Monday, April 21, 2014
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Head Strong: Who should be Phila. Person of the Year?

Gallery: Head Strong: Who should be Phila. Person of the Year?
According to Time magazine managing editor Rick Stengel, the publication's annual Person of the Year is "the person who has most influenced the news in the past year for better or for worse." That "somebody or something," he told me in a recent interview, should be both "backward-looking and forward-looking."

Even with that insight, I didn't expect Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to get the nod. The "somebody or something" reference had me thinking tea party. The backward- and forward-looking clue seemed to indicate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Last year, inspired by Time's annual selection, I began thinking about Philadelphia's Person of the Year. Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel was on my list. So was Mayor Nutter. And John Duesler, president of the now-infamous Valley Swim Club. But in the end, I decided Vince Fumo's federal corruption trial and eventual conviction had shaken Philadelphia's political structure and thus the city as a whole more than any other storyline.

With Fumo, perhaps the most powerful politician in the commonwealth, on "vacation," who stepped up locally in 2010 to uphold the mantle? Here's my list:

Mumia Abu-Jamal. It's an international disgrace that nearly three decades after he was convicted of the murder of Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, Abu-Jamal is still snaking his way through the appellate court system (not to mention news cycle after relentless news cycle). Perhaps the most infamous capital-punishment case in the world, the Abu-Jamal saga also provides an unfortunate benchmark as to the state of the death penalty in Pennsylvania and many parts of this country. In short, it's a complete sham.

Ruben Amaro Jr. Barely two years into his tenure as Phillies general manager, Amaro has proved himself one of baseball's boldest and most successful executives. Over the last year, he has maneuvered to acquire three legitimate Cy Young-caliber pitchers (Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and now Cliff Lee) and adeptly assured that slugger Ryan Howard will be a Phillie for years to come.

Flash mobs. These events - which materialize after large numbers of young people use social networking to spread word of a gathering in a particular place - aren't unique to Philly. But they've taken stronger and more drastic root here than anywhere else. After several episodes resulted in vandalism and violence, police were forced to pursue a stricter curfew and monitor social-networking sites to stamp out the threat.

Carl R. Greene. The former executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority has been a virtual mainstay in the news - for seemingly all the wrong reasons - since he abruptly disappeared amid reports of personal financial struggles in August. Greene's 12-year tenure at PHA, widely praised by observers, ended in September when he was fired after multiple previously undisclosed sexual-harassment suits were made public.

Ted Kaufman. Kaufman pledged not to run in this year's special U.S. Senate election when he took over for his old boss, Joe Biden, two years ago. Since then, all he did was become one of the Senate's most substantive, candid, and irascible members. Despite not being a member of the Senate Banking Committee, Kaufman carved out a nationally recognized niche seeking to reform Wall Street and the country's overzealous financial sector.

Neil Oxman and the Campaign Group. Oxman and his outfit aren't as visible as the candidates they work for, but they still manage to make a lasting mark on the campaigns they run. The Campaign Group was responsible for 2010's most effective political advertisements - the now-famous "re-e-LEC-ted" spot that helped push Joe Sestak past Arlen Specter in the Democratic Senate primary, and the so-called Belle ad, which used a dog's bowel movements as a metaphor for George W. Bush's economic policies.

Blake Robbins. I remember exactly where I was (driving on I-75 in South Florida and listening to a local newscast) when I first heard that a 15-year-old kid was alleging that the Lower Merion School District had essentially spied on him through webcams and screen shots of his school-issued laptop. The sides reached a settlement in October, after a long public sparring match during which the district admitted flaws in the laptop program and investigators concluded that criminal charges weren't warranted.

Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson. The two New Black Panthers' actions may have been nonsensical - standing menacingly outside a polling place with just 84 Republicans (out of 1,535 registered voters) doesn't seem like the best way to affect an election - but they were still an affront to the most fundamental of American rights. The incident, at the old Richard Allen Homes at 12th Street and Fairmount Avenue, became a rallying cry for conservative critics of the Obama administration.

Arlen Specter. It always felt like Specter was permanently at the center of the fight between the ideological wings and the political moderates. Pennsylvania's longest-tenured U.S. senator lost his bid for an unprecedented sixth term. The country will lose out on one of the Senate's last great Northeastern pragmatists - a man I still believe has no intellectual equal in Washington.

Michael Vick. Last year, Vick was an enigma. Now he's an MVP candidate. On the field, the embattled quarterback is the biggest reason the Eagles are sitting atop the NFC East at 9-4 - and why the Donovan McNabb era seems such a distant memory. Off the field, the Eagles' playmaker seems intent upon making good on his promise to be "part of the solution" by speaking out against animal cruelty. Regardless of where the Eagles are at the end of the season, Vick's rebirth has been among the most polarizing stories in all of sports.

My pick?

Blake Robbins.

The privacy implications of his case were so unique and far-reaching that they drew international media attention and reverberated all the way to the U.S. Senate. Time's selection of Zuckerberg as its Person of the Year is proof of the global footprint that new technology has left. I suspect the Lower Merion case is the first of many controversial manifestations of that revolution.

"It's not my whole life," Robbins said in October. "It's just a part of it."

Maybe so. But it was the most significant local story of 2010.


Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com.

Michael Smerconish Inquirer Columnist
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