THE BIGGEST loser in Tuesday's election wasn't on the ballot. It
was Lincoln Steffens, the muckraker who coined the phrase "corrupt
but content" to describe Philadelphia politics. We can now retire
the phrase. We may be corrupt, but the election returns show that we
are not content anymore.
When almost 87 percent of the voters support a proposal that
takes a step toward cleaning up politics, you know we're not content
with politics as usual. (Ballot proposals generally win with about
70 percent of the vote. And the ethics question won a higher
percentage of the vote than popular DA Lynne Abraham who ran against
an almost invisible opponent.)
When an election without a single race whose outcome was in doubt
draws not the expected 9 percent but 14 percent of the voters, you
know people want things to change. And when the falloff in the
percentage of people voting for the race at the top of the ticket -
the DA's race - to the question at the bottom of the ballot is only
28 percent, compared to the historical average of 60 percent, then
the frustration with our political system is palpable.
And it isn't just election returns that tell us that Steffens'
observation is now history. A unique coalition, Philadelphians for
Ethics Reform, came together in only three weeks to push for the
charter change. We raised $30,000 almost overnight. We ran ads and
wrote newspaper articles. We generated an e-mail and blog campaign.
And, one part of the coalition, Neighborhood Networks, put more than
130 people in distinctive red T-shirts on the streets asking people
to vote for ethics reform.
Our coalition was quite disparate. Some members actually got
antsy standing next to others because they disagree about tax policy
or minimum wage.
But we agree on some basic matters of ethics. We all think that
our politics should be transparent and fair. That contributions and
connections shouldn't determine whether someone gets a contract or
We all agreed to the slogan "They Play. We Pay. Vote Yes to
Reform" because we believe that the practice of rewarding campaign
contributors with government contracts wastes the money of
taxpayers, reduces the quality of the goods and services the city
buys and undermines equality of opportunity in the process.
We also agree that the ethics amendment is just a small step
toward the reform we need. It will prohibit those who give large
campaign contributions from receiving no-bid contracts. But we have
to go much further.
We won't really change politics in our city until we end most
no-bid contracts; until we have a real independent ethics board with
the power to investigate abuses; until more stringent limits on
campaign contributions are enacted; until we move to partial public
financing of campaigns.
Moreover, while our coalition partners may not all agree, we in
Neighborhood Networks believe that we have to take the campaign for
reform into the arena of social justice.
Among other issues, we have to work for public policies that
encourage the redevelopment of the city in ways that break down,
rather than reinforce, the barriers of race and class that block so
many Philadelphians, and our city as a whole, from reaching their
and our full potential.
To go further than the proposal that was just adopted, we had to
win on Tuesday in a way that makes this small step toward reform an
opportunity to build a movement that is ready to make a giant leap
We Philadelphians had to, in the words of the great historian of
populism, Lawrence Goodwyn, "see ourselves working together" to make
Philadelphia a better place.
We had to learn that it is reasonable to hope for a new kind of
politics in the city. We had, in other words, to learn, once and for
all, that we are not content with the way we are governed and want
to change it. Join us.
Marc Stier is a spokesman for Neighborhood