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Forward Modestly

When the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet handed out its 2005 Golden Dot Award for the best local Internet political campaign, Philadelphia Forward wasn't even in the house.

Accepting laurels for innovative work were well-known players like Move On, Power Line and Jib Jab (those guys with the animated "This Land Is Your Land" satires) but not the unassuming staff of two paid workers committed to tax reform.

They might as well have won a modest wonk award.

That honor came down in March, and Philadelphia Forward has remained mum about it. No press releases. No champagne or celebratory cheesesteaks. "I went home and told the wife and girls," said executive director Brett Mandel. "That was about it."

The night the awards were handed out Mandel was busy - he'd been testifying at a City Hall hearing on phasing out the business privilege tax.

"They wouldn't tell us if we won," he says. "It cost a couple dollars to go to the banquet. I said it was a day of testimony. We decided to cheap out and not send someone down on the Metroliner."

So we'll have to celebrate them here and now. Philadelphia Forward is passionate about tax reform. That is not always sexy.

Which is why its Web site offers a Tax Reform Challenge game where contestants try to convince City Council members to pass a reform package. The game is easier than in reality. Each week Mandel posts another edition, and emails to 15,000 people missives bearing such headings as "Who Will Speak For Philadelphia?" and  "Small Biz Org. Rips City Pollyanna."

Mandel is no Pollyanna. "Philadelphia doesn't suffer because there aren't good ideas," said the man appointed by city controller Jonathan Saidel to the Philadelphia Tax Reform Commission. "It suffers because we don't follow through. There is no constituency for following through. Most of the things we push for tends to benefit someone disproportionately. Someone wants a stadium subsidy, Someone wants a break on their high rise."

He left Saidel's office (he'd headed it's "policy wonk shop" - his words) to form Philadelphia Forward in March 2004 and harness the Internet for those engaged in reform.

"This new technology provides a lot of voice," he says. "The idea is you can find like-minded people on the Web, whether you are a person who likes Howard Dean or one who likes Shih-Tzus, you can find other like-minded people with this technology."

He's 36, Philadelphia-reared and author of a couple of baseball books. Before his city job, he worked for the Pennsylvania Economy League. He works with one other paid staffer.

The honor hasn't gone to his head. He's more proud of the sort of letter he got from a guy named  "Walt of Mayfair:"

Where some might still see a city of the corrupt and the contented, Mandel sees progress -- the thousands who emailed Council in support of new ethics rules, those engaged in the stoppaytoplay site, the new ethics group called PURE, the Neighborhood Networks pro-change group.

"While certainly there are a lot of people willing to walk to polling place and be handed a ballot by a committeeman, increasingly there are Philadelphians  who want change, and that is exciting in a city that needs change so desperately."

Michael Scavo
Posted 10/22/2005 01:12:29 PM
If I am mistaken and this is a different Mr. Mandel I apologize for the following note. But if it is the same Mr. Mandel then it is the man who is pushing for a value market real estate tax which to say the least would be onerous and for many people unsustainable. It is also the same man who has said (PW newspaper and the Inquirer) that this tax is not going to be stopped by a bunch of little ole ladies complaining to their council people. Mr. Mandel should be aware that this is called representative democracy. The council people are supposed to look out for their constituents and listen to and act on their complaints.
    It also seems a little short sighted to over tax the very people who make up[ the consumer class. I agree that the business tax is an impediment to expansion (my brother is a small business man) it does not make sense to hit working people with tax increase of $3,000 to $4,000 dollars to ease business's burden. The merchant has the ability to pass on his expenses to the public and he does do this. The home owner is not going to get a raise from his employer because his taxes soared. We are already the most taxed people in the state. I have remained loyal . I buy in Philadelphia. I eat and play in Philadelphia and I pay my taxes. The kind of hike that Mr. Mandel is proposing would make my up-coming retirement iffy, sharply curtail my spending(and hence business patronage and tax paying) in Philadelphia. I have lived here all of my life, almost twice as long as Mr. Mandel. I head no organization. I have no brilliant ideas. But as a Catholic school teacher of forty years I do have a finally honed sense of justice and fair play, of the common good and helping my neighbors. And although I can empathize with the small business man I do not feel that shifting the burden to the people who have made this city work is the way to do it. I would be pleased if Mr. Mandel would develop this same sense of decency.