Street’s legacy depends on bold moves

Most American cities are on greased skids, and what distinguishes one from the other is the angle of descent. Despite the comeback of their downtowns, the first recession will reveal just how fragile their recoveries have been. Philadelphia is no exception, and Ed Rendell knew it well. Our former mayor believed he inherited a patient suffering from a gunshot and cancer, and although the wound was successfully healed, the patient is still dying of cancer.

As the new attending physician, John Street must go beyond the policies of the Rendell administration. Prescribing the right medicine will be even more difficult than it was eight years ago because Philadelphia is not in acute fiscal distress, and the attention of its citizens is not focused on sacrifice and fundamental change.

Ed Rendell did an extraordinary job. It may well be that he did all that was possible at the time.

Rendell’s strengths and weaknesses spring from the same source: He is a brilliant politician. That is why he was able to build a successful partnership with City Council (something painfully absent throughout the Green and Goode administrations). It may also help explain why after battling so successfully with the city’s unions at the start of his administration, he avoided subsequent fights. Some things cannot be done by someone who wants to help a Democratic president win reelection by maintaining labor peace. Some things cannot be done by someone who wants to become governor.

Another approach

And herein lies John Street’s greatest opportunity. He is not seeking higher office and he may desire to go down in history as the second punch in the powerful “one-two” combination that saved Philadelphia. But success will require radical departure from past practice.

Half a century ago, business, civic and professional groups built a coalition with a shared philosophy about the appropriate role of local government. Their vision energized working- and middle-class voters, who made up a far larger share of the electorate than they do today, and their money and support made a difference in the elections. They were the foundation on which Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth built the Philadelphia “Renaissance” and gave the city its reform charter in 1951.

But big cities like Philadelphia no longer have these large “good government” constituencies. In the vacuum created by their diminished presence, public-sector labor unions and political organizations that use patronage in place of citizen volunteerism now enjoy disproportionately greater political power.

Self-interest superseded civic values

Although union rhetoric will include much about what’s good for the city, or what’s good for the students, their job is “to bring home the bacon.” That usually puts them at odds with proponents of “good government,” who have always been concerned with the “long term” and who talk these days about competitive bidding of all city services and accountability for workers and teachers measured in terms of outputs rather than inputs. The policies that triumph are determined not by debate on their merits, but by raw political power.

It may well be that in order to secure his election Mayor Street has already made commitments to the unions that tie his hands. But without major concessions, it is unlikely that we will see the kinds of structural and cultural changes necessary to continue the transformation of Philadelphia’s government and its schools. And without these changes, we will fail to inspire confidence in the suburbs and in Harrisburg on which support for intergovernmental aid depends.

Ted Hershberg, Ph.D., is professor of public policy and history and director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia.

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Originally published on January 20, 2000