Philadelphia Corruption and Political Culture

The most recent corruption scandal in Philadelphia went public last week after the mayor’s Chief Integrity Officer released a report showing that a powerful State Senator and the head of the city’s School Reform Commission intervened in awarding a contract to run a local high school (for the full report click here).

Philadelphia has attempted to upgrade some of its worst performing schools by outsourcing their operation to private firms. The school district attempted to keep parents and community members involved in awarding charter school contracts by creating School Advisory Councils (SAC) for each institution. The SACs were tasked with evaluating potential firms and making a recommendation to the school district, with the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) having the final say on who got the contract.

In the case of Martin Luther King High School both the SAC and former school district Superintendent Arlene Ackerman supported giving Mosaica the contract to run the school. However, State Senator Dwight Evans intervened on behalf of another education company, Foundations, with which he had a long established relationship (including the receipt of political contributions from its employees).  After the SRC approved Mosaica for the job over his objections he held a meeting with one of the firm’s representatives and former SRC chair  Robert Archie that was described in the report as being “[l]ike a scene from the Godfather.” Archie, who had recused himself from voting on the issue because his law firm does business with Foundations, none-the-less called the meeting to dissuade Mosaica from taking the contract. During the meeting Evans threatened to withhold community support so that Mosaica’s reforms at MLK High School would fail. Evans characterized his performance at the meeting as being like “a dog on the bone”. The following day Mosaica dropped its bid for the contract and Foundations was the only remaining firm in the competition.

There has been a pattern of this sort of politics in Philadelphia (see this article from the Inquirer). The use of naked power politics by Evans to achieve his objectives was disconcerting. However, the responses from members of Philadelphia City Council were even more distressing (see this article from the Inquirer).

Councilwoman Marian Tasco:

“People had a meeting, and they disagreed. It’s a disagreement. Folks fight for their point of view. What’s wrong with that?”

Councilman James F. Kenney:

“Public officials do advocate on the part of businesses.”

Councilman Frank Rizzo:

“Sometimes the most powerful survive. That’s what politics is all about. Powerful people have the ability to deliver projects. . . . Dwight was – is still – a powerful politician. Dwight used that power to be helpful to a legitimate organization. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Zack Stalberg, the president of good government group Committee of Seventy understands the cynicism behind these comments:

“Real people, as opposed to people too comfortable with the way the political system works, are outraged by what seems to have gone on in this situation,” he said. “And I think they will not be happy with the nonchalant remarks of these City Council members.”

Corruption can occur in any community. However, the tolerance, and even acceptance of a political system based on cronyism and self-interest by Philadelphia’s elected officials separates the city from other polities. Daniel Elazar’s classic book American Federalism: A View from the States provides insight into why the political class behaves this way.

In the book Elazar develops a model of political culture that has become a standard explanation of why different states or regions of the country have varying beliefs concerning the objectives and operation of government. He argues that the country is divided into three political subcultures: individualistic, moralistic and traditionalistic. The individualistic political culture sees politics as a marketplace of competing individual interests who use the political system to better their own causes. The moralistic culture believes that collective action through politics is the highest calling and that participation in politics and the betterment of the greater good are the objectives of government. Finally, governments in the traditionalistic culture are designed to preserve the status quo and benefit elites.

Not surprisingly, Elazar (who taught at Temple University) categorized Pennsylvania and Philadelphia in the individualistic political culture. A further parsing of his explanations shows the subculture is a perfect fit for Philadelphia politics. Elazar claims that:

“The individualistic political culture holds politics to be just another means by which individuals may improve themselves socially and economically. In this sense politics is a ‘business’ like any other that competes for talent and offers rewards to those who take it up as a career.”

Some officials in the individualistic culture “believe that an officeholder’s primary responsibility is to serve himself and those who have supported him directly, favoring them even at the expense of others.”

In the individualistic political culture

“[b]oth politicians and citizens look upon political activity as a specialized one, essentially the province of professionals…and no place for amateurs to play an active role. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency among the public to believe that politics is a dirty – if necessary – business, better left to those who are willing to soil themselves by engaging in it.”

These expectations ratchet down our expectations for government.

 “Since a fair amount of corruption is expected in the normal course of things, there is relatively little popular excitement when any is found unless it is of an extraordinary character. It is as if the public is willing to pay a surcharge for services rendered and only rebels when it feels the surcharge has become too heavy.”

The problem is that political cultures are embedded in a polity and are very slow to change. While Mayor Nutter and his Chief Integrity Officer are trying to alter the way politics are practiced in Philadelphia they are unlikely to create systemic change in the short term. For as Councilwomen Tasco stated: “The landscape is what it is. Next week it will be something else.”

See also:

Karen Heller: A primer on politics, but don’t let the kids look

Poll: A ‘Godfather’ Moment Highlights City’s Political Culture