Philadelphia’s Commerce Department served as a lifeline for pandemic-battered local businesses over the last year. But now the department is facing its own crisis.
Senior department leaders and other staff have left the office over the last year, with some blaming the allegedly abusive behavior of Commerce Director Michael Rashid. Others described anti-Semitic comments allegedly made by the former health-care executive, who was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney in November 2020 and earns $170,874 a year, according to payroll records.
In interviews with The Inquirer, staff recalled Rashid recently relating an anecdote about his viewing of Schindler’s List — Steven Spielberg’s award-winning movie about the Holocaust — as a confusing inspirational metaphor. On several occasions, Rashid reportedly said he had avoided watching the 1993 film because he perceived it as “Jewish propaganda,” but upon viewing came to appreciate the story of a heroic businessman in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Rashid’s social media posts, surfaced by news website PhillyVoice on Thursday, also contain inflammatory statements about Jewish people and law enforcement. In one post he made in April, he appeared to condone the shooting of police officers who are deemed racist. Another features an unverifiable quote attributed to Malcolm X that describes Jewish neighborhoods as “Jew Town.”
Kenney condemned the comments and said they would be investigated, but did not say whether he would ask Rashid to step down. Rashid did not respond to calls or text messages for comment.
At Rashid’s urging, however, the former CEO’s allies have rallied around him, arguing that staff allegations about his workplace demeanor are reflective of a “culture clash” between the public and private sectors. One noted that Rashid was considering stepping down.
Mayoral spokesperson Kevin Lessard said Rashid apologized for the Schindler’s List comments.
“The Mayor obviously doesn’t support it and believes it was offensive,” Lessard said in a statement to The Inquirer, adding that Kenney also “doesn’t support the messages in any of the social media posts and thinks they are inappropriate and offensive.”
On Saturday, Michael Balaban, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said he was “appalled” by Rashed’s comments, and called on the mayor to fire the commerce director.
”Kenney, earlier this week, stood side by side with leaders of the Jewish community to condemn the rise of Antisemitism,” Balaban said in a statement. “If there is no room in our City for Antisemitism, as Mayor Kenney said, then Mr. Rashid should be removed from office immediately.”
The administration said Rashid’s conduct would be investigated for compliance with city workplace rules, but officials declined to discuss the personnel grievances. However, staff concerns about Rashid date to the beginning of his tenure, and officials acknowledged that questions about his leadership in part led to a $505,000 audit of the department’s culture. That report, reviewed by The Inquirer, described low morale and high turnover among staff.
Some have already left the department over issues with Rashid. In a resignation letter shared with Kenney administration leaders last week, former Commerce Department communications director Taj Magruder wrote that Rashid, 74, frequently “berated” staff members, made “irrational” decisions, and appeared disinterested in the workings of the department, which was recently tasked with distributing millions of dollars in pandemic relief.
Magruder shared the resignation letter with The Inquirer out of concern for his former colleagues and fear that conditions would not change . He called Rashid’s behavior the motivating factor for his departure and those of other top employees. He also called for Rashid’s immediate dismissal.
“He will continue to lose employees and hollow out the Department, and his anti-Semitic comments could eventually become public,” Magruder wrote to Kenney chief of staff Jim Engler and mayoral spokesperson Lessard on Nov. 22.
In the letter, Magruder recounted Rashid’s comments about Schindler’s List, which he’d heard him relay in public and in private among staff.
Pat Christmas, policy director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Committee of 70, also called for an immediate leadership change.
“Things are not working in Commerce Department,” said Christmas. “And it’s not just the disturbing comments that were made, or the toxic workplace environment. It’s the critical services they are meant to be providing for local businesses.”
Rashid, who holds an MBA from Harvard, came to the Commerce Department after a long career as a health-care executive. Upon his appointment, Kenney praised his “entrepreneurial passion,” as well as “his impressive background leading and growing multibillion-dollar companies.”
Staffers, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said Rashid’s behavior goes beyond any one anecdote.
Some said incidents trace back to an introductory meeting with Rashid after he was hired. At that meeting, one employee recalled Rashid “belittling” the small business advocacy work of the department, and becoming hostile when his subordinates pushed back.
Several described particular hostility or disregard for top female employees.
“He embarrassed us. He talked down to us in front of our staff,” said one female ex-staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her current employment, about his treatment of women. “He started trying to tear away at our confidence.”
Friends and allies — with no direct connection to the Commerce Department — reached out to The Inquirer at what they said was at Rashid’s urging to cast the director in a more positive light.
Consultant Salima Suswell, whose firm Rashid had retained in the past, blamed “cancel culture” for the attacks on the social media posts. Labor leader Ryan Boyer, a longtime friend, called Rashid “thoughtful and measured,” and said the city could benefit from more of a “CEO mindset” in leadership.
But friends also acknowledged that his corporate leadership style might rub some the wrong way in city government.
“If you deliver a product that is less than stellar, he will let you know and he does not mince words,” said Jasmine Sessoms, a friend of Rashid’s. “You have to have thick skin.”
She said the social media posts were unacceptable and that Rashid was weighing whether to step down. Sessoms claimed that the department had a “toxic” reputation before Rashid’s tenure and that some of the departed employees already wanted to leave.
A deputy commerce director resigned in June, then was followed by fellow deputy Iola Harper this month. Rashid’s second in command tendered a resignation earlier this week, while Magruder submitted his in late November. Harper confirmed to The Inquirer that she had left her position earlier than planned due to Rashid’s behavior and declined further comment.
Other lower-ranking employees have also left, and the city confirmed the 50-plus person department has 19 open vacancies.
However, the Kenney administration refuted that Rashid was to blame for all of the turnover, asserting that only six recent exits were due to voluntary separations.
In response to general concerns about Rashid’s overall management, however, the city’s human resources department surveyed staffers about his performance in September. While those results have not been made public, Magruder wrote in his resignation letter that 69% of respondents agreed that Rashid “single-handedly abused, enraged, and demoralized the staff.”
The half-a-million-dollar audit reviewed by The Inquirer identified numerous threats, including high turnover in senior leadership positions, “low morale and trust” across the board, and internal tensions that threaten the department’s reputation.
With tensions intensifying, some staff said Rashid appeared to be flouting the city’s residency requirement, which requires employees to establish a residence in Philadelphia within six months of employment.
Although Rashid rents a Center City apartment on Arch Street, staffers said he appeared to spend many working hours at his home in Montgomery County.
Staffers recalled that even after Rashid indicated he had obtained an apartment in the city, he still appeared to be teleconferencing from the same Montgomery County residence.
Kenney’s office said it did not have credible evidence of a violation. Rashid established residency in August of this year, Lessard said, with an approved extension beyond the routine six months, and noted the city has flexible remote work opportunities.
“He could have at least changed his Zoom background,” said one former staffer.
This article has been updated with comment from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.