A few weeks ago, I struck a nerve when I detailed my disillusion with Mayor Nutter. Many of you share my sentiments. Still others challenged me: Who
excite me for mayor in 2015?
It's a good question. The names most often talked about are underwhelming. Career politicians have gotten us in mess after mess. Millionaire Tom Knox, no matter what his ads will say, is no man of the people. And I crossed businesswoman Dana Spain off the list when she said solving the city's budget woes was no biggie - just do what Kevin Kline's character did in the movie Dave, when he had his accountant dive in and fix the federal budget.
The truth is, beyond our oppressive tax structure, under-siege school system, and sclerotic city government, the greatest threat to Philadelphia is its go-along-to-get-along political culture. Our complacency scares me the most. Surely there have to be some agents of political disruption out there?
Attorney Ajay Raju would be one. We've grown close debating issues on 6ABC's public-affairs program, Inside Story, the last few years. Ever since Ed Rendell left the mayor's office, the city has needed a high-energy salesman, and that's Raju, who makes the case that the only thing holding Philly back is "the elasticity of our imagination" and our collective lack of boldness. Talk about an elastic imagination: Raju came here from India at age 14 without speaking a word of English. Now, at 43, he runs a major law firm and sits on countless boards. There are whispers about a candidacy in his future, though he says he won't run in 2015. But keep your eye on him.
Jane Golden continues to fantasize of running someday. Through sheer force of will, she has turned Mural Arts into a world-class program and shown a skillful inside game, making the city bureaucracy work for her. Like Raju, she's all vision, all the time: "I'm reading the Steve Jobs books now," Golden told me a year ago. "And it's got me thinking how much we need leaders with courage and clarity. . . . Where are the solutions going to come from? They're going to come because we're fearless and because we embrace imagination and creativity."
Speaking of a woman game-changer, here's a name that's fallen off the radar screen: Alba Martinez. She received high marks as commissioner of the Department of Human Services and then went on to run the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. She's now getting something every politician should have: private-sector executive experience, having led Vanguard's Education Markets Group, a $22 billion fund that provides low-cost investment options for families seeking to save for college. "I've always wanted to be mayor, and I hope to run someday," she once told me, and her personal story would fit the moment. Martinez would be a breath of fresh air amid Philly's acrid old-boys' network: a gay Latina who lives in, and loves, the city, Martinez, a lawyer by training, has a facile mind and an entrepreneurial spirit.
I also called Lynne Abraham to see whether the rumors were true that, at 71, the former "tough-cookie" district attorney was thinking of running.
"Just had a meeting about it this morning," she said, before launching on a breathless, off-the-cuff campaign speech from the heart. "People are hungering for candor, people want to be told what's right," said the woman who, 40 years ago, when she headed the Redevelopment Authority, stood up to Frank Rizzo by refusing to play ball with the developers who funded his campaign. "People want to know, 'Where are we headed?' We've got real issues that no one has tackled: infrastructure, the pensions, making the city business-friendly. Political leadership has failed when you have 27 percent of the people at or below the poverty line. We need a mayor who says to every Philadelphian: The days of thinking only about your narrow self-interest are over, buddy."
I know what you're thinking: Abraham ain't exactly new, or young. But disruption knows no age; most of all, it requires cojones, which Abraham has shown time and again she has, along with a penchant for honesty and straight talk. How refreshing would that be?
Almost as much as a competitive two-party system. For decades, we've had the illusion of competitive elections. The local Republican Party has been content to take the crumbs of patronage in exchange for fielding nonserious candidates. With the ascension of the Northeast's John Taylor to head the party, there are already rumors that something bold might be cooking for 2015: a credible black Republican.
Doug Oliver is the 38-year-old former press secretary for Nutter, who changed his party registration last year.
Oliver, who has been part of the team that has turned around the mess that was Philadelphia Gas Works, played coy when I called.
"There's a lot that could happen between now and 2015," he said. "I'm interested to see how things continue to shape up."
But then he went on to tell me about how we need another revolution akin to the Richardson Dilworth-Joseph Clark reforms of the early '50s, and about how "we need a real dialogue about the future" in this city. Would Oliver be a good mayor? Heck if I know. But I know he's bright, and his candidacy alone could shake things up. (And if Knox is the Democratic nominee, a black Republican might have a fighting chance.)
What do all of these dream candidates have in common? Bold vision. Experience running things. (Enough already with electing legislators to chief executive positions!) The ability to serve as our coach-in-chief - to speak hard truths, to challenge us to do better.
I don't know if anyone I've mentioned would be a great mayor, but we know what we're going to get with the usual suspects: the art of the merely possible. "Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them," said the inventor Robert Jarvik. "They make the impossible happen."
This time, let's hold out for that.