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A call to action for a better Philadelphia

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In his new book, Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting: A City’s Struggle against an Epithet, Rhawnhurst native Brett Mandel defines corruption in the city as putting private gain before the public good.

And while Mandel offers countless examples of corruption over many decades, it was the recent reconstruction of I-95 – which happened after the book was published – that gives him some hope.

“We can do things,” he said. “We’re not powerless.”

The book title is a play on a comment made more than a century ago by muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, who derided Philadelphia as being “corrupt and contented.”

Mandel, a 1987 graduate of Northeast High School, is a consultant and civic activist who formerly served as Director of Financial and Policy Analysis for the Office of the Philadelphia City Controller. He also twice ran for controller, losing to incumbent Alan Butkovitz in 2009 and 2013.

A Fitler Square resident, he writes that Philadelphia suffers from inefficiency and incompetence. He cites potholes, bad schools, violent crime, taxes, poverty, dirty streets, a go-along-to-get-along style of governing, councilmanic privilege and City Council’s annual summer vacation.

The author sees the book as a critique and a call to action, believing higher voter turnout could lead to positive change.

“If you read this book,” he said, “hopefully you agree something different must happen in the future.”

The book chronicles corruption scandals involving politicos such as John Dougherty, Bobby Henon, Rick Mariano and Vince Fumo.

After Henon, a city councilman, was indicted, state Rep. Jared Solomon was the only elected official who called on him to resign.

“It’s so rare for anybody to speak up,” Mandel said. “That’s the problem I identify in the entire book.”

After the guilty verdicts in Henon’s case, Maria Quinones Sanchez was his only colleague who called on him to resign.

“Everybody else had nothing to say about it,” Mandel said.

The book even goes back to the early 1900s, when insiders bought up cheap farmland just before plans were introduced in City Council to build the Boulevard.

“This has been going on a long time,” Mandel said of insider dealings.

Dozens have crossed the line to the extent that they have landed in the “70th Ward” – prison – for their actions.

Mandel discusses a couple of elections, including the 2003 mayoral race, a rematch between incumbent John Street and Sam Katz. The race was competitive when, a month before the election, an FBI listening device was discovered in City Hall. Democrats falsely blamed the Bush administration for ordering placement of the listening device, and Street went on to win by 17 percentage points. Street was never charged with a crime, though others in city government were later convicted in a pay-to-play investigation.

Ten years earlier, there was a special election in the 2nd Senatorial District. In that race, the Democrat prevailed on election day, thanks to a big advantage in absentee ballots. But a federal judge later ruled that the absentee ballots were misused, and awarded the race to the Republican, Bruce Marks.

In 2020, Donald Trump cited the Marks case when he contested the vote count in Philadelphia, declaring, “Bad things happen in Philadelphia.” And while Mandel believes the 2020 presidential election in Philadelphia was above board, he said some Trump supporters believe it wasn’t, due, in part, to Trump’s citing of the 1993 election scandal.

So, what does Mandel believe needs to be done to improve the way Philadelphia operates?

The author would like to make the offices of city election commissioner, sheriff and register of wills appointed, not elected.

He’d also like to see judges appointed, not elected, contending that voters generally don’t know much about the candidates and many attorneys are turned off by the amount of money needed to pay powerbrokers to win an election.

“You don’t get the best and brightest,” Mandel said of judicial elections.

Mandel would also like to ban private gifts for public officials, ban elected officials and high government officials from outside employment, implement term limits and redraw legislative district and ward and division boundaries.

Is he hopeful that any of his suggested improvements will happen?

No, he said, citing low turnout in the recent mayoral primary and the fact that corruption was not a top issue for the candidates.

The book is available at Temple University Press, Amazon and bookstores. Order it at https://tupress.temple.edu/books/philadelphia-corrupt-and-consenting. ••

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