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Wednesday, Nov 16, 2005
Opinion  XML
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Posted on Mon, Nov. 14, 2005

Take that, Mr. Steffens

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 city service.

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 forward.

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 Networks (

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