of a Crime.” Of course, the pending trial of 2nd district Councilman Kenyatta Johnson might require rolling that number back to zero.

What does this shameful history tell us? Sadly, it seems mostly to reinforce the voters’ impression that nothing can be done. We accept our fate meekly. The city is crooked, and always will be, people say. Each new indictment elicits less outrage than the last.

Maybe it was always this way. Steffens wrote that by 1903, “Minneapolis has cleaned up, Pittsburg has tried to, New York rights every other election, Chicago fights all the time. Even St. Louis has begun to stir (since the elections are over), and at the worst was only shameless. Philadelphia is proud; good people there defend corruption and boast of their machine.”

Philadelphians are a proud people, but this is a hell of a thing to take pride in. We can’t expect the courts to remove all of the bums from office: in a democracy, it’s the people’s job to throw them out, too. Maybe the frustrations with our corrupt and incompetant government have been amplified during the pandemic. Maybe now is the time another wave of reform will sweep the city. It’s up to us, really. The city remains corrupt, but the voters don’t have to be content.

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    • Kyle Sammin is the senior editor of the Philadelphia Weekly. He is also a senior contributor to The Federalist and the co-host of the Conservative Minds podcast. Follow him on Twitter @kylesammin.

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