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