Where’s the Outrage?

How many political perp walks does it take for elected leaders to respond to stories of corruption with anything but “There but for the grace of God go I” relief?

by Larry Platt

You know what would have been nice? If our elected officials, upon last week’s announcement that U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah had been indicted on 29 counts of public corruption, had read the indictment, which laid out in graphic detail the extent of the Congressman’s alleged criminal enterprise, and then…stood in front of microphones to say, in no uncertain terms, that the sale of public office for private or political gain no longer has any place in Philadelphia.

Fattah: Indicted, but still celebrated by the powers-that-be. Where’s the outrage?

Fattah: Indicted, but still celebrated by the powers-that-be. Where’s the outrage?

Instead we got more of the same. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, Democratic City Committee chair, said he was “saddened” by the news and that Fattah stepping down from the House Appropriations Committee was a “major loss to the city.” Mayor-in-waiting Jim Kenney, asked whether Fattah should resign, said, “That’s a personal decision he can make on his own. He doesn’t need my advice.” Mayor Nutter called Fattah a “longtime champion for Philadelphia” who has “probably helped more children go to college than any other member of the U.S. Congress.” (Nutter’s kind words were interesting, given that it was Fattah who, during a 2007 mayoral debate, shamefully said that Nutter “has to remind himself he’s an African-American.”)

Maybe, if we were really serious about taking on our corrosive political culture, we’d reach out to Transparency International, a global coalition that fights corruption. They’ve published a “Local Integrity System Assessment Toolkit” that explains in great detail how they work with local governments and civic partners to identify and reform weak spots in governmental integrity.

Given the rush of fond testimonials, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the guy had died, rather than been indicted. Yes, Fattah is presumed innocent in a court of law. But the ho-hum tone of these reactions—sadness for him, rather than outrage over what appears to be yet another example of a corrupt culture run amok—are way off. Kenney had a chance to show some moral leadership. When he was asked if the Congressman should resign, he wasn’t being asked to offer Fattah advice. He was being asked to pronounce upon the health of the body politic, to consider these allegations in terms of the common good. It was an invitation to be high-minded, and to put us and our fate above politics. He punted. Continue reading

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Jim Kenney’s Gut Check

 Zero-based budgeting is more radical than it sounds. Does the would-be mayor really have it in him to adopt it?

by Larry Platt

Last week, while news of Chaka Fattah’s indictment was reverberating around the local political universe, the Kenney campaign sent out an intriguing, but little noticed, press release. “Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro Endorses Jim Kenney” read the headline. In the release, Shapiro explained his reasoning: “[Kenney’s] plan to institute zero-based budgeting will benefit the people of Philadelphia and our entire region by making city government more effective.”

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Jim Kenney: How ballsy is he?

Back in January, we wrote about how Shapiro had used this arcane accounting metric to reimagine how Montco spends public dollars, thereby reinventing local government. We called on the mayoral candidates to take note. Kenney did, pulling Shapiro aside at an event and peppering him with questions about the practice.

What is it? Basically, it’s a reboot. Come budget time, it requires each governmental agency, instead of just submitting its desired percentage increase, to first write a core mission statement. And then to construct a budget that meets that core mission—and goes no further. In Montco, the exercise exposed all sorts of spending—whether in response to political deals or simply due to mission creep over the years—that had little or nothing to do with that stated mission. “Structurally, we ended up with 19 percent fewer county departments,” Shapiro says. “We found that we owned and operated a nursing home that was losing all sorts of money. The taxpayers were subsidizing this. Sorry, that was beyond our mission.”

Shapiro says that implementing zero-based budgeting—essentially, building the government back up from zero—is a “huge lift, because you inevitably have to take on entrenched interests.”

Kenney was mostly a risk-averse City Councilman. Taking a look at each line item in a $4 billion budget and asking, “Does this fit our core mission?” would mean standing up to his own constituencies, which includes union workers and patronage appointments.

Shapiro says Kenney sounds committed to it, which is beyond half the battle. “It’s all about intestinal fortitude,” Shapiro says. “If the leader wants it to happen, it’ll happen.” Continue reading

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It Takes A (Queen) Village

A community split by demographics and two very different schools comes together for the kids

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Queen Village is divided between those who go to Meredith Elementary School and those who go to Nebinger. But the division runs far deeper than street address. Meredith, among the best district schools in the city, is 61 percent white, with 32 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged, according to the district’s school profile. Nebinger is 96 percent minority—primarily African American and Latino—and 100 percent of students are poor. In five years, the relatively new Friends of Nebinger has raised $30,000 to help the school, an up-and-comer with a growing student body. Meredith—long full to capacity—raises twice that in one auction night a year.

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Happy Courtyard campers enjoying the view from City Hall

In typical Philly fashion, the division extends beyond the schools, too: There is most of Queen Village, and then there is the Courtyard Apartments, a low-income complex for about 300 primarily African American families on Christian, between 3rd and 5th streets. “In the past, it has been like different communities,” says Barry Perrin, social services coordinator at the Courtyard, which has its own residents group, separate from the Queen Village Neighbors Association. (QVNA). “It has been hard to bridge the gap.” Continue reading

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The Price of Corruption, Part Deux

The far-reaching implications of the Fattah indictment

by Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

Last week I wrote a column on Pennsylvania’s corruption tax: the cost of corruption to taxpayers, which one study estimated at about $1,300 per person. I had not planned to write a new column on corruption, but Pennsylvania is a gift that keeps giving.

This week, the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania announced the indictment of Congressman Chaka Fattah and several associates for their roles in a racketeering conspiracy.

The indictment is long, but it is quite a read. I recommend it as summertime beach reading. Think of it as a detective novel where we are the victims.

Fattah and his associates are innocent until proven guilty, of course, but once the Feds issue an indictment their batting record is in the 90 percent range. Fattah keeps saying it is just an allegation and that he will continue to work to serve his constituents.

Wake up! This is an indictment based on a long-term investigation with plenty of evidence behind it and lots of people giving first hand testimony. It is about the misuse of public money that should have been used for those very constituents.

The part of the indictment about lobbyist Vederman helping to pay for Fattah’s au pair is just too much. I never knew that urban social justice advocates worried about having an au pair. Where have I been?

Among those that are talking are Greg Naylor, a former Fattah aide, and Thomas Lindenfeld, a Fattah political consultant from D.C., both of whom have already pled guilty. They are trying to buy down their sentence.

It is worth noting that Naylor’s sentencing date has been postponed, which is often a sign that they are waiting to see what comes of his information before deciding on his sentence. Lindenfeld was supposed to be sentenced in March, but as far as I know, he has not been sentenced as of yet either. Continue reading

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Death to the Machine!

Forget reform. It’s time for the state Democratic party to kill off its worst enemy: The Philadelphia machine.

by Jim Saksa

Democrats have dominated Philadelphia politics ever since Joe Clark’s election as mayor in 1952. Before that watershed contest, a Republican machine controlled every election for nearly a century.

Coincidentally, if you average the birth years of all the ward leaders available on Philly Ward Leaders, you also get 1952.

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Democratic party boss Bob Brady. Is the empire fading?

So, in more ways than one, Philadelphia’s political machine is 63 years old.

And boy does it show.

Maybe it’s the ward leaders’ inability to connect with their (almost always) younger neighbors—according to Pew, only 23% of Philadelphians are over 55—but the City Committee isn’t what it once was.

At 63, it’s time to retire. Not just the ward leaders: the entire machine needs to call it quits. And because it would be ridiculous to expect the Democratic City Committee to voluntarily walk away, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party should show the machine the door, and shove them out if necessary.

Political machines once rewarded their cogs based on performance. In his Philadelphia: a Brief History, Lehigh University historian Roger Simon succinctly explained how a well-oiled machine worked: “At the local level, ward leaders received patronage in direct proportion to the number of votes they delivered.” Admittedly, Simon was writing about the Republican machine that dominated for a century before Philadelphia’s big switch in 1952, but the point remains: machines work when they reward performance.

Besides the endemic corruption it tolerates and the voter cynicism it breeds, this is the machine’s largest failing, and undoubtedly its largest purely political failing: many of Philly’s ward leaders suck at their primary job—getting out the vote—but the machine still rewards them with patronage jobs and electoral backing for cushy political offices.

Besides the endemic corruption it tolerates and the voter cynicism it breeds, this is the machine’s largest failing: many of Philly’s ward leaders suck at their primary job—getting out the vote—but the machine still rewards them with patronage jobs and electoral backing for cushy political offices.

Consider Anthony Clark, leader of the 28th Ward and a City Commissioner. Famously, while serving as chair of the Commissioners, which oversee elections and voter registrations, Clark failed to vote for five elections in a row. That’s not Commissioner Clark’s only failing as an election official—he’s also a notorious no-show at the office, which pays him $134,000 a year, and was recently fined $4,000 by the Philadelphia Ethics Board for improperly securing a raise for his brother, who just so happens to work for the City Commissioners. Continue reading

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Ideas We Should Steal: Free Birth Control for Philly Teens

Thanks to Warren Buffett, a Colorado program reduced that state’s teen birth rate by 40 percent by providing young women with long-acting reversible birth control. Could it work here?

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Melissa Weiler Gerber didn’t need a front page New York Times story to tell her that long-acting reversible contraceptives—like IUDs and implants—can reduce the rate of teen pregnancy. The president and CEO of AccessMatters, a Philly sexual health network, has followed the science about these contraceptives—known as LARCs—for years, waiting for public perception and public policy to catch up to the research that shows they are the most effective, most convenient and safest way for women to decide when or if they want to have a baby. Still, even Weiler Gerber was stunned by the scale of what happened in Colorado over the last several years.

"Koperspiraal" by AnnaMartheK via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: “Koperspiraal” by AnnaMartheK via Wikimedia Commons

In 2009, Colorado had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, with half of all first babies born to women under the age of 21. After a six-year effort to make LARCs accessible to mostly poor young women in the state, the teen birthrate fell by 40 percent, and abortions by 42 percent. Funded by Warren Buffett’s foundation, posthumously named for his late wife Susan Thompson Buffett, the $23 million experiment helped 30,000 teens and women get free LARCs, which would otherwise have cost around $900 each.

“To those of us working in the field, this is a game-changer kind of moment,” says Weiler Gerber, who was already scheduled to testify about this issue before the city’s health commission two days after the Colorado success hit the news. “The science has been really far out in front of the public perception and comfort around this. The fact that this is getting so much attention is great.”

Nationally, around half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, although the number of teenage births has been on the decline. This is true in Philadelphia, too, though it has not made much of a dent: In 2012, 2,500 babies were born to teenagers aged 15 to 19, a rate of 46.6 per 1,000 teenage girls—around double the state and national rate. Among American big cities, Philadelphia has the highest number of teens who are sexually active and who have had four or more partners, making them at high risk for disease and pregnancy. It also has the highest poverty rate of any big city in America, making it harder for young women to access healthcare—and effective birth control, especially LARCs. Statewide, in 2013 just 3 percent of teenagers at public family planning clinics had an IUD or implant. In Colorado, for comparison, 20 percent of women now have LARCs.

“To those of us working in the field, this is a game-changer kind of moment,” says Melissa Weiler Gerber, CEO of AccessMatters, a Philly sexual health network. She adds one note of caution: “A lot of these changes were funded by one progressive billionaire. That’s not how we should sustain these things.”

The Colorado program—as well as a smaller research study in St. Louis—proved that young women, if counseled about the benefits and offered long-acting reversible birth control for free, will overwhelmingly choose to use a LARC. More than that, they are choosing to avoid what social scientists have observed for generations: That poor, young single mothers stay poor, a legacy they pass on to their children, and one of the leading causes of continuing financial inequality in America. Instead, they can finish school, start careers and plan their futures, before needing to care for a baby.

“This was not difficult, and the outcomes are just so high that they can’t be ignored,” says Dayle Steinberg, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “Access to family planning and reproductive care are directly related to the ability to succeed in school and beyond that.” Continue reading

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Meet The Disruptor: Yasmine Mustafa

The 33-year-old entrepreneur couldn’t speak English when she came to the States from Kuwait as an eight-year-old. Now she’s developing fashionable safety jewelry for women and spreading a message of kick-ass empowerment

by Larry Platt

Hand-drawn signs on the wall of Roar for Good’s offices at the University City Science Center incubator capture the founder’s audaciousness:

I ROAR…for breaking the glass ceiling

I ROAR…for future generations

I ROAR…for all underprivileged and challenge all privileged to step up

I ROAR…for those who can’t

I ROAR…for the greater good

Yasmine Mustafa, co-founder and CEO, can do businesspeak—she’s already founded and sold one company, 123LinkIt, and brought Girl Develop It, the nonprofit that teaches women coding and web development, to Philly. But her latest venture is more of a calling than a get rich quick plan or a charity. With ROAR, Mustafa is developing wearable safety technology: fashionable jewelry—necklace, charm or key fob—that women can wear and activate when under attack, emitting an alarm and a light and instantly calling 911. Once profitable, ROAR—a recent graduate of the DreamIt incubator—will donate money to non-profits that teach respect, consent and healthy relationships to young people.

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Mustafa traveled throughout South America after selling her first company

Mustafa came to the States in 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War. She was 8 years old and with her family and neighbors in a Kuwaiti bomb shelter when officials from the American embassy burst in, searching for her little brother, who had been born in Philadelphia during a family visit. That made him a U.S. citizen, and the Americans were there to hurriedly transport the family to America. Once here, Yasmine’s father, a mechanical engineer in the Middle East, couldn’t find a job. In keeping with the all-too-familiar immigrant script, he swallowed his pride and bought a 7-11 in Royersford. There, 9-year-old Yasmine—who spoke no English at the time—learned all about work ethic, stocking shelves and manning the cash register.

Today, Mustafa speaks with the fierce urgency of the immigrant she once was, the words coming breathless. She’s quick with a smile, but it’s only a momentary respite from an intensity that rarely dims. She points out that immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. Like so many others who have defied, as she puts it, their “birth lottery” and ended up achieving in the land of opportunity, she works—and when she’s done working, she works some more. But it’s not just personal fortune she’s chasing; Mustafa’s drive not only to succeed, but also to change the world, is palpable. “I’ve always had this naïve mentality that one person can make a difference,” she says over coffee at West Philly’s Joe Coffee, where the congenital enthusiast goes on a wide-eyed riff about how she’s just learned that chocolate and coffee can be mixed, and how great that is. “It sounds morbid, but a friend and I are always wondering about what people are going to say about us at our funerals. Did I actively pursue making a difference?” Continue reading

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The Cost of Corruption

You’re actually paying for that parade of handcuffed, perp-walking politicians

by Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

As the FBI hauled away boxes of files related to public contracts from the City Halls of Reading and Allentown, the former Mayor of Harrisburg was being indicted on corruption charges going back more than a decade.

Former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed built a regime from 1981 until 2009. He is charged with the misuse of public money for personal gain. He argues that he is innocent as the goods were collected for public museums he sponsored for the city.

But there will likely be other charges related to his many years of absolute control over every aspect of public contracting and public finance. Harrisburg was ultimately financially undone by too much debt and poor public management, including the famous Harrisburg incinerator. It happened under his watch.

Studies show that, if Pennsylvania were just at an average corruption level, it would result in savings of about $1,300 per resident per year. That’s a big deal.

If you have never read the saga of the incinerator read Governing Magazine’s review. It is a fascinating story.

On the southwest corner of the new Dilworth Park by Philadelphia’s City Hall is a quote from Richardson Dilworth that sums up the Harrisburg mess: Our lack of capacity for public indignation is due to the length of time we have lived under the domination of one political machine.   

This 1947 quote, which preceded the Clark-Dilworth movement to dislodge a long term and corrupt Republican political machine, is a reminder that political competition is an important antidote to corruption.

Is Pennsylvania more corrupt than most other states? And if so, why does it matter? There are two reasons that corruption matters: political legitimacy and economic burden. Corruption is corrosive to democracy and our pocketbooks.

First let’s look at what we know about corruption in the Keystone State. Pennsylvania appears to be more corrupt than most states, although measuring the level of corruption is an inexact science. If you measured it by the total number of public officials convicted of crimes we are fifth but, adjusted by population, we are 13th.

Even those indicators can be a bit tricky. What if some states just have more effective investigative reporting and more motivated prosecutorial capacity? Maybe some are better at getting the bad guys and others are more lax.

There are other indicators that some use, including impression data from journalists that cover state and local politics and the quality of state laws regarding conflict of interest, administrative controls, and transparency. Continue reading

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The Citizen Updates…

Next Stop: Democracy!                                                                                                                          Last month, we wrote about Next Stop: Democracy!’s perfectly simple, Philly-Style idea to increase voter participation: Hire local artists to paint eye-catching Vote Here signs to be placed in front of 60 polling places around town to help citizens find their ballot box. At the time, they had just started recruiting artists, after receiving a $166,000 grant from the Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge. But that money will only cover about two-thirds of the cost, which includes paying artists $250 for materials, a research study to gauge the project’s effects and marketing. What it doesn’t cover is the cost of the signs themselves. That’s where you come in.

Next Stop: Democracy! is halfway through a $15,000 Kickstarter campaign to pay Darla Jackson from the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym to make sturdy wooden sandwich board-style signs that will go up in November, and last through several election seasons. “We don’t want to use cheap mass produced signs that we order off the internet when we could get durable high quality signs crafted right here in Philadelphia,” says Lansie Sylvia, director of Next Stop: Democracy! on the group’s Kickstarter video. “Your donation will ensure that each artist has a high quality canvas to start with and that each sign is made to last. Its time to create new look for election day.”

In its first two weeks, Next Stop: Democracy!’s crowd-funding campaign raised nearly $7,000, helped by a push from Kickstarter itself, which promoted it as a staff pick, a “featured” project in art, and on its Instagram feed. It has until August 8 to raise the rest of the funds.

“We feel like we can’t change the candidates. We can’t take the money out of politics,” says Conrad Brenner, a photojournalist who runs the blog Streets Dept and is helping to promote the project. “But we can use one of Philly’s greatest strengths—public art—and use that to jazz up and excite one of our biggest weaknesses—voter turnout.”

Help them help keep it local. Donate here.

MathCorps Philly                                                                                                                            MathCorps Philly, a math tutoring program that pairs seventh graders with high school mentors and college supervisors to raise math test scores some 60 points over a summer. Based on a 20-year-old program at Detroit’s Wayne State University, MathCorps Philly operated a pilot program in the winter, then launched an Indiegogo campaign in the spring to raise the $20,000 needed to launch a six-week, 8-hour summer camp for at least 20 seventh graders.

MathCorps fell short of its goal—it raised $8,700 through Indiegogo—but launched anyway in June. In part, Shen says, it’s because of the program’s main ingredient: Love. Two weeks before the end of the fundraising campaign, the high schoolers agreed to cut their stipends. That allowed the program to open at Drexel in June with 18 middle schoolers, 12 high school tutors and two college students. “Their act of love made it possible to have our camp at the planned numbers,” says Shen. Continue reading

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Ideas We Should Steal: Vote…And Win The Lottery

Faced with abysmal voter turnout, a Los Angeles nonprofit offered an innovative solution: A $25,000 prize to one random citizen who cast a ballot

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

March 3 was a bad day for Democracy in Los Angeles. It was the primary election for LA City Council and School Board seats—those positions that help determine the future of the city and its schools—but by day’s end, just 16 percent of the city’s 1.8 million registered voters had cast a ballot. In the city’s 5th district, the numbers were even worse—just 12 percent came out to the polls. It was one of the lowest turnouts in Los Angeles history. And for Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, it was the last straw.

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Gonzalez

“I mean: No one voted,” says Gonzalez, whose nonprofit aims to increase voter participation among Latinos throughout the southwestern United States. “We just couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore while this keeps happening.”

So with three weeks to go before the general election in May, Gonzalez introduced a radical notion, not just for Los Angeles, but for any jurisdiction in America: A lottery that would randomly pay $25,000 to someone who voted in the school board election in the city’s 5th district, a heavily-Latino area of Southeastern L.A. that also includes the neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz. The race was between an incumbent and a challenger, with little publicity and little else going on. “It was like going into the bowels of the earth to detect neutrinos,” says Gonzalez. “We didn’t want any other interference, so we could test this experiment.”

Gonzalez says no one supported him. Behind closed doors, Gonzalez suspects the whispers were the same as they are in every major city in America, including Philadelphia: Political leaders don’t really want more voters at the polls because they don’t really want change. “I say, Let’s give the rabble a chance,” he says.

The idea for Votería—a play on the Spanish word for lottery, “lotería”—originated with the city’s Ethics Commission, which was charged earlier this year with finding ways to increase voter turnout. One of their ideas—a cash prize—was soundly defeated by City Council. The commission then approached Gonzalez, who at first refused to consider it. But then March 3 happened. “They caught me in a weak moment,” he recalls. Continue reading

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