Should Your City Be In The Banking Business?

Two mayoral candidates have floated the idea of a municipal bank. Sounds good, but it’s more complicated than you’d think

by Jeremy Nowak

jeremyTwo mayoral candidates, first Tony Williams and then Nelson Diaz, floated the idea of the city going into the banking business. What problem would a public bank solve and is this the best way to solve it?

One quick but too dismissive of a response is that a city that has trouble collecting taxes, inspecting buildings for public safety, funding schools, and keeping up with pension payments should probably stay out of the banking business and straighten out those issues first.

But candidates Williams and Diaz are pointing to an issue that deserves attention: Access to credit that can fuel economic growth. That’s an issue to take seriously.

But the discussion so far in this campaign has centered more on whose idea it was first—Williams has accused Diaz of stealing his municipal bank proposal—than on the idea itself. A “public bank” sounds good, but when you delve into the history of public banking in the United States, a whole host of questions come to the fore.

No doubt, the idea of a public bank has some popular appeal. After the banking crisis of 2007 and 2008, anti-banker populism hit fever pitch. The public investments in the large banks (some necessary, most not) and the public assumption of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage portfolios created a new reality. The federal government—like it or not—is the largest mortgage banker in the nation.

There is a tradition in American politics that views the expansion of credit as a central issue. Much of 19th and early 20th century American populism had the democratization of credit to struggling farmers as an important sub-theme.

This is the background to the fact that the only publicly owned bank in America is The Bank of North Dakota, a state-owned bank that grew out of rural populism. It was created in 1919 and is still an effective institution today; small by modern banking standards but effective. Its early history was portrayed in a remarkable film titled Northern Lights.

Today the North Dakota bank is an integral part of state government. It manages state deposits and works with other banks around economic development ventures. While it has its own specialty loan programs, it does not exist to compete with other banks, but to originate participation loans with private lenders.

The other example of a public banking system in the United States was the postal system, which for fifty years took deposits and offered a fixed rate of interest to American households. It provided a savings function, not a lending role.

The postal savings system began in 1911 and shut down in 1965. It is an idea that has been revived recently both as a way to potentially redefine the functions of the postal system and to meet the needs of unbanked Americans.

Postal banking is popular in many nations. The Japan Postal Savings Bank is the largest savings bank in the world. The idea was popular in the U.S. in the early twentieth century for two reasons: it was an era of large immigration (like today) by millions of people who used postal systems in other nations for savings, and in a pre-FDIC insurance period, the postal system had a security advantage.

Public sector banks exist throughout the world with mixed success. In some nations public sector banks have very large portfolios of non-performing loans. There are several banks in China in this position; in part because there were no incentives to stop financing state owned enterprises that were failing. Continue reading

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New Blood: The Update

We caught up with a couple of the at-large Council candidates we’ve profiled, and tried to reach an elusive third. How’s it going?

by Larry Platt

Tom Wyatt

Today, the neighborhood school activist and Dilworth Paxson partner will be flipping steaks at Pat’s King of Steaks as part of his #Wyattworks tour. Earlier this week, Wyatt released his jobs plan and he’s calling attention to it by visiting places where people work—and listening to what small business owners say they need from their government.

Tom Wyatt

Tom Wyatt

“The owner at Pat’s kind of nudged me in the stomach and said I already look like I’ve been eating too many of his sandwiches,” Wyatt laughed when I reached him yesterday afternoon.

You hear that a politician is releasing a jobs plan, and often the eyes glaze over: You think government assistance, bureaucrats training job-seekers, hand-outs. There’s none of that in Wyatt’s plan. In fact, Wyatt’s plan is mostly a call for tax reform, and effectively resurrects a bill sponsored a few years back by then-Councilman Bill Green and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez. “Yeah, no points for originality,” he says. “This is really a call for the market to expand.” In effect, like that (failed) bill, Wyatt says that what is keeping Philly from being competitive with cities like New York and Washington, D.C., is the double-whammy of taxing a businesses’ net-income—profits—and their gross receipts tax, or total sales.

“This tax structure causes a huge disincentive to locating or headquartering a business in Philadelphia, by double-taxing those businesses,” Wyatt writes. “Business taxes alone have made Philadelphia 19 percent more expensive to run a business compared to the suburbs.”

Wyatt would eliminate the net income tax in exchange for a temporary, small increase in the gross receipts tax, which applies to all businesses conducting transactions in the city, whether they’re located here or not. Wyatt argues that cities that have similarly cut their business taxes have grown jobs: New York by 3.2 percent, Washington, D.C., by 13.7 percent and Boston by 18.1 percent.

In other news, Wyatt is having a blast. “I’m keeping a journal so I can remember all the people who helped me get smarter,” he says. “It’s more clear to me now than ever the way that schools and jobs and tax policy are all tied together. I’m learning everyday.”

One other thing that’s crystallized for Wyatt is that Council members should always remember whom they work for. “In the forums, one of the things that has emerged is that the PGW hearing didn’t happen at least in part because everybody was abiding by a certain Council culture,” he says. “I think it’s important to have a collegial culture in a legislative body. But it’s also important to keep in mind you’re not a representative of City Council. You’re a representative of the city in City Council.”

Helen Gym

She has so far declined to speak with The Citizen, but this week longtime schools activist and educator Gym released an in-depth plan for funding the city’s schools. She sees a whole bunch of taxes in our future: She’d increase the Use & Occupancy Tax, tax parking lots and garages, and have large nonprofits go back to contributing PILOTS—Payments In Lieu Of Taxes. Continue reading

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Meet the Problem-Solver: The Teacher’s Teacher

While coaching student leaders, Paul Dean and Bobby Erzen of Jounce Partners discovered that the greatest way to impact a school’s overall culture is by empowering teachers. Now they’re  coaching teachers

A teacher in a rowdy classroom calls her students to attention. Then she starts her lesson. Emboldened, her voice gets louder. And louder. And louder. By the time she’s shouting, the students have stopped listening. So she starts all over again—and the cycle continues.

Jounce1-2A few years ago, Paul Dean, a teacher coach and co-founder of Jounce Partners, observed a teacher doing just the opposite. She spoke quietly to her students, pulling them in to the discussion as they leaned forward to listen. Those students learned—and so did Dean. Later, he practiced and refined giving a quiet lesson in front of an imaginary classroom, so he could teach the method in coaching sessions Jounce operates in 10 Philadelphia schools (and one in DC).

It’s quite different from what Dean set out to do with Jounce cofounder Bobby Erzen. Dean and Erzen were roommates while working for Teach for America in New Orleans. They moved to Philly after Dean’s wife started law school at Penn, and founded the Student Leadership Project in 2011 to coach middle school students on leadership skills.

“The idea was to train this small group of students who would then go on to improve the school,” Dean says.

It worked—to a point. Three times a week, SLP taught a group of 6th through 8th graders public-speaking, networking, team-building and presentation skills. Then they followed them into the classroom to see how well they used those new skills to keep their peers on task. In classrooms with strong teachers, the students succeeded. But when teachers struggled, so did the student leaders. They themselves failed to stay focused for more than five to 10 minutes—one of the skills they were supposed to model for their classmates. And Dean and Erzen found themselves having to correct their own student leaders’ behavior.

“We found that the strongest teachers were already doing this leadership skills training informally,” Dean says.

That’s when Dean and Erzen changed direction. For the last two and a half years, they have focused on coaching teachers. Their new name—Jounce Partners—reflects their philosophy: Jounce is a physics term that means the acceleration of acceleration.

“We had these two things we were doing and we figured out that one of them had a greater impact,” Dean says. “I wish that discovery had come a little quicker.”

Dean and Erzen, both in their 20s, do not have a lot of classroom experience. They learn what they know through observations of successful teachers, and research, then create a process with action steps that they can share with other teachers. Jounce meets with teachers in its partner schools for 15 minute sessions three or four times per week to discuss a teaching technique, then model it in front of the classroom and observe the teachers putting the method to use.

“We’re not experts on great teaching but trying to be experts on great coaching,” Dean says. “Whatever administrators want their teachers to get better at, we spend a lot of time working on improving those skills.”

THE CITIZEN: Tell me about the Jounce Partners.

Bobby Erzen: The mission of the Jounce Partners is two-fold: The global vision and mission is to systematically create a way to build positive culture at all schools; a culture where all kids have a thirst for learning. To get there, the second mission would be transforming the schools that we partner with and figuring out how to disseminate these ideas and get other schools to adopt. Not many folks purely focus on culture as a catalyst for academic achievement.

Paul Dean: We are really focused on quality. We don’t want “urban schools” to be a separate category anymore. Those considered the best urban schools are falling way short of the best non-urban schools. The best urban schools have been celebrated a lot, and for good reason, due to positive strides. We were teachers in New Orleans before we started Student Leadership Academy (now Jounce Partners) in Philadelphia. New Orleans has been held up as as a way to do things differently in urban education, but we know even the best of those schools are still not schools that I would send my kid or where all the students graduate from college. We want kids to leave the schools that they are in with a true desire to learn, an intrinsic motivation to learn, and the characteristics that will help them succeed in college. It all starts with finding ways to build a strong school culture.

THE CITIZEN: What does a strong school culture looks like?

PD: We broke it down into school culture progression. The ultimate goal is to have a character-driven culture. This is a culture where you can basically take a kid from one environment and place them in a different environment, where learning is not valued in the same way, and they have internalized that value of learning so much that they are going to be successful in that environment even when there are distractions. That’s the ultimate goal of this character-driven culture. The progression along the way is norm-driven culture. We want students to perceive how all of their peers are focused on and care about learning. Any time a kid looks around the room we want them to think, Wow these kids in this classroom really care about learning and are focused on learning.

THE CITIZEN: How do you create a norm-based culture in a school?

BE: To create a norm-based culture every single teacher needs to hold the kids to the same expectations. For example, a kid might walk into one classroom where the teacher has high expectations for the students and in a second classroom the teacher has low expectations for students. In this situation there is little in the way of norm-based culture. In a school with a norm-based culture all teachers hold students to the same level of expectations.

PD: Creating this norm-based culture starts to change self-concept and that is what we need to get to. Changing self-concept to “I am a learner, a person who loves learning and is invested in learning.” We believe it is impossible to change that self-concept unless a clear norm-based culture exists first. Continue reading

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The Mayoral MillenniaLab Video

Last Friday night, a sold-out crowd of Millennials and four mayoral candidates brainstormed solutions for the city.

by Larry Platt

Towards the end of our Mayoral MillenniaLab, a policy mashup last Friday night between invited Millennials and mayoral candidates, I talked about the genesis of this different type of mayoral event. As I’d written after the first debate, we’ve been frustrated by the types of questions candidates have faced so far this political season.

You’ve been frustrated!” guffawed candidate Jim Kenney. “Try answering ‘em!”

To our way of thinking, too much of the mayoral narrative has been either about the electoral competition, commonly referred to as the “horserace”—who’s up, who’s down, who’s fading—or has involved the rote recitation of policy clichés: Instead of doing the hard thing and talking real solutions for our schools, for example, each candidate checks the education policy box by trotting out the “full funding formula” mantra.

Along with Committee of 70, Young Involved Philly and the Pattison-Leader Group, we wanted to change the narrative. We convened four candidates—Lynne Abraham, Tony Williams, Doug Oliver and Jim Kenney—with more than 80 super-engaged Millennials and let them brainstorm economic growth ideas together, and then present their ideas to the room. (Nelson Diaz was unable to attend; Milton Street, well, who knows?) The ideas were good: Abraham’s group floated a mayoral executive order creating a youth advisory commission; Team Williams argued that companies that hold city contracts ought to be required to provide the city’s youth with paid, post-grad internships; the Oliver table talked about reforming school curriculum to highlight entrepreneurialism; and Kenney’s team —which, at 41 percent, won the vote for best idea—put forth ideas to combat the student debt problem in an effort to help young people stay in the city.

But more important than the ideas themselves was the process. For two hours last Friday night, a group of voters sat at the same problem-solving table with their mayoral candidates, and were able to judge them up close and personal on their listening and leadership skills. Here’s hoping the rest of the campaign sheds a similar amount of light.

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Penn’s Provocateurs

People are starting to ask whether the Ivy League school should contribute more to the city. And no one has been louder than an activist group of students

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

The students gathered on the steps outside President Amy Gutmann’s office last December, came armed—with a giant check, the better to send their message. The “check” was from Penn to the city of Philadelphia for $6.6 million—the amount the students contend the university should contribute in PILOTs (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) to support Philly public schools. And with that, the Student Labor Action Project had launched itself—and the university—into what has become a citywide debate about Penn’s responsibility to Philadelphia.

Chloe Sigal, left

Chloe Sigal, left

It’s a familiar position for SLAP, an old-style protest group on a campus known more for insularity than activism. A local affiliate of a national group, Penn SLAP—true to its name—usually takes on issues directly related to labor. It formed in 2005 to help the school’s Allied Barton security guards join a union, then did the same for dining workers at several dining halls around campus in 2013. Last school year, the group turned its focus to workers in Bangladesh—specifically, those who manufacture the branded tees and sweatshirts and hats sold at the Penn bookstore. Through a combination of diplomacy—meetings with Penn administrators—and actions like a candlelight vigil outside Gutmann’s house, they helped convince Penn to become the first university to require all of its clothing manufacturers sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Not bad for a “non-hierarchical” group of about 30 undergraduates.

This year, the group waded into the thorny—and complex—issue of PILOTS because, they say, it is an issue that affects not just workers at Penn, but every working class Philadelphian. “We are all about creating a city that works for working people,” says SLAP member Chloe Sigal, a Penn senior. “The city has all these pro-business policies that Penn takes advantage of. We wanted to open up the  conversation about who’s benefiting from these and who isn’t.”

Sigal has spent the last year boning up on the dry details of Philly tax policy, and speaks of the issue like a seasoned community activist. Which, in a sense, she is. She joined SLAP early in her freshman year after meeting some older students at an activities fair on Locust Walk. At the first meeting—back when SLAP was starting to work with dining hall workers—she was struck by a contrast most Penn students never notice. “I had exposure on one hand to most of the students at Penn who come from very high socio-economic circumstances, and to the staff, who were not even making a living wage,” Sigal says. “It resonated with me.”

Sigal and her cohorts at SLAP say that Penn is as much a business as an educational institution. It owns a hospital that grossed nearly $8 billion last year; has an endowment worth nearly $9.6 billion; pays its President, Amy Gutmann, $2.8 million. It is one of only two Ivies that don’t pay PILOTS (the other is Columbia). Harvard last year sent Boston $9 million.

The daughter of Argentinian immigrants who grew up in Cheltenham, Sigal says she was always vaguely aware that America was not always just for all people, partly from hearing family members complain about U.S. intervention in South America. “I always had some understanding that the American Dream might be rigged and exploitative to some people,” she says. Through SLAP, Sigal says she became politicized and understood that she could make a difference—a point reinforced by their successes over the last few years.

This time around, though, victory may be harder to come by.

The history of PILOTs in Philadelphia is pretty short: When Ed Rendell became mayor in 1996, he made a public call for major nonprofits to sign PILOT agreements with the city, using a combination of diplomacy and threats—essentially promising to question their nonprofit standing if they didn’t pay. “At the time, the city was broke,” says Donna Cooper, Executive Director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, and Rendell’s former Deputy Mayor of Policy and Planning. “He said we’re going to embarrass the nonprofits if they don’t step up.”

It worked: Penn, Drexel and the other eds and meds agreed to pay PILOTs, bringing in around $9 million a year. At the same time, they lobbied Harrisburg to change the law, making it far more difficult to threaten an organization’s non-profit status. Legal wrangling in the ensuing years—as well as the effort involved in collecting the funds—kept the issue off the table until 2013, when the state Supreme Court effectively voided that legislation.

Sigal and her cohorts at SLAP—working with Philly’s Jobs With Justice—make a strong case for why Penn, in particular, should contribute to the city’s coffers with an annual check. The largest private employer and private landowner in the city, Penn is as much a business as an educational institution. It owns a hospital that grossed nearly $8 billion last year; has an endowment worth nearly $9.6 billion; pays its President, Amy Guttman, $2.8 million. It is one of only two Ivies that don’t pay PILOTS (the other is Columbia). Harvard last year sent Boston $9 million (though, technically, Harvard is located in Cambridge). The $6.6 million amounts to just .1 percent of Penn’s budget, according to Gwen Snyder, executive director of Jobs With Justice. If Penn agrees to the demands, advocates contend others will follow suit—potentially delivering some $30 million to the city, according to Snyder. Continue reading

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“No More Ramen!”

Entrepreneur Morgan Berman turned her masters thesis into the sustainable living app MilkCrate through a combination of personal passion and deliberate collaboration. Now she’s expanding beyond Philly—and making payroll

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Sometimes, being a tech entrepreneur means assembling seed bombs on your living room coffee table. At least it does if you’re Morgan Berman, founder and CEO of MilkCrate, a sustainable living app which launched an updated version today. On Wednesday, Berman gathered her (as yet unpaid) MilkCrate team in her Fairmount living room—a bright plant-filled space that feels like a back patio—for a decidedly low-tech project: Hunched over a (dull) vintage paper cutter, they made labels out of eco-friendly paper, then tied them to cheesecloth wrapped around flower seeds—a literal “seed bomb.”

milkcrate -25It was very…Girl Scout troop, circa 1982. And also clever marketing: MilkCrate is the official app for the Philadelphia Farm and Food Fest on Sunday, providing participants who download the app with a guide to vendors and activities in the Convention Center. The seed bombs’ label directs people to the app, and will hopefully help spread the word—like wildflowers. “We got forget-me-nots,” Berman notes. “So people don’t forget us.”

That forget-me-nots are native to Pennsylvania makes them the perfect flower for MilkCrate. Born out of Berman’s own experience of trying to be eco-conscious in her lifestyle choices, MilkCrate is a guide to sustainable local living. The first version of the app, described as a “Yelp for sustainable living” when it launched in August, compiled a list of dozens of Philadelphia businesses, organizations and other resources that are eco-friendly—from the vegan eatery Hip City Veg to the local office of the Clean Air Council and local soap and candle maker Volta Market.

Instead of competing with RecycleBank and the Sustainable Business Network, Berman spent months pitching them MilkCrate and convincing them to share their directories with her, to create a one-stop-shop for eco-conscious living. The new, interactive version has searchable categories with profiles of more than 1,100 businesses and organizations.

The new version—and updates over the next several weeks—will have searchable categories with more than 1,100 businesses and organizations, with descriptions for each, including a map of all the bike sharing locations; a way to personalize the list through a “favorites” button; a mapping function; and more interactivity both within and outside the app, through Facebook and the like. MilkCrate in the summer will also launch in Colorado—where one of Berman’s co-founders has moved—and Asheville, North Carolina.

“A woman in Asheville heard about us, said she loved what we’re doing and sent us a list of all the sustainable businesses there,” says Berman. “Turns out, Asheville is a great place for this kind of thing.” By summer, the app also will offer a way for its businesses to advertise—the first step in turning MilkCrate into a profitable venture. Continue reading

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Change or Die

What do the Housing Authority, the Zoo and the Orchestra have in common? Leaders who embrace change

by Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

Recent columns in this space on the Philadelphia Foundation and the Community College of Philadelphia urged those institutions to think bigger and aim higher.

Both are in leadership transitions; CCP has a new President and the Philadelphia Foundation is recruiting one. New leaders can help re-think strategy and reenergize staff, boards, customers, and funders.

The rigor and thoughtfulness of selecting leaders tells us a great deal about governance. Are boards looking for continuity or disruption?  Are they willing to go outside their comfort zone in terms of candidates? Most importantly, what is their understanding about their current position and possibilities?

Much of our time has been spent worrying about and handicapping the mayor’s race. But we have as much stake in the management of important civic and public institutions as we do in who occupies City Hall. In a city where great things often happen despite backward politics, our ability to attract and support strong leaders to run key institutions can be decisive.

Much of our time has been spent worrying about and handicapping the mayor’s race. But we have as much stake in the management of important civic and public institutions as we do in who occupies City Hall.

Whether as CEOs, management teams, or board members, leaders have to be capable of asking fundamental questions about the quality of operations, the core functions of the organization, and the forward strategy.

The leadership transition several years ago with the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) is a case in point. We had the long public embarrassment of Carl Greene’s missteps and a somewhat shorter embarrassment with his immediate successor. Today’s PHA leader, Kelvin Jeremiah, has been at the helm for the past two years and seems to be doing a good job steering the once troubled agency.

The PHA board is capable but may not have all the real estate and finance experience it needs to effectively govern the fourth largest housing authority in the nation. PHA is the largest residential landlord in the state, serving some 80,000 renters. It lives on federal funds but is state chartered and locally governed. As we’ve seen, the wrong leader can manipulate those disparate accountabilities.

Getting it right and staying accountable matters, for tenants and for the neighborhoods they effect.  As the finances, management, and public credibility of the agency improves, there will be new questions to ask.

Atlanta is the first public housing agency to have torn down and rebuilt all of their projects. They now have rigorous tenant screening, social services, and job placement programs in effect. We do that here but we have room for improvement.

Moreover, in some cities (including Atlanta) they are asking fundamental questions once again about renter tenure. Public housing was originally created as temporary assistance and not life-long residence. That changed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but should we rethink all of that once again?

Because Philadelphia is an old city, we get hung up on being among the first, more so than wondering if we are among the best. Surviving is not always so hard in the nonprofit and public agency world; being great takes more work. Continue reading

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A Depressing Debate

Last night’s mayoral debate was a sad affair. But not because of the candidates.

by Larry Platt

I had been prepared to despair. We are, after all, a city with real challenges: the highest-taxed big city in the nation, highest poverty rate, highest per capita crime rate, an underfunded pension system about to cripple us. And yet, thus far in this election season, solutions to any – let alone all – of these substantive problems had hardly been seriously talked about.

Surely, this would be an opportunity to, uh, debate, right? To have some give and take about the challenges we face?

Am I alone in viewing last night’s debate as a missed opportunity along those lines? Maybe I’m influenced by having recently caught about twenty minutes of the seven-candidate United Kingdom prime minister debate. (Yes, I was watching C-Span; yes, I have no life.) In that scrum, the candidates actually engaged one another’s ideas, and they did so with wit and verve. More and more, what passes for debate in our political realm is either inane, or the reciting of pre-fabricated talking points. Last night had its share of both.

It wasn’t the candidates who bummed me out. I’d been prepared to be embarrassed by them, but instead I was embarrassed by the questions they were asked.

But this is not a criticism of the candidates. Jim Kenney, Anthony Williams and particularly Doug Oliver all impressed me as smart and mayoral. Kenney talked about bringing zero-based budgeting to city government (it remains to be seen if he’ll have the political guts to do it, because starting budgets from zero exposes their purely political claims), Williams talked about a “pro-growth” economic agenda, and Oliver smartly connected our Millennial population in an holistic way to the overall health of the region – instead of seeing them as just another interest group.

So it wasn’t the candidates who bummed me out. I’d been prepared to be embarrassed by them, and instead I was embarrassed by the questions they were asked.

Because we in the media love to cover politics like it’s a sporting event, let’s keep score. NBC-10 moderator Jim Rosenfield asked a total of 15 questions. I scored six of them as “Substantive” and an astounding nine as “Inane” – all to varying degrees. Let’s see if you agree.

The first question was, essentially, would you fund the shortfall in school funding by supporting Mayor Nutter’s 9.3 percent property tax increase? This is a substantive question, yes, but it’s important to note that it’s not a solutions-based one. It’s not, “How would you fix the schools?”  It’s really about politics and process. Still: 1-0, Substance. Continue reading

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The Citizen Recommends…

Reforming L&I

Sam Katz is at it again. On his website, Citizensam.net, he’s posted a lengthy prescription for the future of the ever-embattled Licenses & Inspections department. Documentarian that he is, he’s also posted a brief video. In building a case that reform at L & I is kinda long overdue, Katz harkens back to 1991’s One Meridian Plaza fire across from City Hall.  You’re left wondering if, at least when it comes to L&I, our city’s marketing slogan ought to be: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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New Blood: Matt Wolfe is Mad As Hell and Not Going To Take It Anymore

The longtime Republican gadfly has been tweaking the establishment of both parties for years. As an at-large candidate for City Council, he has declared war on the status quo

by Larry Platt

Matt Wolfe, the 58-year-old West Philly lawyer and Republican ward leader, had given up on the idea that he’d ever run for public office in Philadelphia. For one, there’s the insurmountable voter registration differential: Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 7 to 1. For another, in a corrupt one-party town, his outspokenness had often run him afoul of our bipartisan Unknownpermanent establishment, as when he penned an Inquirer op-ed quibbling with the conventional wisdom that it was an example of good government in action when Mayor Nutter dismissed 16 part-time rec center employees last year who were “double-dipping” because they were also employed by the School District. (The charter forbids city workers from holding more than one city job at a time.) Not so fast, Wolfe wrote, pointing out that Nutter gave a handful of his own deputy mayors two titles—essentially, two jobs—in order to get around Charter limits on pay. “It was the height of arrogance and hypocrisy,” Wolfe says now and wrote then —much to the chagrin of the let’s-not-rock-the-boat crowd, which includes stalwarts of both parties.

So Wolfe figured his public service would be relegated to his community activism in West Philly, where he lives with his wife, Denise Furey, and where they’ve raised two grown sons. But then Republican Governor Corbett nominated Bill Green to chair the School Reform Commission. Wolfe had had enough of his party settling for the crumbs of patronage; it was time to compete. “There’s a political aspect to this,” he says now. “Green is a good guy, but if you’re trying to build a stronger party, that’s a seat where a Republican could make some positive changes for people. It infuriated me, because it was an opportunity for the Governor to set up a Republican as an important civic leader.”

“A Democrat in Philadelphia is more likely to leave office by dying or getting indicted than by getting beaten at the polls,” says Wolfe. “That’s why we’ve gotten the Marge Tartagliones and Mark Cohens decade after decade.”

And then, with the help of Republican Councilmen David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, City Council refused to even hold hearings on the sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works to Connecticut-based UIL, standing in the way of a $1.8 billion windfall. “That was a colossal failure of leadership,” Wolfe says. “It was indefensible for any Councilman to stand in the way of selling PGW, but it’s particularly indefensible for a Republican to do so.” Continue reading

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