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.


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


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


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.


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


The Cost of Corruption

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

by Jeremy 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


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


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.



“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


Learning To Love Joe

Why Democrats should accept that Joe Sestak is running for Senate and get on with the business of governing

by Jeremy Nowak



In a 1959 Broadway musical about New York Mayor Fiorello LaGaurdia, local pols lament that their candidate beat the Tammany machine. Why were they upset that their guy won? Because he won without their help and could become too independent.

Traditional politics is built on a ledger of favors and debts. You want your guy or gal to win—but you also want them to owe you something.

But what if the political establishment, the headquarters for collecting debts and distributing favors, is not really needed? Then the whole system for ensuring loyalty and making collections changes.

We are seeing more examples of this as newcomers emerge from the margins to take out established candidates and as grassroots fundraising and social media upend the old pathways to power.

The security of established forms of power are not what they used to be. In Moises Naim’s brilliant book The End of Power, he describes the technological and civic forces leading to the devolution and decentralization of power and how those that seem to be in control are at greater risk than ever. It’s a great read.

Which leads me to the 2016 Senate race in Pennsylvania and candidate Joe Sestak. Sestak seems to be ignoring the Democratic establishment and running, much to their chagrin.

The Ed Rendell/David Cohen fundraising wing of the party never forgave Sestak for running against Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary, after they helped engineer Specter’s party switch. Party leaders thought Sestak should have kept his congressional seat. Waiting your turn is a big deal in political party systems; you put in your time on one level before jumping to the next.

I like Joe (full disclosure: I supported him in 2010), although I do not always agree with him, including on a few foreign policy issues. But mostly I love the way the guy runs for office. He just does it, without asking permission.

The incumbent Senator, Republican Pat Toomey, was elected in 2010, narrowly beating then-Congressman Sestak. Toomey won, but only by 80,000 votes in an election that featured a national Republican tsunami. Most observers thought Sestak did better than expected given the mid-term tidal wave.

The prospect of the November 2016 battle once again pitting Sestak against Toomey is driving many within the Democratic Party establishment haywire. So they keep looking for other candidates: first Josh Shapiro from Montgomery County (who declined), and now there are rumors of Katie McGinty, the Governor’s chief of staff.

Other names have been floated from the usual stack of familiar pols. The Mayor of Allentown jumped in but then jumped out again when the FBI raided Allentown City Hall; he apparently has other things to worry about at the moment.

What is the problem with Joe, you ask? Where’s the love? There seem to be three issues.

First, some in the party never forgave him for running against Arlen Specter in the 2010 primary; particularly the Ed Rendell/David Cohen fundraising wing of the party. They were close to Specter and helped engineer his switch from being a Republican to a Democrat, all with the idea that he stood a better chance of winning one more term as a D rather than an R.

In fact they were so upset when Sestak beat Specter that their support for Sestak in the general election was limited. Some in the Sestak camp thought they indirectly gave support to Toomey.

In 2010 Party leaders thought that Sestak should have kept his congressional seat (which was then lost to a Republican) and waited his turn. Waiting your turn is a big deal in political party systems; you put in your time on one level before jumping to the next place.

Bob Brady, the capo di tuttie capi of the Philly Dems, recently said he would back Katie McGinty 100 percent over Sestak, who he said did not have an honorable record with people like him. This is Philly ward leader code for “He did not do what I asked.”

Sestak was never that patient; nor was he all that politically compliant. A former three star admiral who served in the Clinton White House as the Director for Defense in the National Security Council, Sestak holds a PhD in political economy from Harvard. He had already paid dues in other ways. Continue reading


Ideas We Should Steal: Books Around the Block

Want to ensure that Philadelphia children can read? Let’s do what they did in Minneapolis: Get books into their homes

by Emma Eisenberg

Did your parents read you bedtime stories? Did they help you with homework? With filling out college or job applications? For some Philadelphians—nearly one in four adults are illiterate and nearly half are low literate—these tasks are difficult or impossible. And children aren’t faring much better: Only about half of 4th graders in Philly read at grade level—something not helped by the fact that most Philly public schools lack a functioning library with a full-time librarian.

Researchers have long connected children’s future literacy level to the income and educational attainment of their parents. This has led Philadelphia and other cities to emphasize placing school dropouts into GED programs or other school re-entry initiatives to boost literacy—and income levels—for future generations. One look at the stats makes clear that these approaches have not fully solved the problem.

Minneapolis is taking a different approach—and finding success.

John Vang

The Vang family with their new Little Free Library outside their apartment building

In 2012, Melanie Sanco, the grants director for Minneapolis Public Schools was struck by depressing literacy numbers, particularly in North Minneapolis, where the majority of the population lives at or below the poverty level. In looking for a solution, she came across 2010 research on literacy from the University of Nevada, Reno which offered an alternate view: It’s not the educational attainment of your parents that is the greatest predictor of academic achievement after all, the study said. It’s the number of books in your house.

“You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” says the study’s author, UN-Reno sociology professor Mariah Evans. Having as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact on a child’s level of literacy, and the effect increases with the more books you add. A child with parents who had only three years of school but has access to 500 books at home will achieve the same level of education as a child with parents who have had 16 years of school, the study says. Continue reading


New Blood: Revenge of the Nerd

Can Andrew Stober—a non-political technocrat once mentored by Michael Dukakis—jumpstart an Independent movement by running for City Council?

by Larry Platt

A few months ago, Andrew Stober started asking political people, “Am I missing something?” Since 2008, the 36-year-old Stober had been one of the faceless behind-the-scenes shapers of the Nutter administration’s policies. As Director of Strategic Initiatives of The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, and then as the department’s Chief of Staff, Stober, who holds a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says he was in the business of “making Philadelphia government work.”

Copyright Lindsay Docherty Photography http://www.lindsaydocherty.comBut, around the time that a handful of highly qualified challengers were vying for the at-large Democratic nominations to Council—ultimate winners Allan Domb and Helen Gym, not to mention impressive candidates like Paul Steinke, Tom Wyatt and Isaiah Thomas—Stober started wondering why no one was thinking of running for City Council in the general election, as an Independent. After all, per the Home Rule Charter, two Council seats are reserved for minority parties. The current occupants are Republicans David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, neither of whom are exactly imposing. All it would take, the smart thinking told Stober, is 45,000 votes for an Independent to capture one of those seats. Robo-calls and a press conference endorsement from Mayor Nutter ought to be able to deliver that.

“Council should be holding hearings and looking at best practices across the nation,” Stober says. “We need a Councilman who has done that, who has explored what works around the globe and how that can fit in a Philadelphia context.”

So Stober, who has been a registered Independent since 2013, announced his candidacy, at a time when the local zeitgeist might just be ready for a jolt.

It’s easy to read May’s primary Council results in cynical terms: The ascension of Domb and Gym is proof of nothing more than that he who spends the most and she who screams the loudest gets elected. Proof that all that matters in low-turnout elections is a modicum of name recognition. Stober thinks something deeper is afoot. Continue reading


What We Can Learn from the Phillies

Our baseball team has run a clinic on how not to run a company

by Jeremy Nowak



The business strategy of a sports franchise is a hot topic. Forget the business channel talking heads on CNBC or Bloomberg who argue about commodity prices, interest rates and the technology sector. If you want to hear vox populi discuss business strategy, tune into sports talk radio for real debates about strategy, management and competitive advantage.

Public information about sports has increased exponentially, and with it there has been a remarkable change in consumer expertise. The Internet has given us instant data access and cable outlets like ESPN have changed the way we think about the business of sports.

More importantly, the rise of fantasy leagues where fans get to play owner, make decisions like a general manager and compete against one another has made millions into imaginary business executives.

Can you name another business where consumers simulate ownership? Are there other parts of national life where people use data to evaluate outcomes about something that has nothing to do with their own welfare, families or careers?

Which brings me to the Phillies, our hapless baseball team. What can we learn from this awful season? A lot. It is a business case study in how an organizational culture can impede adapting to change.

When GM Ruben Amaro said the Phillies were not a “statistics-driven organization,” it showed an unwillingness to think that something you know nothing about will ever eclipse something you know a lot about. This is how organizations fail. They lack intellectual curiosity and are unwilling to challenge themselves.

A few months ago, ESPN ranked all professional sports teams based on their use of advanced analytics. The rankings covered four professional sports: baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. The Phillies were, predictably, last out of 122 teams.

To make their point about the insistence of the Phillies to stay out of the analytics competition, they used a 2010 quote from General Manager Ruben Amaro who bragged that his team is “not a statistics-driven organization by any means” and would likely never have “an in-house stats guy.”

Can you imagine the head of a company whose stock you own telling you the firm just does not like to use data? My advice would be to sell.

Amaro made this proclamation at a time when the team was at a high point in their success: The 2008 World Series victory had been followed by a 2009 World Series appearance. It all went downhill from there. Allowing success to undermine your ability to innovate or adapt to new circumstances is not an uncommon problem.

Success can be an intoxicant and thereby short-lived. Great companies do not assume that what got them to point A will get them to point B. It is never that simple.

Today, just a few brief years after Amaro made that statement, the team has the most losses in baseball. They could end the year with 110 losses, which would place them in the ranks of the top 10 for all time futility in the modern era.

Of the 21 top losing seasons in post-1900 baseball, the Phillies hold six of those spots and the old Philadelphia Athletics (now the Oakland As by way of Kansas City) hold 3 more. Losing we understand. How to get on top and stick around for a while is more elusive. Continue reading