"Godfather" Tactics? Just Philadelphia's Political Mob Scene

(September 2011)

It seems that behind-the-scenes bullying and political interference are just a part of the core curriculum at the School District of Philadelphia.  Last week, the shame of the city was once again laid bare by a scathing report issued by Mayor Nutter's Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman.  The report detailed how a powerful state legislator and the chair of the School Reform Commission participated in an effort to install a favored firm to manage Martin Luther King High School, even after a different outside manager had been selected through a public process involving parents and community members.  This episode underscores how our system of public education is run for adults and not for the children, and how the interconnected web of Philadelphia politics hampers efforts to move Philadelphia forward.

As detailed in the report, State Representative Dwight Evans was unable to encourage the parents and community members of the School Advisory Council to select his favored local non-profit to take over Martin Luther King High School.  Then, Evans and School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie, Jr. (the two have professional and political ties) engaged in a back-door lobbying effort that may have violated state Sunshine and Ethics laws.  When that failed, in a move likened to tactics from The Godfather, Evans and Archie confronted the head of the firm that won the contract with an offer he couldn't refuse to pressure him to back out of the deal.

According to a witness to the conversations, in convincing the winning vendor to walk away from the lucrative and fulfilling opportunity to turn around MLK High School, Evans suggested that the firm would have a hard time finding cooperation, and Archie cited the city's unique political climate and explained that this is Philadelphia and things are different here.

Oh, it is not just that politics are different here in Philadelphia.  You know what else is different?  Our poverty rate is higher and our crime rate is higher than in other places and our children's achievement and household income are lower than in other places.  Do we think that those other cities that are doing better than we are cherish their peculiar institutions as we do?

There can be no doubt that the disproportionate importance of petty power politics in Philadelphia holds us back.

Godfather-like tactics?  The Godfather is a masterpiece of complex and conflicted moral ideals.  What we see in Philadelphia is a caricature; strictly Married to the Mob schtick.  Archie's and Evans' actions weren't subtle suggestions, they were the unbridled hooliganism of wise guys; the thuggery of goodfellas. 

Even so, despite some public head shaking and finger wagging from outsiders like me, establishment-Philadelphia has had a decidedly ho-hum reaction to the report and its revelations.  And, our ethical-leader-in-chief?  Hizzoner gets high marks for empowering his Chief Integrity Officer to issue this unblinking report, but, oh Michael, why can you not stand up for the ideals you put forward?

Just days before his administration released the inflammatory reports of deplorable conduct, the Mayor had this to say about Archie's ostensibly unforced resignation (followed hours later by the resignation of fellow Commission member Johnny Irizarry): "I very much appreciate the service of Bob Archie and Johnny Irizarry through very difficult and challenging times.  During their watch, students continued to show improved test scores and the graduation rate has improved."

As to creating any consequences from the scathing report, Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald offered, "This is a publicly issued report.  Any agency that might want to take a look at it can and will."

Dammit, we cannot sit idly by.  This conduct must be condemned and investigated and our Mayor should be leading this charge.  Archie should have been kicked out under a cloud of shame for his actions, not allowed to resign on his own terms -- and the report should be officially referred to law-enforcement officials to get to the bottom of this mess to see if Evans and Archie deserve criminal punishment in addition to civil censure. 

Until we have some real consequences for malfeasance and some real independence from those who would serve as our leaders, we will continue to allow the focus on political power to undermine voices for positive change.

Until we can throw out the notion that things are different here in Philadelphia and that our different way of doing things is working for the public good, public policy will be determined by B-Rate mob-parody antics where a few enjoy the spoils while the rest of us endure the consequences and clean up the mess.  It is time we settle all this family business and make it part of Philadelphia history so we can get on with the effort to make this City work.