How To Speak American

With no formal training in phonetics or ESL, West Philly’s Rachel Smith has built a growing YouTube audience teaching foreign-born speakers how to talk like a native. The secret? Her friendliness and…opera

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

It was in Germany that Florida-born Rachel Smith first thought about what it means to speak like an American. An aspiring opera singer, Smith spent six months of 2008 in an intensive language program with fellow students from all over the world, including a young man from Turkey, who loved to talk with Smith about America and the English he grew up hearing in Hollywood movies. As they spoke, Smith started informally correcting his accent, in particular around sounds he didn’t have in his native Turkish, like the short A, as in bat: She opened her mouth wide, demonstrated the sound, and then told him to keep his tongue high in back and low in front.

“He made the sound perfectly after that,” Smith recalls. “And then he said, ‘Oh, you’re really good at that.’”

Smith, who graduated college with a triple major in music, computer science and applied math, had been looking for a reason to build herself a website while she was in Germany. Suddenly, she had one. In her apartment after class, Smith sat in front of her computer, turned on the camera and started filming herself pronouncing words in American-inflected English. Then she loaded the videos on to YouTube, where she explained (to a nonexistent audience) the mechanics of, for example, the short O, of dog: Tongue down all the way, like when a doctor is looking down your throat.

Rachel’s English is now a bustling YouTube business with 370 live videos, 280,000 subscribers and 100,000 Facebook fans. In addition to online seminars, Smith offers one on one online tutoring, and she has just published her first e-book, American English Pronunciation.

This was before social media was the giant it is, and Smith at first had no viewers at all. Slowly, though, an audience built up through people searching for pronunciation help on YouTube. Now Rachel’s English is a bustling YouTube business with 370 live videos, 280,000 subscribers and 100,000 Facebook fans. Smith, who moved to West Philly in early 2014, earns enough from Rachel’s English to live on (modestly). And now, she’s branching out. In addition to online seminars, Smith offers one on one online tutoring with her or a colleague, and she has just published her first e-book, American English Pronunciation, which she plans to launch on her site this month. She has several other books, on specific topics, planned out. And she is busy developing more and varied content to draw in even more viewers in the coming months. Continue reading

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The Wisdom Of Workshops

At The Workshop School, students spend their school days solving real-world problems—and learn to be better citizens along the way

As an after school coordinator at West Philly High in the late 90s, Matthew Riggan became increasingly frustrated by what he saw as the basic inability for the school to meet his students’ needs. Year after year, he saw students from broken down neighborhoods try to learn in classroom settings that were not designed for the world we live in today. And he saw that it wasn’t working.

What did work? One after school program, Philly Hybrid X, run by electrical engineer-turned-teacher Simon Hauger, who consistently led his group of West Philly students to the top tier of hybrid car competitions nationwide. Hauger and Riggan—along with teachers Michael Clapper and C. Aiden Downey—saw the students transformed by the experience.

In 2013, Riggan and the others took the lessons of that program and formed the Workshop School, which this year has 91 students in grades 9 to 12. The school’s project-based curriculum splits the day in two: Traditional English and math classes make up about one-third of the day; the rest is spent working on projects that solve real-world problems. Hauger’s Hybrid X team is at the school, along with other automotive instructors. Other students have designed easily-transportable emergency housing kits, pedestrian-friendly lighting for 52nd Street and a music studio.

The Workshop School is like others in the city that focus on project-based learning—most notably, Science Leadership Academy, a city magnet school. But it is a lottery-based general admission high school, open to everyone, whose focus is not just on getting kids into college—indeed not all will attend college—but in teaching them to succeed in life.

“It produces the kind of citizens, the kind of human beings, and the kind of scholars we want for the rest of the world,” says Clapper.

Watch this video from documentary filmmaker Lauren Flick to learn more about the Workshop School.

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When Racial Math No Longer Adds Up

The lesson of yesterdays election is less about Jim Kenneys victory than it is about Anthony Williams defeat.

 by Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

The conventional wisdom made sense: When one high profile African-American (Tony Williams) runs against two well-known white candidates (Jim Kenney and Lynne Abraham), the African American candidate wins. How could it not be?

In 2015, conventional racial math had two things going against it: the candidates and the campaigns. Most surprisingly, those that counted on the old racial math missed the meaning of Michael Nutters 2007 primary victory.

In 2007, Nutter won out in a crowded field that could have divided the African American vote three ways to deliver the election to one of the two white candidates. Instead, Nutter put together a strong multi-racial coalition and squeaked by.

Nutter ran as an urban reformer wanting to take on entrenched politics. Whatever you think of his accomplishments since, he ran a successful campaign that spoke to the city as a whole. It harkened back to Rendell’s 1991 financial crisis campaign. Nutter won because he ran against the system more than the other candidates, black or white.

The African American electorate in 2007 rejected lackluster campaigning by Chakah Fattah and Dwight Evans, two well-known African American candidates who had strongly delivered for their constituents as legislators.

But neither was viewed as particularly mayoral. Neither worked the growth areas of downtown neighborhoods, University City, or gentrifying sections of South and lower North Philadelphia. They stayed in their lanes, and those lanes led to marginal numbers.

In 2015, Williams could have learned from Nutter’s 2007 coalition, comprised of new urbanites (attracted by amenities in core neighborhoods), good government types (tired of ethics scandals), and the African American middle class, particularly in sections of West and Northwest Philadelphia. But Williams didn’t follow the road map Nutter left him. Instead, despite his one city mantra, his campaign focused on the African American community to the exclusion of a broader coalition.

Nutter voters spent much of the past year looking for a candidate to support. In the end, they decided Jim Kenney represented the closest thing to a third Nutter administration. They made the decision with some trepidation (was it the new Kenney or the old Kenney?) but neither Tony Williams nor Lynne Abraham gave them a reason to vote otherwise.

Kenney ran a nearly flawless campaign, managed by skilled campaign and media professionals. He kept one foot solidly in old Philadelphia, and the other foot in the new urbane Philadelphia of arts, bike lanes, LGBT rights, energy sustainability, government ethics and citizen engagement.

Note to future candidates: The new urbanites are also multi-racial.

A 23-year Councilman at large, this was not Jim Kenney’s first citywide campaign; it was his seventh. He knows every part of the city. The Irish Catholic Councilman from South Philly has learned to add new constituencies to his repertoire, while holding on to the supporters who first brought him to Council.

Williams ran a campaign managed by close-in loyalists without substantial citywide campaign experience. They were immune to contrary voices regarding tactics and strategy, even as it became clear they were moving in the wrong direction. Continue reading

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Meet The Disruptor: Molly Hayward

The 27-year-old Fishtown entrepreneur hopes to jumpstart a movement by getting women to think about their periods in a new way—while helping girls across the globe

by Larry Platt

You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Molly Hayward is conducting a social experiment. She’s at the bar in Washington Square’s Talula’s Garden, sipping a drink and looking a little pensive. “I think I need to check,” she says, excusing herself to the ladies room.

Hayward, you see, is much more than a much-ballyhooed 27-year-old entrepreneur. She’s the quiet but driven leader of a burgeoning movement, and today’s social experiment is one she’s hoping to entice her customers into following: She has her period and is not using any feminine product.

Molly and SikinanWhen she returns from the ladies room, she flashes the thumbs-up sign. All’s good; the folded-over cotton Sari she’s using—the same cloth a girl in India might use, due to the lack of feminine hygiene products—hasn’t soaked through yet. “It’s a light flow so far,” she says. “Even so, walking over here, I was terrified I was going to bleed through my clothes. I’m going to be refolding and worrying about it all day.”

Huh? What kind of movement might this be? It is, as Hayward envisions it, a movement of female empowerment. A couple of years ago, during a trip to Kenya, Hayward noticed a young girl staying behind while others went to school. When she asked the girl why, Hayward was struck by the response: “I have my period.”

“I think business can be the catalyst for social change,” says Hayward. “Our value proposition is to get women to think about the products they’re using, but also to change the way we think about menstruation—as something dirty—when it’s the most natural thing in the world.”

That sent Hayward researching. She found that there is no such thing as safe feminine hygiene products; that the products most Americans buy are sprayed with pesticides and made with bleach, and can harm the environment and, in some cases, lead to toxic-shock and cancer. Then, laying on her parents sofa in Swarthmore, she read a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times that detailed how, in many developing countries, girls don’t even have access to such products. They miss one out of every four weeks of school, either due to the lack of sanitary pads—in India, newspapers or animal dung are often used—or because menstruation is stigmatized as dirty and shameful, subjecting young girls to a perpetual opportunity and achievement gap.

So what did Hayward do? A self-described capitalist who believes in the power of markets to solve social problems because “we can’t ask non-profits to do it all,” Hayward came up with a business plan. Cora, and its slogan “Woman for Woman, Month for Month,” was born. Cora is a subscription service that, each month, sends its members in the United States a customizable package of safe, organic sanitary pads, tampons, chocolate and tea, ranging from $15 to $35 a month. Borrowing from the one-for-one business model popularized by TOMS shoes and Warby Parker eyewear, for each customized package bought in the United States, the equivalent number of sanitary napkins is sent to girls in India. Continue reading

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GO VOTE! Even If You’re Uninformed Or Uninterested.

Vote for anyone. Literally, anyone. You’ll be better off for it.

by Stephen St. Vincent

Voter turnout in Philadelphia, especially during city elections, is depressingly low. In May of 2013, only 11.4 percent of registered voters actually bothered to vote. There are a ton of reasons why. Sometimes, there aren’t any interesting races (looking at you, 2013!). Often, people have no idea who the candidates are or how to tell them apart. You can just forget about the judicial elections, with scores of anonymous candidates running for dozens of positions with little future public accountability. And for many people, especially the cynical among us (guilty as charged), we feel like politicians just don’t care about us, and so choosing between one candidate who doesn’t care and another who doesn’t care feels like an exercise in futility.

If you’ve ever found yourself not voting for any of these reasons, I have one thing to say: I hear you, and I don’t blame you. This is not about whether or not voting is the right thing to do. I’m interested in something much more sinister: subverting the system.

I’ll give it to you straight. Politicians care about two things: money, and money. They need money to help them get re-elected so that they can keep making money. Money helps buy votes. Money builds political machines that get voters to turn out for them. And for the most part, politicians don’t really care who gets screwed along the way.

I don’t care who you vote for or why. Neither do politicians. A completely uninformed vote counts just as much as the vote of someone who follows Philadelphia politics so closely that it borders on masochism. And politicians can’t tell the difference!

When it comes to elections, politicians care about counting to a number higher than their opponent. They want to use their money—the thing they hold most dear—as efficiently and effectively as possible. That means that they need to target their money into TV ads, mailers, phone banks, and sample ballots that will turn out the largest number of supporters.

Supporters, of course, are voters. When politicians decide where to target their efforts, they look for large chunks of the population that are likely to vote. Racial, ethnic, religious, and age-based groups are all great examples. The larger the group, and the larger the voter turnout within that group, the more attention politicians will pay to them. Unions, for example, contain enormous groups of voters who make themselves heard with their money and their votes. Small groups, and groups with low turnout, get little to no attention.

Unfortunately for politicians, they have to actually do some governing between elections. And they know that whatever decisions they make while “doing” their actual “jobs” will go a long way to determining which chunks of voters they can count on in the next election. So, where do they target their policies? To the large chunks of voters who turn out in high numbers. Who do they ignore? Small groups and groups that don’t vote. Continue reading

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The Job Interview

Something’s been missing from this mayor’s race: The questions an employer would ask a job applicant

by Larry Platt

Last month, at the “Mayoral MilenniaLab” we hosted along with Committee of 70, Young Involved Philadelphia and the Pattison Leader Group, I said something that unintentionally drew some knowing guffaws from the mayoral candidates in attendance. “I’ve been frustrated by the questions being put to the candidates this election season,” I said, prompting Jim Kenney to practically snort: “You’ve been frustrated!”

Since then, I’ve spoken to many of the candidates, and the one sentiment all seem to share is this sense that, for one reason or another, this campaign never really broke through the pop culture ambient noise that so often distorts our public narrative. Just this week, Mustafa Rashad, campaign chair for Doug Oliver, penned a piece for Al Dia critiquing the media coverage of the race. Now, every campaign in political history has criticized the media covering it—even Obama in ’08, and that was as close to a lovefest as ever had been. It’s part of the job description. So some of the candidate frustration is to be expected.

But I think there’s something else going on, because I’ve felt it, too. I’ve attended a couple of forums, watched a couple of the debates. Each candidate has done his or her homework. Yet, more often than not, they’re asked to respond to inanities—did Nelson Diaz steal Tony Williams’ community bank idea?—or they’re queried about their political strategy, ie, the “horserace,” or they’re forced to respond to sweeping policy questions in 45 seconds. I think that’s what Kenney and the others were sighing about: You try solving poverty in 45 seconds.

“A leader has to lead,” says Abraham, “and I am, and always will be, a strong leader who makes the ultimate tough decisions after being informed of all the issues and facts.”

My sense is that, as happened eight years ago, we’ve failed to ask the questions that are the best predictor of mayoral job performance. We haven’t treated this campaign as a city-wide job interview in which we’re the employer.

In retrospect, that’s where we came up short back in 2007, the last time we had a contested mayoral election. Only a couple of months before the Democratic primary, you’ll remember, it had been a foregone conclusion: Chaka Fattah was going to be the next mayor of Philadelphia. At least, that’s what all the self-appointed smart people said.

“Voting against DROP lost me the support of all three municipal unions, including my father,” says Kenney. “And I nearly lost my seat that year, coming in fifth place in the Council at-large race.”

But then Michael Nutter, at one point running a distant fifth in the polls, showed an acumen for policy in the debates. And when he ran a commercial starring his daughter that pulled at the electorate’s heartstrings, Nutter surged; running as a reformer and promising a “New Day,” he won.

For those of us who supported him but ended up vaguely disappointed by Nutter, we now wish we’d asked some important questions. Foreshadowing the presidential election that would take place the following year, we covered Nutter’s campaign more like a social movement phenomenon. He spoke stirringly of turning the page on how the city had been operating; we just forgot to inspect his operational chops.

“I stood up to the trial lawyers who supported me in my campaign and voted against them on Tort Reform,” says Williams.

Had we covered that campaign with an eye toward predicting job performance, there would have been in-depth pieces and conversation about Nutter’s relationship with his brethren on City Council, none of whom supported him. Was that a harbinger of the gridlock that was to come? Did Nutter have the political skills to get things done? It’s a question that wasn’t asked enough in 2007, and should have been. But many of us, yours truly included, were more taken by the fact that he had a daughter in public school, knew the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight” and was committed to ethics reform. We didn’t stop to think: We’re hiring a Chief Executive Officer. So what’s this legislator ever run?

It kinda feels like déjà vu all over again. So I reached out to Kenney, Williams and Abraham and asked the questions I don’t think have been asked frequently enough. Let’s compare and contrast their responses. (All questions and responses came via email).

The Citizen: Can you provide one specific example where you’ve used political skill to solve a problem, i.e. where you’ve brought warring factions together or somehow managed to bridge a divide in service of the common good?

Kenney: Both the Police Commissioner and Mayor Nutter were initially opposed to marijuana decriminalization, but through compromise, we were able to enact a law that drastically reduced the number of small amount of marijuana possession arrests and, in turn, prevented many young people from being saddled with a criminal record, which cuts off employment and educational opportunities.

Williams: The cigarette tax that finally created a source of funding for the Philly schools. I brought a bipartisan vote together to get it done over two years. It’s something Governor Rendell couldn’t get done.

Abraham: I fought a very long and contentious battle to change the Constitution of Pennsylvania so very young children witnesses of tender years would no longer have to testify ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with someone they had, for example, seen murder a parent…Children would stop testifying while the accused was glaring at them…After many years, we passed an amendment so that now the trial judge makes a determination after a hearing if the child witness has to testify face to face or can testify via closed circuit TV with counsel present, but the accused watching from a remote location. Continue reading

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Jeremy Nowak on solutions, journalism and civic engagement

Last week, Citizen chairman and columnist Jeremy Nowak was the featured guest on the Knight Cities Podcast, an ongoing conversation about civic innovation hosted by the Knight Foundation. In it, Nowak described the mission of The Citizen to create a new type of journalism that sparks civic engagement for Philadelphia. As Nowak put it: “We’re using The Citizen as a platform to help people become… more active citizens who understand issues and who can be given the tools to participate in the solutions to problems in the city. It’s a kind of journalism that views the story as the beginning of an event, and not the end of an event.”

To hear Nowak discuss The Citizen, listen to the podcast here.

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Cabs, Carpenters, and Comcast

The unexpected perils of monopoly in Philadelphia

by Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

Jeff Benjamin, the COO of the Vetri family of restaurants, has written a fabulous book entitled Front of the House.  It is about much more than the restaurant business, although it is a great restaurant business read.

Front of the House also uses the restaurant business to talk about the art of customer service in all its complexity and nuance, its humor and skill.

I would recommend the book for all service industries, but in Philadelphia I would start with the taxicab industry, the carpenter’s union, and Comcast. They could all use a dose of Jeff Benjamin’s wisdom and wit.

In all three instances, they have allowed their monopoly to devalue the importance of service. This in turn has made it easier for new products and options to fill a service vacuum. In very different ways and at very different scales they are writing their operating obits.

It does not have to be this way and for the sake of hard working cabbies and carpenters and a city that has profited greatly from having a corporation like Comcast call us its hometown, I hope they adapt to a changing environment.

Let’s begin with taxis.  The taxi business is a regulated utility in Philadelphia, as it is in the rest of the nation. Taxis are licensed and inspected for such things as car wear, driver knowledge, meter accuracy, and insurance coverage. Part of the regulation involves intentional limits to the number of medallions that are granted.

The effect of the monopoly means it is too often acceptable to offer low quality service: cars that are not clean, drivers that do not know the city, cars that will not take credit cards, and vehicles in a high level of disrepair.  Who do we blame? The regulator? The cab owners? The drivers who rent from the owners?  Or the general market condition of local cab profitability that impedes reinvestment?

There is blame to go around, and also praise for those who try to do the right thing, even when they seemingly do not have to. After all this is a tough business and cabbies that drive our streets do not make much money. Moreover, cab drivers regularly appear on the list of jobs with the highest murder rates.

The cab industry is in the early stages of disruption through on-demand ride services such as Uber and Lyft, which threaten to break up the old utility. In Philadelphia you can see the effect through the loss of medallion value. Only a few years ago it was expected that a medallion would fetch $475,000 and just recently three were sold for $80,000 a piece.

Forget the failed Time-Warner merger! That was merely a symptom. The problem is Comcast has grown through rapid acquisition and its monopoly position. It has not had to build a customer service or innovation culture that will work in an increasingly competitive industry.

Is this just another example of technology breaking up old systems? Yes and No. Cab companies could easily use the same technology if they adapted their business model. It’s also a matter of a system that delivers low quality service being challenged for market share. Nothing too unusual in that, actually.

The reaction to Uber most everywhere has been predictable. There are bans in some cities, court battles in many others, and a war of words regarding the hazards of unregulated service. Eventually the push to ban those services will be hard to support if the insurgent companies get customer service and pricing right. If their service fails, they will fail, no matter how much venture capital piles into them.

In a remarkable memo from the taxicab’s regulator to the cab owners and drivers in its jurisdiction, the Executive Director of the Parking Authority warned cab owners to upgrade their services or continue to face the erosion of market share. The cab industry as we knew it is over, but not cabs. They can still adapt and hopefully they got the message this time.

In the annals of bad customer relations it is hard to outdo the carpenters union’s efforts to disrupt the competitive position of Philadelphia’s convention and tourism business. Philadelphia has always had a building trades monopoly enforced by civic tradition, regulation, machine politics, and intimidation. Continue reading

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Meet The Disruptor: David Fine

The 25-year-old owner of Schmear It is a food cart operator with a social conscience

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

The first time David Fine parked his bagel van off Penn’s campus, he realized right away that he was providing a much-needed service—though it wasn’t exactly the “good” he was hoping to do with his business. It was a Sunday morning about a year ago on Locust between 41st and 42nd streets. A group of Penn students walking by stopped suddenly in front of Fine, who was peering out the window of his bright red food truck, Schmear It.

“I’m so hungover,” one of them declared. “And this is a bagel truck, right here? Am I dreaming?”

SchmearIt_WEB-8Those students were among Schmear It’s earliest customers, a small test audience that proved one of Penn grad Fine’s start up theories: Penn desperately needed good bagels. But the students that day probably didn’t notice that Fine’s mission goes far beyond bagels and specialty toppings.

With every bagel Fine sells, the 25-year-old entrepreneur is also raising money for charities in Philadelphia—a few cents at a time. Since opening his truck in August 2013, he has given approximately $5,700 to around 30 different Philly nonprofits, each of whom gets the proceeds from two weeks of sales. So far, the payouts are small: In the range of $150 to $200 each, which charities can take as cash or in catering for an event.

For now, Schmear It’s profits are small, too, as Fine works to pay off his truck, and his five part-time employees. (He pays himself mostly in bagels.) But business is growing steadily: Fine sells out his bagels at Penn four days a week, at festivals and events on weekends, at the Navy Yard and in LOVE Park a couple days a week. (He tweets the location of the Schmear It van every day.) Next winter, he will open his first brick and mortar store in the new University City Science Center building at 3601 Market Street. And he says—between learning the ropes of the food truck business and trying to create fresh, delicious meals for his customers—he has dreams of a Schmear It empire. “Would I like to see Schmear It as the next Starbucks?” he says. “That would be pretty cool. I think what we do is what the modern consumer is looking for.” Continue reading

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We Can Handle It

Why Philadelphians can, despite the conventional wisdom, be trusted to elect a competent school board

by Jim Saksa

It is election time again in Philadelphia, a season where condescending attitudes over the average voter return with all the regularity of the swallows of Capistrano.

A large subset of Philadelphia’s politicians and media buy into a persistent and pernicious myth that Philly voters are a mix of the indolent, the injudicious and the iniquitous; that many elections are won by buying the right ward leaders and union bosses with job promises, even when they show no promise for city jobs.

It is assumed that voters, universally and always, will do precisely as they’re told by little pieces of paper handed to them by a stranger hanging out next to the polls.

There are plenty of bygone reasons for these foregone conclusions about Philly’s sheep-like electorate. But more recent events and a serious look at the assumptions underpinning this viewpoint make it as untenable as it is unattractive.

Consider the largely negative responses last October to then-candidate Tom Wolf’s proposal to replace the appointed School Reform Commission with an elected school board, a proposal that Nelson Diaz has endorsed and that some other mayoral candidates haven’t completely shut the door on yet.

Other candidates, notably Jim Kenney and Tony Williams, say they believe the school board should remain appointed. Their argument was best made by that éminence grise of Philadelphia political reporting, Dave Davies: “Establishing an elected school board in Philadelphia will not empower parents and their communities. It will put the selection of our school board members in the hands of the same people who pick judges, state legislators, sheriffs and city commissioners in this town: Democratic ward leaders.”

Davies was echoing former School District Interim CEO Phil Goldsmith: “As for democracy Philadelphia-style, all you have to do is look at the meager turnout for our municipal races to realize that our elections are largely determined not by the ‘people’ but by a handful of power brokers…. If you want to get a glimpse of what the Philadelphia School District as envisioned by Wolf might look like, consider the composition of City Council and row offices like sheriff or the city commissioners.”

Why do so many assume that an elected school board will be nothing more than party hacks who will do as they’re told? It’s more likely that we would see more political antagonism than cronyism. An elected School Board would be puissant, not pusillanimous, in its exercise of political power.

It’s no accident that both men focused on row offices like sheriff and city commissioner, and that Davies mentioned judges—Philadelphia has elected some top-notch losers to fill these seats.

The election of row offices and judges fails what James Madison called the “aim of every political constitution” in Federalist No. 57, namely: “first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society, and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

By electing city commissioners – who run city elections—we’ve gotten one who doesn’t bother to vote, and another who failed to get on the ballot. By electing sheriff, we have an office associated more with FBI investigations than competent service. And when it comes to judicial elections—a problem statewide, not just in Philly—we’ve gotten crooks and the incompetent,  undermining faith in our judicial system as a whole.

But before we simply give the Philly Shrug again and lament our general democratic ineptitude, it’s worth asking a simple question: Why? Continue reading

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