David Thornburgh: Eyes on the vote, toe in the water? An interview with the Committee of Seventy chief

David Thornburgh of Philly’s Committee of Seventy: “We seem to be in an era of hyperpartisanship.”

DAVID Thornburgh, 58, is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia's 111-year old government and politics watchdog, now gearing up for its usual Election Day poll-watching effort in an election year where Philly's vote is under unusual scrutiny nationally.

He's also the son of former Republican governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Before joining Seventy in December 2014, David headed other civic and entrepreneurial efforts, including the Wharton Small Business Development Center, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, and the Fels Institute of Government at Penn.

When he's not organizing his forces to help keep the vote un-"rigged," Thornburgh plays guitar and pedal steel guitar in two local alt-country bands, Reckless Amateurs and the Miners. (His wife, Rebecca, a Wharton MBA who works as a children's book author and illustrator, is lead singer for Reckless Amateurs.) He's also a longtime scuba diver.

Thornburgh recently sat down with John Baer to chat about the politics of the day (spoiler alert: There's cause for political buzz at the end).

Given that you play in two bands, given your scuba-diving hobby, and given the nature of this election, do you find yourself hiding in your music more than normal or, better yet, under water?

[Long laugh.] Well, you don't do what I do unless you're inherently a glass-half-full type. These are dark and disturbing days for the Republic. But I'm starting to think of what life looks like after Nov. 8 and where we go from here.

The big takeaway from this election is that there are a lot of unhappy people, a lot of concern that the system as we know it is broken. So where there's that kind of anxiety, there may be opportunity for productive change. But I have taken an occasional dip to get away from it all, sure.

What, in your view, really caused the current atmosphere? Certainly more than one unusual presidential candidate, right?

It would take a few beers to go over the whole set of circumstances. But somehow, we ended up with the two most unpopular candidates of all time. And we seem to be in an era of hyperpartisanship.

Let's talk Philly. When Donald Trump suggests a "rigged" election, he almost always refers to Philadelphia. What do you make of that?

Philadelphia's a convenient target. It has the advantage of being on the East Coast in a big market in a swing state. I have gotten more calls on this than any issue since I've been at Seventy.

I think the charges are irresponsible, baseless, very damaging to peoples' perception of the process and, ultimately, our ability to govern. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that it's the kind of statement a campaign in its final days throws out there to set up the defense: "This wasn't my fault."

Still, in terms of Philly, there's a little something there, yes?

These claims aren't based on any 60-page report, so it's hard to refute facts that are not asserted.

Having said that, there was fraud in the early '90's involving a special election [for a state senate seat in 1993] and a few hundred absentee ballots. But it was discovered, the election was overturned by the courts, so the system worked.

And there have been nickel-and-dime incidents, what I'd describe as "petty fraud," down-ballot with, say, committee people, where tens of votes can matter. We have had that. But that is so far removed from the kind of fraud Trump's suggesting.

Sticking with Philly, not the best reputation for clean, honest politics. In fact, a bad rep, right?

I wish it weren't so, but I trace that to the decline of the Republican Party and the fact there aren't many competitive elections. Competition is a good thing ...

And the vaunted, allegedly robust Democratic machine really doesn't work that well. If you look at the track record of the Democratic Party in its endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts, it's a shadow of its former self.

What, if anything, could restore some political balance to Philadelphia?

If we think ahead, what's the likelihood the Republican Party is going to come roaring back? Right now, that's unlikely.

So one idea we're kicking around is what happens if instead of partisan two-party primaries, we had open primaries and allowed independents to vote, which eight of the 10 largest cities do?

In Philadelphia, there are almost as many registered independents as Republicans. So if you allow those folks to vote on primary day, the number is about 110,000, and if they turn out in the same range of other city voters, there are 30,000 people you can't take for granted, you have to work for, and you don't know how they're going to break.

What's the most important thing the Committee of Seventy does?

We're putting a lot more of our efforts into engagement strategies. We're working with high school kids ... We've also been talking with a lot of organizations about developing a "how to run for office" education-training program.

And we're getting increasingly interested in statewide issues.

We've got a redistricting issue coming after the 2020 Census, and we're looking at a proposal for an independent citizens' commission to draw the lines.

If you could change one thing about politics in the city, state, or nation, what would it be?

Maybe a structural thing like fixing redistricting or creating open primaries, anything that brings people to the middle. That to me is the biggest challenge these days.

Did your father ever encourage or discourage you about seeking elective office, and would you ever consider doing so?

Both he and my mom played it neutral. I think they would be pleased if that were to occur, but I think they're also proud, I hope, of what I've been able to do from the positions I've had.

But once you get this general stuff in your system, the question is how to maximize the impact of the time you spend. So far, it feels I've been able to do some things without having to go through the meat grinder of running for office. But it ain't over yet.