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Prince of the City

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By Jacob Lambert

In just over two years, Bill Green has gone from bantamweight rookie Councilman to heavyweight mayoral contender, riding a growing image as a "reformer," a "rabble-rouser," a pain in the mayor's ass.  Green has assiduously promoted the idea, saying, as he did at a recent press conference, "Many of you know I have a reputation for being independent"--and if you didn't know, well, you're welcome.

In January, he was the lone vote against a rollback of the BRT's 2009 real estate readjustments, and he excoriated Mayor Nutter for accepting the FOP's arbitration award.  He recently told the Inquirer that he tries "to do what's right, and I speak my mind."  He fights the bloat of high office, and damn the consequences. 

There is, however, a problem with this image: image and reality are inherently separate, often directly opposing one another.  In looking at what Bill Green has done in the past two years, it's difficult to see what, exactly, he wants to reform; what he has actually risked in his independence.  Time after time, his eagerness to scrap reads less as righteousness than as a studied attempt to further his brand. 

Bill Green Cropped.jpgWhen choosing his battles, Green seems to favor two distinct arenas.  The first is commonsense, high-profile issues that carry little political risk.  He cosponsored the city's cell-phone driving ban, citing a 400 percent increase in accidents when phones are used behind the wheel.  Sensible enough; even drivers supported it.

He introduced legislation to better regulate what he called "the odiferous scourge" of dumpsters in the city.  Sounds good; nobody likes an odiferous scourge.  He wrote the bill that, following a May ballot initiative, will likely snuff out the Board of Revisions of Taxes, the hated agency that sets real estate values for the taxes. This, of course, followed an Inquirer report which left the board's popularity somewhere between that of Doug Moe and Claus Von B├╝low.

The second arena is that of calculated risks--those that are outweighed by the benefits provided by furthering his swashbuckling persona.  In being the sole voice against those BRT rollbacks, he could promote himself as fiscally responsible while being in a safe minority of one.  A deciding vote brings risk; a lone howl from the moors gets your name in the paper. 

His anger over Nutter's acceptance of the FOP award was likewise rational--the contract may hurt the city in the long run--but came loud and after the fact, serving, not to reform, but to burnish Green's image as a toothpick in Nutter's nostril.  And in that--his opposition to the mayor, especially concerning budget issues--comes the least risk of all.  A recent Pew poll found that a middling 53 percent of city residents approved of Nutter's performance; only 47 percent were "confident in his ability to handle the city budget."  Taking on a mayor whose support is wobbly--on his most vulnerable issue--seems less like fortitude than pre-campaign stage-setting.  As Nutter himself told the Tribune in December, "Green seems to have a theory that... the way to become mayor is to antagonize mayors... He has an insatiable need for attention."

Perhaps most impressive about Green's rise has been how he has spun his hefty union support into an example of his hard-nosed autonomy.  On February 5 (headline: "Bill Green emerges as Nutter's chief foe"), the Inquirer wrote:

 

"Of the $147,571 Green raised last year--well above double what any other council member raised--more than half, $70,500, came from union and union-linked political action committees, mostly in the building trades." 

 

Outside of the Stonemasons, it would be tough to find an institution less representative of fresh-faced reform than the modern-day construction union.  But to Green's thinking, "[The unions] support me because they think I'm good for the city.  They don't agree with me on every issue, but if you're interested in changing the culture of City Hall, which the unions are... then you want to support a guy like me."  And there it is: Bill Green is so good for us that the unions, out of sheer kindness, will act against their own self-interest to support him.  Either that, or they'd like to have a mayor who'll pick up on the first ring.    

Perhaps Green is simply doing what he feels is best for Philadelphia. It isn't out of the realm of possibility.  And even if he is only building himself up for his next run, at least he's been active and vocal--terms seldom used to describe Council members.  I don't like drivers who fiddle with their phones, and his math on the FOP contract seems to hold up.  I don't particularly like dumpsters, and though I'll be directly hit if the BRT's moratorium isn't extended, I understand Green's rationale: the city, after all, is broke.   

Outstripping the policies, however, is the mythology.  Following J.D. Salinger's death in January, I read that he avoided anything that carried a "smell"--a sense that something rang false, was just plain off.  When it comes to politics, our noses are continually overwhelmed by stronger scents--those of phony image and unreasonable hope.  The office-climbing Man of the People works hardest to produce such aromas. 

Green denies an interest in being mayor -- seat which his father once held -- but momentum is clearly building.  There has also been talk of a congressional run.  In the meantime, though, he fights the good fight.  Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr. recently introduced a measure to bring term limits to City Council; Green, unsurprisingly, was the bill's only other supporter.  Again, he allows himself to be nobly routed; again, he speaks his mind.  Yet even were the bill to pass, it probably wouldn't affect him much: evidently, Bill Green doesn't plan on being a Councilman for long. 

 

Jacob Lambert is a regular contributor to Metropolis

     

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