Three questions, after a week of lowlights for Pa. politicians

Philadelphia Prosecutor Gifts
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams

Ask yourself three questions.

Why is so much wrong with our politics? What have I done to make things better? What would it take to change the way things are?

I raise these because of the ongoing rot and abuse in the city and state. And because, judging by my emails and phone calls, so many ordinary folks are angry, frustrated, seeking answers.

Why now? Look at last week.

  • Philadelphia’s twice-elected Democratic DA, Seth Williams, was slammed with a 23-count indictment, including the head-shaking allegation that he pilfered his mom’s nursing home funds for his personal use.  He’s the city’s chief law enforcement officer.
  • Former twice-elected Democratic state Treasurer Rob McCord (a confessed felon) testified as a government witness at the bribery trial of a businessman/pal and explained how -- while in office -- he sought to trade state contracts for campaign contributions. McCord managed your tax dollars and once was a serious candidate for governor.
  • A special election in North Philly’s House District 197 was rife with “rampant illegalities,” according to House Republicans who called on Attorney General Josh Shapiro to investigate (apparently having little faith in a D.A.’s office investigation). The election was to replace resigned Democratic Rep. Leslie Acosta (a confessed felon), who won reelection last year after the Inquirer reported she pleaded guilty in an embezzlement scheme.
  • The release of the GOP-run legislature’s annual self-audit showed that even while planning state spending cuts amid far-reaching fiscal woes, lawmakers hoard $118 million in sketchy “reserve” funds -- to ensure their own financial comfort. Leaders in both parties defend the funds. State Auditor General Gene DePasquale (who labeled the audit’s lack of transparency “unbelievable”) cannot, under current law, perform a real legislative audit.

Here’s a sample of the many emails I got in reaction to the week’s events.

Norma: “I am overwhelmed with outrage at the total indifference to constituents.”

Scott: “It is really shameful behavior and will continue unchecked until Pennsylvanians wake up.”

Maria: “Pennsylvania is so corrupt. Everywhere is so corrupt. Now our DA. … Everybody is so sick of this.”

So why is there so much wrong with our politics?

Because too few people pay attention, care, or vote, which allows officials and institutions to do what they want for as long as they want or until they get caught.

Because people are flawed. Because power feeds flaws. Because in systems with little accountability, power gets used for personal gain rather than public good.

(Do your own list of examples. Mine’s way too long and depressing.)

What have you done to make things better?

Only you can answer, but I suspect mostly complain or disengage, shrug and say they’re all like that.

What would it take to change things?

It would take a sustained, multi-year effort (this didn’t happen overnight) by reform groups, average citizens, and however many elected officials are willing to do the right thing and aggressively alter fundamentals.

End gerrymandering and unlimited campaign funding, make voting easier, allow open primaries, encourage independent runs, build a semblance of a GOP in Philly, stop automatic raises to lawmakers, stop paying them during budget impasses, enact term limits, cut the legislature’s size, lower thresholds for removal from office, end deals allowing felons to keep public pensions, etc., etc.

And even if all or some of this could be accomplished, it would only be the start of uprooting a system we’ve allowed to thrive for far too long.

H.L. Mencken wrote, “I believe that all government is evil and trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.”

Well, I believe there are enough good people in and out of office who want a functioning democracy, competitive elections and a pathway to public trust.

My three questions?

One: When will political and civic leaders stand together in citywide/statewide efforts and say enough is enough?

Two: When?

Three: When?