From Choice to Action: Pathway for the Next Mayor of Philadelphia

Sometimes the pundits and pollsters make predictions on elections, and the citizens cast votes that prove them wrong. Such was the case this week, when John Street defeated Sam Katz in the mayoral election in Philadelphia. It was a race watched closely around the country because its outcome says a lot about the fate of America’s cities.

As a former member of the District of Columbia financial control board, I saw this contest as crisis election, one that was in some ways similar to the election of our mayor, Anthony Williams.

Everyone around the country is looking for a city that can act as a laboratory of urban reform—a city representative of the nation’s present and future, in which all the bright ideas of urban reformers can be tested and weighed. Philadelphia has many of the marks of such a city, and Street’s challenges are those of many an American mayor.

All the elements of a modern-day urban coalition—working-class whites, blacks, liberals, traditional machine politicians and unions—are present in Philadelphia. Philadelphia represents the kind of diversity likely to be the face of governance for our cities in the early part of the next century. The next mayor will have the opportunity to get this coalition to work together and lead this diverse city through its difficulties.

Certainly, the election just past was an encouraging sign that civility can persist in the midst of diversity. Katz and Street must be applauded for the way they conducted their campaigns. They dealt with substance over slogans, and they took the high road on volatile issues like race and class. In so doing, they were able to maintain civility, clarify the issues, and produce a more united Philadelphia. Political campaigns in other cities should take notice.

Philadelphia, again like other cities, has an uneasy relationship with its richer, less diverse surrounding suburbs. Suburban sentiments drove much of the debate over the wage tax and the school system. Street can’t afford to alienate the suburbs. Suburbanites may not vote, but they do come to work in the city, and their tax and leisure moneys help the city go.

Many are watching to see how John Street manages the many claims that immediately will be made on him by his constituencies. Every interest group that supported Street (and some that did not)—the unions, blue collar white voters, a significant number of white liberals, a whopping 94 percent of the black voter turnout, school activists, you name them—will declare that a part of that victory belongs to them. The challenge for Street, as for the mayors of many contemporary cities, is to choose which promises to make and which to avoid making.

Speaking of promises, three Street should keep are those he made to reduce the wage tax, reform the public schools and help the neighborhoods.

The citizens will expect the mayor to reduce the wage tax, which is thought partly responsible for 150,000 residents fleeing the city in the last decade. Reducing the wage tax will provide an incentive for many to stay in the city and for others to think about moving back. At the same time, the mayor has to find ways to make up for the revenue shortfalls the cut may create.

Street should work to build relationships in Harrisburg on funding public education. He can’t do much otherwise. He can also send a signal by appointing the best people to sit on the school board. Take a look at how Chicago Mayor Richard Daley dealt with school governance when the Illinois legislature turned the schools over to him. The results are reasonably impressive. He must also find a way to raise teacher pay to be competitive with salaries in the suburbs, and reducing class size.

And Street must focus on rebuilding the neighborhoods. Tourists who visit Center City are impressed. Even the Republican National Convention will hold its meeting in this fair city. But outsiders find a completely different city when they wander out to the neighborhoods, where the blight is as bad as that in inner cities across the nation. That’s where many of the working-class whites and blacks who rushed to John Street’s aid in the rain and wind on election day live, day in and day out. Keeping promises to these residents will be critical.

It seems tough, but challenges very much like these face many mayors today. Street can learn from them, and they from him. Perhaps Philadelphia’s new mayor can make this the laboratory of urban reform that everyone is looking for.