The Philadelphia 2015 mayor's race is starting to remind me of Yogi Berra's famous observation about the left field shadows in the old (i.e., real) Yankee Stadium, that "it gets late early out there." No doubt it's technically early -- the filing deadline for candidates won't come for a month, and maybe somebody else wonderful will jump in (although the fact that no name even occurs to me is telling.) And yet it feels late out there -- that the candidates, the issues, and maybe the fate of the city's zeitgeist for the rest of the 2010s is locked in.
There's a lot this election could be about -- Philadelphia's rate of deep poverty, said to be highest in the land, how to move policing out of the stop-and-frisk era, or how to bring make the city's comeback touch all neighborhoods and not just the ones with hipster coffee hangouts. But, no, they -- not me or you, but they -- decided that the race is going to be about charter schools.
Last week, we were talking here about how "independent expenditures" -- from political action committees (PACs) or even so-called "dark money," groups that can keep the identity of their large donors secret -- might swamp the relatively paltry sums that the actual candidates are raising and spending. In particular, at least two newish PACs were raising noteworthy amounts from known backers of a major expansion of charter schools -- schools that receive public funds but operate independently. Both of the PACs have indicated support in the mayor's race for state Sen. Anthony Williams, a staunch supporter of charters.
It's hard to say right now whether the combination of misleading statements, half-truths and out-and-out lies surrounding NBC news anchor Brian Williams and his now infamous 2003 helicopter journey in Iraq is just a black mark on an otherwise successful career...or the end of that career. The so-called "fog of war" surrounding what exactly happened a dozen years ago seems to be getting thicker. Just this afternoon, Williams' pilot on that chopper flight said it did take take enemy fire, just not from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) as the newsman had once claimed. Going the other direction, Stars and Stripes -- the first media outlet to report the discrepancies -- went the other direction and said that even Williams' apology this week still gets it wrong.
Either way, it looks really, really bad right now. Brian Williams had one job -- maintaining his credibility as he reads the news to millions of TV viewers every night. For all intents and purposes, his credibility has been tossed into the rotors of that Chinook.
When the tattered shreds fall to earth, I hope we also have a conversation about why Williams felt the need to exaggerate his proximity to combat and to death. It's worth noting that he's not the first person to do this. Indeed, just last year President Obama signed the latest version of the Stolen Valor Act that makes it a federal crime for individuals to make false claims about their military heroism in some circumstances. Politicians are common offenders. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal was accused of confusing voters over whether he'd served in Vietnam (he didn't); more famously, and strikingly similar to the Brian Williams affair, the woman who would be our next president, Hillary Clinton, told a bogus tale of taking sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia in the 1990s.
Money in politics is a lot like water -- it tends to pool up in the lowest places. In an election year, traditionally, politicians like nothing better than a contract fight over garbage hauling, or cable franchises, or casino licenses. That's when the campaign donations really start flying, when business executives think they can get a leg up by writing a few checks.
You may have heard that there's an election for mayor in Philadelphia this year. It's been hard to find A-list candidates, for sure -- but it's even harder to find the money. Through the end of last year, the leading four candidates had raised just 1/8th -- 1/8th!!! -- of what the Top 4 candidates had raised in 2007. But now, new, stealthier sources of money are emerging.
The new funding sources share a common bond...charter schools. That's right, educating Philadelphia's kids is essentially the new slots parlors of the 2015 race for mayor. If that's not a metaphor, I don't know what is.
Over the years, readers in the comments section of Attytood have voiced incredulity that I'm not a registered Democrat. Fair enough -- I openly admit that I've never voted for a Republican for president (though two independents) yet it's also true that for most of my adult life I've been a registered independent. But the reasons for that have changed over time -- changed significantly, in fact.
In the late 1980s, I worked on Long Island and covered a township run by Nixonian Republicans, and I didn't want them looking up my party affiliation. Besides, a) I bought into a lot of the late 20th Century BS about "the balanced, blank-slate journalist" (which would also require a lobotomy, but I digress...b) I was more of a centrist then than I am today, so much so that I might have voted for (the then more liberal) John McCain than (then more conservative) Al Gore had that been the choice in November 2000.
Today, it's different. There's a lot of reasons I'm not a registered Democrat (even though that means I'm disenfranchised on Pennsylvania Primary Day) but the main one is that the party is a constant embarrassment. Its elected officials spend most of their time running away from any progressive principles buried in the party platform. And a party with no principles -- other than the outsized egos of its anointed leaders -- becomes a breeding ground for corruption. Nowhere is that more true than here in Pennsylvania.
At least he's consistent:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended his heavily criticized decision to forcibly quarantine a nurse returning from West Africa for Ebola on Tuesday morning, saying the state’s policy of mandatory quarantining of returning health workers will remain in place.
Maybe I picked the wrong night to return to work. First I had to watch the best/worst Super Bowl finish ever, punctuated by the worst/worst play call in the history of organized sports, by soon-to-be ex-Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Minutes later, the blogging software ate the last third of my (admittedly lame) post...so, forget it. I'm only here blogging so I don't get fined. Talk about the Big Game™ or Mitt Romney's equally surprising collapse...or something else. Substance tomorrow, i promise.
Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s came my evolution from a guy who lived and worked in New York, to a guy who made a long commute from Bucks County, to a Daily News reporter who -- in a mental process that even I don't fully understand -- started rooting one afternoon for Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell to squash my once-beloved Mets like a squirrel that accidentally wanders onto the Schuylkill at 7 a.m..
During that slow evolution, I thought a lot about the ways that New York and Philadelphia were different, and about Philly's untapped potential. (It wasn't just that I drove by run-down diners like the Continental at 2nd and Market and wondered why they weren't yet trendy restaurants, although that was part of it.) I had lived in the 1980s in the New York borough of Queens, which for the most part had been a solid, relatively safe, honest-to-goodness middle-middle class community. And there was no mystery as to why: As old-timers from the "Archie Bunker"-era of Queens left for Long Island or Florida or death (all pretty much the same thing), their homes and their markets were not left to crumble. Instead, they were taken over by an influx of immigrants, from Korea, Colombia, and other nations gaining a toehold in America's largest city.
I pondered why this wasn't happening in Philadelphia -- at least not with the same intensity. It's not going to happen, people told me. The sad truth, according to these naysayers, was that in recent times the so-called City of Brotherly Love just wasn't that welcoming to foreign arrivals. But not everybody felt that way. A city councilman named Jim Kenney -- almost alone, at least among the politically connected, at first -- made the same argument, that Philadelphia neighborhoods would die without an influx of immigrant blood.
You know the old saying, right? First they say that you're a Communist and a thug. Then they reluctantly OK a national holiday in your name, Then they claim you were really one of them. OK, actually that's not an old saying at all -- but it's been irritating in recent years to see folks who -- a) had they been around in 1965 and b) had there been an infrastructure of Fox News, right-wing radio, and blogs -- would have been denouncing Dr. Martin Luther King as a common criminal 50 years ago now holding him up as a hero -- and insisting he was really just like them!
You can trace this back to (who else?) Ronald Reagan. Although let's give the Gipper a small dollop of credit -- he did sign the national holiday for King into law, after all -- he turned around and insisted that the activist's most-repeated line about judging by the content of character meant that he opposed affirmative action (he didn't). Soon the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were piling on, claiming that the most important thing about King was that he opposed gay marriage (although arguably his closest adviser was gay) or abortion or that he wanted religion in America's public square. They even put up billboards claiming that King was a Republican (he wasn't). This fact-addled fog could almost make one forget the bus boycott, the fire hoses, or the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But in the end, the far right's misappropriation of the MLK legacy is just comic relief. More insidious, in my opinion, are the moderate folks, many of them well-meaning, who confuse sainthood with sanitation, who want to make a man of peaceful, radical change into a man of peace -- and keep the change. Some of this is Monday morning quarterbacking from folks who would have been afraid of backing -- or maybe would have even opposed -- King's crusades for integration, voting rights, and later to end war and poverty.