Still crooked after all these years

Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting: A City’s Struggle Against an Epithet, by Brett H. Mandel

5 minute read
Book cover: Title in large white letters from top to bottom, superimposed over a photo of City Hall on a rainy day.

If this book infuriates you, good. In Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting: A City’s Struggle Against an Epithet, Brett H. Mandel documents how things really get done here, and what it costs in dollars, reputation, and civic pride.

In appalling detail, Mandel describes how jobs are obtained, contracts won, permits granted, regulations skirted, favors given, influence gained, and ethics eviscerated, all in the service of profit and political power.

Shortcuts are a specialty for the connected, along with loopholes, winks, nods, and blind eyes. Those who “know someone” or “are one of us” do well at the expense of the general public, whose city becomes more revenue-starved, inefficient, dirty, impoverished, and expensive to live in.

Scandal is as pervasive as the soft pretzel, and not only do we take it for granted, Mandel explains, citizens have been gulled into believing that because the thieves look and sound like them, and are only doing things the way they’ve always been done, the misbehavior is benign, and not worth pursuing. However, when corrupt acts and their costs are consolidated in one place, as Mandel does here, it’s a disgrace. It is inconceivable so little has been done to stop it, and there’s been so little public outcry.

Shifty since the 17th century

Working from the definition that corruption is "the use of public resources to benefit those in power rather than their constituents," Mandel notes that an act doesn’t have to be illegal to be corrupt. Unsurprisingly, Philadelphia excels in both legal and illegal varieties.

The book’s title is a variation on journalist Lincoln Steffens’s 1904 comment that Philadelphia was “corrupt and contented.” It seems to have been so since its founding in 1682, as though corruption is in our civic DNA. Mandel interviewed a cross-section of office holders, academics, and citizens to learn how corruption took hold. He names names, but rather than scolding corrupt individuals, his objective is to learn how corruption flourishes, and why it persists.

The cost when voters opt out

Campaigns funded by influence-seeking donors enable corruption, as does the dominance of a single political party, which is a Philadelphia tradition. Since the mid-20th century, the Democratic party has been in charge; before that, the city was controlled by Republicans. A third enabler, and maybe the most egregious, is voter disengagement, as indicated by low turnout. In democracies, elections are the clearest expression of voters’ approval: if office-holders are certain of reelection, why reform?

In November 2023, the city will elect its next mayor. Arguably, it already has. In a one-party town, the spring primary is the true test. This past May, when Cherelle Parker became the Democratic mayoral nominee, she did so with fewer than 30 percent of Philadelphia’s registered Democrats voting.

Corruption wastes public money, shrinks the tax base, and shreds budgets. In 1939, Philadelphia’s deficit was so serious that it temporarily instituted the nation’s first municipal wage tax. Eighty-four years later, the wage tax is still with us. The only temporary thing is the sporadic reform efforts, which are ultimately foiled by nimble power brokers, a distracted public, and exhausted good-government advocates. Thus, Philadelphia continues to fall near the bottom in financial rankings, several of which Mandel cites.

The Dougherty administration

Mandel illustrates local corruption with the story of John Dougherty, who parlayed union leadership into political influence and personal wealth. His activities eventually drew the scrutiny of the FBI. Dougherty, who headed Philadelphia’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), was indicted in 2019 on 116 federal counts for corruption and embezzlement. He was found guilty in 2021 of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, but will not be sentenced until the resolution of two other trials, in which he is charged with embezzlement from his union, and threatening a contractor.

Indicted with Dougherty was his IBEW lieutenant Bobby Henon, whom Dougherty had helped elect to City Council, where he did Dougherty’s bidding and continued to draw a $70,000 union salary. (In Philadelphia, councilmembers are permitted to have outside employment.) Henon was sentenced in March 2023 to a 3½-year prison term.

This is how the public, whether dues-paying union members or taxpayers, can be exploited by well-connected opportunists in a system where rules are lax and selectively enforced. When the FBI raided Dougherty’s home in 2016, Mandel writes, his power was at its height: “His former right-hand man, Henon, was majority leader of City Council, Dougherty’s brother [Kevin Dougherty] sat on the commonwealth’s Supreme Court, and his chosen candidate [Jim Kenney] was mayor. His union was a prominent supporter of worthy charities, a big spender of campaign money, and a feared political entity. … Nothing of significance occurred in the city or the state without his input.”

We have met the enemy … and it is us

Philadelphia’s most recent ethical renaissance came during the mayoral administration of Michael Nutter (2008-2016). In 2015’s Democratic primary to choose Nutter’s successor, when it might have been expected that voters would turn out to vote for continued progress, just about a quarter of registered voters participated. “Low turnout could be interpreted as a measure of satisfaction,” Mandel writes; “it should be seen as a sign of capitulation …” Yet elections are the surest method of change.

Undeniably, corruption weighs on Philadelphia, and may be at the heart of locals’ characteristic cynicism. Yet Philadelphians are also known as hardworking, scrappy, direct, resourceful, brusque, and sometimes hopeful. Don’t these qualities, properly channeled, seem made to take on endemic corruption and the parasites who benefit from it? Mandel outlines essential steps, beginning with demanding better from officials and candidates, publicly funding campaigns, and rigorously enforcing legislation to restrict self-dealing. Philadelphians need to bring to the voting booth the qualities that have led to success in other areas, and demand the same level of excellence in the public square that they do in an examination room, laboratory, concert hall, or stadium.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting: A City’s Struggle Against an Epithet. By Brett H. Mandel. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, May 5, 2023. 272 pages, hardcover; $30. Get it here.

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