Center Square | Goo-goos' school of hard Knox

'Lucy," Ricky Ricardo used to say back in the Golden Age of TV, "you got a whole lot of 'splainin' to do."

"Goo-goos," people grumble in this new age of Philadelphia elections, "you got a whole lot of 'splainin' to do."

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Goo-goo - as in good government types, the earnest idealists who yearn for a politics where fat cats can't bankroll candidates, where the clout of grimy ward leaders is neutered, where public forums are plentiful, and holy Substance rules.

People such as Zack Stalberg at the Committee of Seventy watchdog group, Brett Mandel at the Philadelphia Forward reform group and . . . er . . . ah . . . well, me.

To the casual eye, we goo-goos are getting the mayoral campaign of our fondest dreams: Strict donation limits thwart the six-figure checks of pay-to-play; civic groups lob issue agendas aplenty into the mix; candidate forums are as plentiful as Law and Order reruns.

Yee-hah.

So why does this campaign feel so weird, so off-kilter? And why is the suspicion brewing - not just in the tired bowels of the Democratic machine but also in the pious halls of reform - that the result may be a disaster?

You'd have thought the last election, in 2003, was as Twilight Zone as it could get: The FBI bug in Mayor Street's office turned out to be just the boost his struggling campaign needed to surge to a landslide. Democratic honchos exploited city voters' fierce hatred of all things Bush to induce a kind of mass psychosis.

That election embarrassed the city nationally, and set up four years of guilty pleas and lame-duck drift. The goo-goos vowed it wouldn't happen again. We got our way, changing the rules of engagement.

Now, we're smack in another Twilight Zone.

For all the forums and position papers, the fear grows that this earnest activity will prove to be beside the point. (At least in terms of deciding who will win; the raising of civic literacy is intrinsically worthwhile.)

The real story seems to be that one spendaholic millionaire with minimal public-service credentials can buy himself City Hall with an avalanche of TV ads. Here's the killer for the goo-goos: The other candidates, all serious men of fine résumé, claim they can't fight back because our stupid campaign rules hamstring them.

Say it ain't so, Zack.

Of course, if said millionaire, Tom Knox, turns out to be the steely-eyed reformer with a progressive heart of gold that he plays on TV, it won't be so bad.

But if all you've done so far is watch the TV ads, I should clue you in to something:

I've talked to a fair number of people who know Knox, have worked with him, or have seen him in the flesh during this campaign.

Few see him as that video character, TV Tom, who seems to be winning the election.

TV Tom is a leader with a plan. I've yet to meet anyone who came out of a forum thinking Knox, awkward and fumbling, was the most impressive guy on the stage.

I've yet to meet anyone from the Mayor Rendell administration who does anything but scoff or stew at TV Tom's claim that he was Ed's right-hand man in taming the city deficit. Real Tom, they say, worked only briefly in Rendell's City Hall, showing a knack for ideas and numbers, but also an abrasive style and little grasp of how working for taxpayers was different from running your own business.

TV Tom is a leader of humble beginnings and common touch who will bring folks together. I've talked to several folks in the business community who say they don't recognize that TV Tom. If you think the incumbent mayor is lacking in warmth and people skills, they warn, just wait - Tom Knox may make John Street look like Oprah Winfrey.

No, you haven't heard much of this, because no one, but no one, will go on the record saying any of it. They butthonhole journalists, full of anecdotes, and urge us to get these stories out. But no one puts his name behind anything.

Man up, I want to tell them. But I get it: Knox looks like he may be mayor, and they've got to work in this town.

Man up, I also want to tell the other four candidates. Fight back. Try to win. But I get it. The weird dynamic of this campaign is like an Australian firing squad: Any shot you take at Knox will boomerang back on you. He'll fire back with four times the TV rating points you can muster.

So we slouch toward Election Day, with Knox's poll numbers doubling up those of candidates more qualified and ready to be mayor.

It's fascinating. It's unpredictable. It's even civil. But will it prove good for Philadelphia? This goo-goo is worried.


Chris Satullo is editorial page editor.

To comment, call 215-854-4243 or e-mail csatullo@phillynews.com.