OPINION: A Reformer’s Lament

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BY BRETT MANDEL
The recent revelation that reform-oriented Mayor Michael Nutter and his top Finance and Integrity officials conspired to look the other way and tolerate fraudulent misspending by a key agency head is just another reminder of how hard it is for our governmental umpires to call a consistent strike zone for a full nine innings.

I can only imagine that, when on the inside, one rationalizes that tolerating theft of honest services here, allows one to make improvements elsewhere; that allowing abuses to continue there, allows a promising project to move forward somewhere else; and that turning a blind eye to actions that will result in calamity in one part of the city, facilitates progress somewhere else. Maybe every one of these officials looks in the mirror each day and equivocates to convince him- or herself that it is only by tolerating some wrongdoing that the good he or she is trying to advance can occur.

I would like to think that such ethical compromises might only be justified if they could result in some grand and fundamental improvement for the city, but they too often seem to simply be part of the everyday transactional nature of Philadelphia politics that allows individuals to continue to hold office. The cost of doing political business in Philadelphia is simply to not draw attention to everything that is wrong.

As someone who has run for office, I know I put my hat in the ring because I believed I could exercise the powers and responsibilities of the office I sought to make Philadelphia a better city. Running for city controller, I stressed that I would root out the shenanigans that too many Philadelphia officials ignore, that I would provide Philadelphians with information about government spending that is currently kept from view, and that I would not pull my punches in fighting for a better Philadelphia.

But, in seeking office, I saw the ghosts of future compromises in the shadows of my campaign focused on sunlight. The issues stressed in the campaign were crafted by professionals based on political calculations designed to sway undecided voters, but also not to spook political supporters. In communicating with the political class, I was constantly counseled to stress approachability and flexibility. Political allies stressed that an insistence on unbending integrity in office would have to be preceded by a certain political malleability on the campaign trail.

I believe that I — and many frustrated others — could make a positive difference in an official position, but I often wonder whether I would be swept in by the undertow that seems to pull so many Philadelphia into the look-the-other way abyss. I have seen it happen to too many individuals I liked and respected and each time I see bad behavior by someone I had thought of as “one of the good guys,” I wonder if it is simply impossible to not become part of this problem.

Excerpted from a longer article, “Hard to Tell the Reformers from the Hacks.” To read the complete article, visit http://brettmandel.com/.

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