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Bad News for Philadelphia

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Excuse me for going all Tolkein on you, but these are dark times in the shire that is Philadelphia. I can almost feel the clouds descending upon the land.

First to go was the city's flawed but brilliant senator, Vince Fumo, now in a federal prison in Kentucky. 111310_dwight_evans_400.jpg He was chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Next to go was our flawed, but brilliant Speaker of the House, state Rep. John Perzel, a Republican who nonetheless worked for the city's interests. He was deposed as speaker, later indicted and lost to a Democrat in the November election.

Soon to go is Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor, who served as governor for eight years but remained, always, the uber-mayor of Philly.  Deep into Rendell's reign, people in town were still calling him "Mayor" -- as if being governor of Pennsylvania was a lesser title.

Latest to go is state Rep. Dwight Evans, the Philadelphia legislator who has been ultra-effective in Harrisburg as chair of the House Appropriations Committee. On Tuesday (November 16) Evans lost the position of ranking Democrat on the committee to a state rep. from Pittsburgh.  He was deposed, and sent back into the rank-and-file.

The next day (Wednesday, Nov. 17th) the damage was ameliorated somewhat when Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia was elected as Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  It's nice for him to have that position, but Hughes has none of the power that Evans and Fumo accumulated over the years.  Nor, despite, his 16 years in the Senate has Hughes showed much flair for leadership. We'll have to wait and see. 

The retreat of Philadelphians from leadership is is not simply a historical footnote.  It is a modern disaster.

There are a lot of ways to look at the Pennsylvania Legislature, most of them not flattering. But it does make the laws than govern the Commonwealth and, more importantly, it rules when it comes to allocation of state dollars.

Ultimately, these decisions are not hashed out on the floor of the House and Senate chambers.  They are decided in conference committees, composed of members of both chambers, who create the final products.

 Since the memory of man runneth to the contrary, Philadelphians has sat in that room helping to shape that final product.

Now decisions will be made --  and the pie will be sliced --  by legislators from elsewhere in the state.  

 It sounds not all that bad.  In reality, it is terrible.

In civic books, politics should not about regional and party differences.  A Republican from Somerset County should be as concerned about the state's largest city as a Democratic rep. from West Oak Lane. But, let us be real here.

In almost every year - and in the next two years in particular - the debate is going to be about how to slice a smaller (much smaller) pie. Our civic-minded rep. from Somerset County isn't going to care much about Philadelphia. His priority will be to preserve and protect the state services and subsidies his county receives.

All politics is local, after all.

The old book on Philadelphia is that it won these leadership positions because of its role as the biggest Democratic enclave in the state. In other words, dopes could rise to the top of the pile because they were creatures of the Democratic political machine, which had to be accommodated by giving senior members good committee positions.

That was and is true for committee chairmanships, which are based on seniority.

But for the senior leadership positions - House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, heads of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee - you really needed something more than simply the Philadelphia affiliation, You needed the smarts 

The days of getting a dope in those positions ended years ago.  You have to be intelligent, cunning and an expert at the inside game of politics.  Herb Fineman was that. Buddy Cianfrani was that. Vince Fumo was that. John Perzel was that, And so was Dwight Evans.

The fact that all of the above - except for Evans - ended up in trouble with the law is another story. And a legit one.

But, that does not diminish their role and the role of other smart Philly legislators in the past, such as House Speaker Bob O'Donnell and Appropriations Chair Steve Wojdak, in preserving and protecting the city's interests in Harrisburg. 

Now all of them are gone. Evans, the last of a generation of Philadelphia leaders to emerge as a real power, is on the sidelines. 

By the way, Evans is not a victim here.  He helped lay the ground for his defeat by being high-handed, so comfortable in his power than he forgot that he was in the job to represent his rank-and-file members.  The fact that there were Philly legislators who voted against him is a sign of just how remote he had become.

Still, I lament his passing from power.  And I fervently pray that someone -- be it Hughes or someone else -- will step up and become the leader that the city needs in Harrisburg.

We cannot afford a void at the top.


-- TF

 

 

 

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