I call them magic-wand moments.

They often came during interviews with the five Democratic candidates for mayor this spring.

Presented with a vexing, hellacious problem the solution of which has eluded the last five mayors, some of the candidates some of the time couldn't resist the impulse:

They solved the problem with a metaphorical wave of a magic wand. Voilà! See? It has disappeared. Simple as that.

Take the issue of poverty. As Jesus reminded us, the poor we shall always have with us. Nearly one out of every four Philadelphians lives in poverty.

Yet, in a debate televised on WPVI (Channel 6), Chaka Fattah casually observed that poverty in Philadelphia could be cut in half if he were elected mayor.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

Ditto for Bob Brady. In an interview with The Inquirer Editorial Board, someone asked Brady - given the city's delicate financial condition - how he planned to pay for new police, while simultaneously cutting city taxes.

Brady replied: How am I going to do it? I am going to go to Washington and Harrisburg and get the money.

Geez, why didn't we think of that? All these years, we've struggled with these problems when all we had to do is to ask the feds and the state to give us more money.

Same with Tom Knox. He was asked about the runaway costs of employee benefits in the city, especially with our city pension fund, which is hundreds of millions of dollars short of where it needs to be to pay retirement benefits to city employees. What to do?

Easy, Knox said, pulling out his magic wand. The investments in the pension fund currently earn about 11 percent a year. If they earned 15 percent or more, our problems would be solved. I intend to earn more than 15 percent.

Seems simple enough. You aren't earning enough with your investments, just find a way to increase them by 35 percent and your problems are solved. Call in that order for a new Mercedes.

To be fair (don't you just hate to be fair?), the three candidates were trying to emphasize their strengths.

Fattah has a plan to lease the airport and use the proceeds to attack poverty, so why not promise dramatic results?

Brady makes much of his many friends and political connections, so why not say you'll tap them for money? And that they will be glad to give it to you - because you are Bob Brady.

Knox cites his experience as a successful business person. He is a millionaire many times over. Why not apply that business acumen to city investments?

Though, I must admit, it does conjure up the quaint image of Knox sitting at his computer, tapping away at the E*Trade site, placing an order for six million shares of Apple stock for the city of Philadelphia pension account.

The politics of over-promise is nothing new. And it is no surprise that it has carried over to this campaign for mayor. We have five candidates, each trying to stand out in the crowd. As H.L. Mencken once observed, no one ever lost any money underestimating the intelligence of the American people. The same formula is often applied to the voters in political campaigns.

But that doesn't comport with my understanding of the voters' minds these days. Through most of February and into March, as part of The Inquirer's Great Expectations project, we held a series of citizen forums in several dozen neighborhoods to gauge sentiment about the city and its problems.

The participants identified many problems - crime, the public schools, the costs of city government, our public transit system - and it must have been tempting to pick up a magic wand and wave it.

Most of the time, they didn't. They avoided the temptation to offer simplistic solutions. They realized how difficult it is to make change.

It was particularly telling when it came to crime. All of the candidates are promising to hire more police, but additional police rarely came up on the lists of "Things To Do" at these citizen forums. I think people realized that the problem of crime, particularly homicide, would take more than simply more feet on the street. They also know that policing is expensive.

The first step to solving these problems is to recognize there are no magic-wand solutions. We are going to have to work hard - and work together - to make progress.

So, guys, put down those magic wands. Give us a shoulder and help us push.

Contact Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2714 or tferrick@phillynews.com

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