Reforming Philadelphia

This week in North Philly Notes, Richardson Dilworth, author of Reforming Philadelphia, 1682-2022, writes about what the history of reform might tell us about contemporary city elections.

On May 16 of 2023, Philadelphians will vote for mayor in the Democratic and Republican primaries, and the general assumption in this overwhelmingly Democratic city is that whoever wins the Democratic primary will also be elected mayor in the general election on November 7. The nine declared Democratic candidates represent a relatively broad ideological mix, from the relatively conservative candidacies of Rebecca Rhynhart and Allan Domb, to the more liberal candidacy of Helen Gym. But given that the current mayor Jim Kenney has reached his two-term limit, we are guaranteed to have a new mayor who will most likely set a distinct policy direction for our city government.

In my book, Reforming Philadelphia, 1682-2022, I wanted to provide a short but comprehensive and deep context for understanding political events such as the 2023 mayoral election, by placing it in the long history of what I call “reform cycles.” “Reform” is a broad mantel that has been claimed by innumerable politicians for a variety of reasons. Among historians it is most typically associated with the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th Century. For my purposes, I took the historian’s definition of reform but generalized it into criteria that might be found in any historical period. My criteria were that a reform cycle is defined by:

  • A new idea regarding the city and its purpose in the world.
  • Actors who attempt to take control of city government and reform it in the image of this new idea.
  • Actors conceived of as thwarting reform – sometimes known as “the machine.”
  • Elections in which reformers gain some control over city government.
  • The implementation of ideas that transform the city to some degree.
  • Public recognition, typically provided through the press, that reform occurred.

Using these criteria, I identified the following five reform cycles:

  • The 1840s to the city-county consolidation of 1854
  • The 1870s to the adoption of a new city charter in 1887
  • Mayor John Weaver’s revolt against the machine in 1905, to the adoption of a new charter in 1919
  • The Democratic sweep of elected offices in 1951, to the mayoralty of James Tate in 1962
  • The mayoralty of Ed Rendell, from 1992 to 2000.

My definition of reform cycles raises at least two important questions. First, it appears that race is a notably muted feature in my reform cycles. And second, what about the contemporary period? What can all of this tell us about the 2023 mayoral election?

With respect to race, I argue that the emergence of a substantial Black political class  — a product of the dramatic change in the city’s racial composition after World War II – fell largely into existing machine-reform categories, which was itself a result of the fact that the reform-oriented White political establishment moved relatively quickly to incorporate Black politicians, certainly to a greater extent than in many other cities (such as Chicago for instance). Thus, race-based political organizations such as the Black Political Forum or the Northwest Alliance functioned largely as earlier white reform organizations. And Wilson Goode was arguably a reformer when he was elected as the city’s first Black mayor in 1983. Yet crucially, Goode’s election fails my criteria for defining a reform cycle because it was not recognized as such, for at least two reasons: (1) Goode’s mayoralty was more often defined in the media in terms of race rather than reform, and (2) Goode’s reform status was often overshadowed by larger policy blunders, such as the MOVE bombing and the city’s near-bankruptcy.

With respect to what my conception of reform cycles can tell us about the 2023 election, this is the subject of the third and final chapter of my book, in which I argue that there are currently two overlapping reform cycles, not unlike the reform cycle of the 1870s and 1880s, which was quickly followed by the reform cycle of the 1900s and 1910s. In the 21st Century, we can identify a reform cycle that was driven by the economic resurgence in and around Center City, resulting in the election of Michael Nutter in 2007 and extending at least to the surprise election of Rhynhart as controller in 2017. The issues that defined this reform cycle were campaign finance reform, increased government responsiveness and accountability, planning reform, and environmental sustainability. The second reform cycle is defined in policy terms by social and racial equity and justice and was most visible politically in the elections of Larry Krasner as district attorney in 2017, and of Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks to at-large council seats, in 2015 and 2019, respectively.

Thus, the 2023 mayoral campaigns will fall along a policy and political continuum defined by these two overlapping reform cycles – what journalist Larry Platt has also called a battle between “progressives vs. reformers.” The actual election dynamics will be shaped by at least two long-term trends that have fundamentally altered the city’s electoral politics: Declining voter turnout, which provides greater leverage to smaller groups; and a diminished local media, which makes it harder for campaigns to communicate to a mass audience. The sad result is that our local political universe is more fragmented than in the past. And with so many candidates running in the Democratic primary – so many of which are of high quality – whoever the winner is will undoubtedly be the choice of a minority of voters, making it more difficult for the new mayor to claim a mandate and set an aggressive policy agenda.

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