On Monday, politics-as-usual in Philadelphia got a gut-punch: A federal jury convicted City Councilman Bobby Henon and union boss John Dougherty of conspiracy and honest services fraud.
Even if the two had been acquitted, the trial revealed the rot in local politics. The defense’s argument condemned everyone in the hopes that it would get their clients off. The back-room deals, lobbyist money, “gifts,” and other favors from corporate and union money, it was argued, is the norm in City Hall; therefore, Henon and Dougherty did nothing wrong.
Our city’s government is a shitshow of graft and moneyed narcissism, a betrayal of the public trust. The good people in local government who try to make the city better and provide much-needed help get undermined by those who see their job as an entitlement, a free ticket to abuse power big or small. It took a federal trial to show that what is normal in the city is abhorrent.
Are local Democrats proud that their party ignores the working class to do the bidding of criminals? Are local Republicans ashamed that their brand is so toxic, and their ideas so listless and uninteresting, that they can hardly win a local race?
The Mayor and City Council were disturbingly quiet before the conviction, with all but Maria Quiñones-Sánchez refusing to call for Henon to resign his position. Maybe they meant to condemn Henon, but were too busy giving themselves more power to kill development projects, ignoring the city’s soaring murder rate, or dawdling on removing asbestos from Philly city schools. We all get busy, and sometimes it’s best to hope a problem goes away.
A serious city would take the conviction of a councilman and a fat-pocketed union leader as time to dig deeper and clean house. Henon isn’t the only politician with ties to Dougherty. Perhaps the mayor and other councilmembers should offer some detailed reports of “gifts” and political donations they received from Dougherty, and concrete steps they’ll take for transparency and against corruption.
This corruption trial is not only an embarrassing tiff. Local corruption sends a signal to people who might otherwise move to, or stay in, the city. Families will pick a suburb instead of Philadelphia. Entrepreneurs will start their businesses elsewhere. Current residents will be reminded that their taxes are liable to be filched. And problems will persist for the people who need help most. The young professional in Center City will be fine—if things get too bad, they can always leave. The person in Kensington or Hunting Park, however, is reminded that politicians don’t really care about them. Children in subpar schools, addicts on the street, and working parents under threat of violence aren’t political donors.
Philadelphia is in a fight for its future.
The national economy has changed; a few superstar cities suck up much of the economic growth, and other cities and towns lag behind. The South and Southwest are gaining jobs and people as rural areas and Rust Belt cities struggle to regain their glory.
Philly has tentatively reversed its decline, but future growth is not guaranteed. A culture of political corruption is great for the well-connected, awful for the rest. For those in the catbird seat, rules get bent, problems get cleared up, and approvals get expedited. For the upstarts, though, it’s a big cost. The unwritten rules must be learned—they have to play the game or get out.
When places like Raleigh, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City are booming, it’s borderline foolish to jump through hoops in a place like Philly when greener pastures (and profits) await. Political corruption will always come back to cripple economic growth.
What the city needs is a turn to pragmatism. Let federal politicians fight over national issues and state politicians fight over state issues. They’re not going to make sure bus lanes get built and the trash is picked up.
The bar for Philadelphia politicians is painfully low: Who has integrity and can do their job without taking bribes? Get crime under control, educate the kids, and make it easier for businesses to grow and create good jobs. Can the city do this? Or are we doomed to pathetic lackeys like Bobby Henon, who speak the approved political cliches while laughing their way to the bank?