Finally, the mayor's race has gotten interesting.
For that, we can thank the "political operative" who on April 27 made a dramatic exit from the Brady campaign. Yes, the same guy alleged to have engaged in a "stealth campaign" intended to slam Tom Knox. The same guy whose conduct was called "wrong" and "improper" by Zack Stalberg of the Committee of Seventy, "cowardly" by union leader John Dougherty.
His name is Ken Smukler.
When the race ends, Philadelphians may owe him one of those replica Liberty Bells for awakening them to the real possibility that once again City Hall was about to be purchased, only this time, by one deep pocket instead of the usual gamut of law firms and would-be contractors.
I respect Tom Knox's Horatio Alger story, but on the public stage, the man is a lightweight. I saw it firsthand a year ago, when I moderated what was billed as the first joint appearance of mayoral candidates before the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. Knox participated. He was thoroughly underwhelming, and while it was his first outing, he has remained so in the eyes of many who have seen him in person out on the campaign trail.
Trouble is, most have not seen him in person. They have been visited by him in their living room in 30-second increments, where he has effectively conveyed a well-crafted message. He's just the wrong messenger.
Until recently, none among the candidates has said so. First they wouldn't, and then they couldn't. His opponents took too long to take him seriously, and when they finally focused on his threat, they lacked the funds necessary to tell his real story. For that we can thank so-called campaign-finance reform, which has had the practical effect of stifling every message except Knox's.
Enter Ken Smukler.
He's the aide to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady who quit his post after it was revealed he had discussions about forming an independent, tax-exempt organization with a political purpose. These "527s" - so named because they must be registered under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code - are supposed to be outside groups that advocate for or against issues rather than candidates. They can raise unlimited amounts of money - in other words, they have no fund-raising limits as political action committees do - only if their efforts are not coordinated with a campaign.
Three such organizations - Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Moveon.org, and the League of Conservation Voters - were fined in December 2006 for breaking various federal laws during the 2004 presidential campaign. SBVT campaigned against the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry, and the other two lobbied against George W. Bush.
Smukler told me that back in February, he was riding in Brady's car when Dougherty called Brady and offered the services of Frank Keel, a savvy political operator in the Dougherty camp. Any financial support by Dougherty would be subject to a $20,000 limit under the city finance limits, but a 527 committee would have no such limit so long as it was operating independently of the Brady campaign. Smukler told me he knew this and was careful to limit his discussions to the potential role of a 527.
For the record, Keel told me Smukler's story was a "load of crap" and a "flat-out lie."
But it almost doesn't matter who's telling the truth. What's important is that the controversy created by Smukler's resignation has had the unintended effect of highlighting Knox's attempted purchase of City Hall. In the last week alone, he spent almost $750,000 to criticize his rivals for "hatching" plans to destroy him in the campaign's final days.
Knox has created an advertising push the other candidates simply cannot match, further proof that 527s could be the only thing standing in the way of a Knox victory. Smukler deserves credit for undertaking what the candidates should have been able to do months ago: exposing the parts of the story Knox wasn't telling.
"When you don't have a level playing field, the guy with no money attacking the guy with big money is always vulnerable," Smukler told me. "And Knox understood that going in. This is the game that Knox figured out a year ago. He figured this game out."
It has been my view for some time that campaign-finance reform is a misnomer. There's no sense in trying to manage how much people contribute to campaigns, because it's like the very Internal Revenue Code that gives 527s their name. There will always be a loophole.
Better to focus on immediate and complete disclosure, especially considering the technology out there today to help us. Don't like how candidates are funded? Vote against them.
A little more than a week before the election, the least qualified candidate is leading in the polls for the Democratic nomination, and the other candidates are having trouble mounting a decent challenge to him over the airwaves. And there is no reason to think the Knox campaign is a onetime aberration. If he wins, his campaign will become the textbook for how future wealthy candidates compete.
It's clear that campaign-finance reform has failed in Philadelphia. And interestingly, both Smukler and Keel agree with me: The candidates in the race should be able to spend whatever they want to do the dirty work themselves.