Why Did Ed Rendell Fizzle Out?
Philadelphia’s high-profile mayor started out with a bang in 1992.
Ralph, who works in a restaurant near South Philadelphia's Italian market, and Virgil, an African-American bus driver, both agree that Ed Rendell is a great mayor. "He brought pride back to the city," says Ralph. "He's out there every day in the streets getting the job done," says Virgil, with an approving smile. Polls echo their enthusiasm, giving Rendell, who's term-limited out of office come January 2000, an extraordinary 77 percent approval rating. When asked how, if Rendell has been so successful, Philadelphia has lost almost 150,000 people since 1990—more than any other city—Ralph is incredulous. "It can't be!" he exclaims. That's the same answer Mayor Rendell gave to the Census Bureau when he heard the bad news.
At the end of the Rendell era, Philadelphia is a city that has solved its age-old image problem but has hardly begun to address its reality problem. Its national reputation stands high. Center City looks great, with its futuristic office towers and classy new hotels and restaurants. The upgraded airport sparkles, and new jobs are starting to sprout after a slow start following the last recession. The city finally seems free of the self-denigrating spirit that produced one adman's tourist slogan in the late 1970s: "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is." But while Center City and citizen self-esteem are flourishing, Philadelphia remains a crime- and tax-ridden city of collapsing schools and continued middle-class flight, still suffering from economic decline. Much of the last decade's new urban thinking that has put the bloom back on cities from coast to coast has yet to reach the City of Brotherly Love. One lesson of the Rendell era is that to revive a city a mayor must draw on the full array of urban policy reforms; and if he's unwilling to force change on almost every front, he will at best preside over managed decline.
Rendell at first seemed a Hercules of a mayor, able to tame mighty unions and bring a dying city back to life. He was, proclaimed Vice President Gore shortly after Rendell's legendary success in municipal contract negotiations, "America's Mayor." But Rendell turned out not to be the visionary and heroic reformer he first appeared to be. Aside from his genuine commitment to budget balancing and his energetic boosterism, he has proved an old-style big-city mayor, who has fought welfare reform, despite its successes in so many other cities, and he has looked to Washington subsidies to solve local problems instead of fixing his own faltering economy. The few real reforms he has accomplished since his battle with the unions have come late, in response to outside pressures.
So why, on the eve of an election to pick his successor, does he continue to rate so high with Philadelphians like Virgil and Ralph? Part of the answer lies in the trauma of 30 years of miserable mayors and long-standing municipal corruption. After leaders like Frank Rizzo and Wilson Goode, people are relieved to embrace Rendell's implied message: be happy, I'm a big improvement. Beyond that, Philadelphians have a peculiarly local and provincial sense of resignation. "People here don't think you can do anything about cities," says one political insider. "It's like the seasons changing or the stars moving." So, though Philadelphians have found Rendell's showy optimism infectious, deep down they have few expectations for substantive change—even though other American cities have shown how it can be done.
When Ed Rendell took office in 1992, Philadelphia was on the verge of total collapse. It had lost 400,000 people and 200,000 jobs in the previous 30 years. Crime had jumped 16 percent the year before; the Center City sidewalks reeked of human waste. The City Council, distinguished for fistfights and fierce yearlong debates over such questions as whether to designate June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, was such a joke that Fodor's Travel Guide included it under "Entertainment." The low point came in 1985, on Wilson Goode's watch, when city agencies failed to act as garbage piled up in the street outside of the headquarters of the armed African-American cult MOVE, and a howitzer appeared on the building's roof. Dithering police officials finally overreacted by dropping a bomb on the headquarters. It seemed symbolic of this dysfunctional government that it managed accidentally to burn down two entire city blocks and kill 11 people in the process.
Once the home of hundreds of small factories—as well as the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the nation's then-largest corporation, and Stetson, the country's largest hatmaker in an era when everyone wore hats—the city had ceased growing in the 1920s. Before World War II, Philadelphia's neighborhoods, urban villages organized around their local factories, had been what one historian has ambivalently called "ghettos of opportunity." But as factories moved out during the postwar era, these varied ethnic neighborhoods lost their economic centers and their identity. Fanned by decline, ethnic and racial resentments grew, and the row-house populace became fodder for the populist politics of mayors like James Tate and his successor Frank Rizzo, who ran the city from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s.
Though reforming Democratic mayors Joseph Clark and Richard Dilworth had briefly attempted to move Philadelphia into a post-industrial economy in the 1950s, their successors, especially Rizzo, tried to ease the pain of industrial decline by expanding government to fill the vacuum. It was this public sector approach, backed by the political clout of public sector unionists, that sent the city into an economic death spiral. Mayors governed with the permission of city workers—all of them voters, by way of residency requirements. As Rendell quipped after he came into office, "There hasn't been a bad day for these guys in thirty years"—despite the state of the local economy.
Unsurprisingly, the bloated workforce was inefficient and unaccountable. Work rules required—no joke—three workers to change lightbulbs at the city-owned airport. City custodians had to clean only shoulder high—when they showed up. When you added up holidays, vacation, and sick leave, the average first-year worker could take 47 days off, or one working day in five.
The city's takeover of the Philadelphia Gas Works perfectly exemplifies its recipe for governing: ever-swelling public employment and patronage, coupled with poor service. In 1972, Rizzo arranged to take over the privately managed PGW, despite the fact that for the previous 75 years the American Gas Association had held it up as a model, with some of the lowest rates in the country and almost no debt or delinquent accounts. Justified on the grounds that the city would save money by eliminating management fees, the takeover in reality offered irresistible patronage opportunities. Rizzo turned the outfit into an arm of his political operation, putting 32 ex-cops on the payroll among many other political hires. Since then, according to the Inquirer, PGW has continued to "provide . . . jobs for the well-connected, pinstripe patronage for campaign contributors, special handling for influential customers, across-the-board discounts for the elderly—regardless of need—and costly bill-paying assistance for the poor." Debt and delinquent accounts have ballooned. Prices—and complaints—have risen to the highest in the region. When economic journalist Andy Cassell recently confronted a top PGW official with the accusation of running a patronage pit, he "bristled indignantly; only a third of the gas-works employees," he protested, "were straight patronage hires."
To pay the fat and happy municipal workforce, mayors kept rejiggering the fiscal calendar and rattling the tin cup in Washington, making Philadelphia increasingly dependent on federal money. But the principal method of financing expenditures was to increase taxes. In perhaps the most egregious example, Mayor Rizzo, while campaigning for a second term in 1975, gave the city's 20,000 blue-collar workers a 12.8 percent raise, 100 percent reimbursement of health insurance costs, and union control of the health and welfare fund, only to declare a fiscal emergency two weeks after his reelection and to pass the largest tax increases in Philadelphia history.
Above all, Philadelphia expanded taxes on wages. Initiated as a temporary measure in 1940, the wage tax became increasingly popular with elected officials, because it shifted the tax burden away from property owners and onto business and commuters, no small matter in a city that had the highest percentage of homeowners in the country, a significant number of whom were current or onetime public employees. Over time the wage tax evolved into the highest in the U.S., at nearly 5 percent for residents and 4.3 percent for commuters. Combined with the nation's largest transfer tax on real estate (also almost 5 percent) and a "business privilege tax" (a tax on gross revenues, whether a company is profitable or not), it served as an open invitation for business to leave Philly—which it did. The city's remaining business elite offered little resistance; its members, mostly commuters from the Main Line suburbs, withdrew even further from civic affairs as they came under increasing ethnic and racial resentment in the sixties and seventies.
Philadelphia might have continued to stumble along if it hadn't been for comptroller Jonathan Saidel, a levelheaded CPA. In 1991, toward the end of the Goode administration and shortly before Rendell took office, Saidel refused to back the annual sale of tax anticipation notes that rolled the city's debt over from one year to the next. He was deliberately provoking a crisis. "It was," he said, time "to get back to the basics of what municipal government is all about." Staggering under the weight of a $206 million deficit and a junk-bond credit rating that made it almost impossible to borrow, the city simply stopped paying its bills and couldn't fund its basic pension contributions. City and State magazine ranked its fiscal condition the lowest of the nation's 50 largest cities. To meet the crisis, the state appointed an oversight board, PICA (the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority), to borrow for the city and supervise its fiscal practices, placing Philadelphia in what amounted to limited receivership.
When Rendell assumed the mayoralty in 1992, it didn't take him long to realize the magnitude of the problem he had inherited. Philadelphia was facing a cumulative deficit of nearly $1.25 billion over the next five years—larger than the entire budget of the city of Houston—and an immediate deficit that had grown to $230 million. Rendell understood that, in a city that had raised taxes 19 times in 11 years, this approach was no longer an option. If the city did any more to drive out its middle class, he said, it would become "Detroit without automobiles." And while Frank Rizzo, his opponent in the election in a comeback campaign, had insisted that there was a "federal responsibility to come to the aid of Philadelphia," Rendell saw that the national political climate of the 1990s had blocked that route. Stop looking to Washington and Harrisburg, he announced in a speech on the looming budget disaster: "The only resources that we can rely on to solve our problem is ourselves." And he meant it—at least for the time being.
Rendell's finest hour—his pivotal struggle over the city's fiscal future—came in the summer of 1992, during contract negotiations with the four primary municipal unions. His goal was almost unfathomable in past Philadelphia terms: he had to trim $110 million from their departmental budgets. In the last ten years alone, employee compensation had doubled from about $25,000 per employee to more than $50,000. The city was paying an astounding $475 per employee per month for health and welfare benefits, one of Rizzo's many onerous legacies. And to make matters worse, some of this money, which was administered by union officials, appeared to be paying for mortgages on union buildings and union patronage jobs. Equally important were noneconomic issues, such as work rules that made it almost impossible for the city to fire or transfer incompetent or extraneous employees. In sum, what the mayor needed to do was to roll back decades' worth of perks and redefine totally the way the city managed its workforce.
In the negotiations, Rendell faced not only the usual threat of strikes and a loss of significant support in the next election but racial violence as well. According to journalist Buzz Bissinger in his much-praised book, A Prayer for the City: They Said It Was a Place That Couldn't Be Saved—One Man Decided to Save It, the mayor's most stubborn and powerful adversary was the largely African-American District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. AFSCME leader Jim Sutton threatened: "If you think L.A. had a bad time, mess with District Council 33." Nor was it seen as an idle threat. With a lingering memory of the race riots of 1964, and highly conscious of their 59 percent black and 39 percent white population (as of 1996), Philadelphians had lived for over 30 years in a racially charged political atmosphere. Official appointments were carefully vetted for racial propriety; elections tended to fall along strict racial dividing lines. In the 1987 mayoral election, for instance, Wilson Goode received 98 percent of the black vote, while Rizzo (in yet another comeback effort) won 97 percent of the white vote. Rendell himself, though now popular with blacks like Virgil the bus driver, knew at the time that he owed his Democratic primary victory in 1991 to the efforts of two African-American opponents to "out-black each other," in the words of one local observer, and that one of the greatest challenges ahead of him was to earn the support of his city's black population.
Despite these pressures, Rendell, his back to the wall, did not blink at Sutton's threats. He waged a brilliant battle. His counter-threat was to privatize Sutton's political base, the sanitation department. On another front, Rendell leaked to the press doomsday scenarios of massive layoffs and lists of some of those work rules most likely to enrage the public, such as 14 paid holidays, including Flag Day. And in a bargain that would eventually come to mar his legacy, he elicited the support of the mercurial African-American City Council president John Street, boss of North Philadelphia, who like Rendell opposed further tax increases. Famous for never forgetting a slight, Street was feared as much as admired, but his cooperation was essential for Rendell's agenda.
For months, the unions thought Rendell, facing the threat of chaotic strikes and race riots, was bluffing. They tried delay; they brought in national labor leaders to hurl their standard slogans and intimidate the mayor. But with public opinion firmly behind Rendell and with the City Council quiescent under Street's command, none of it worked. The mayor triumphed in October with a four-year contract stipulating no raises in the first two years, only minimal ones in the following two, and a lowering of health benefits to $360 a month per employee. The contract reduced paid holidays from 14 to ten and gave the city greater control over worker productivity. Though no one knew it at the time, Rendell had secured union boss Sutton's quiescence by signing a secret agreement not to contract out sanitation, regardless of the $30-million-a-year savings and improved efficiency it would have brought.
Before his election, Rendell, having lost the Democratic primaries for governor in 1986 and mayor in 1987, and dogged by a reputation for frat-boy antics and a failure to pay parking tickets, had seemed a less than stellar pol. But in the battle with the unions, he showed he was much more than that, capable of outstanding skill and courage. He not only reversed out-of-control spending and entitlements but also introduced what seemed to be a new model of urban management. After contracting out 15 different city functions, including the guarding of the art museum and the cleaning of City Hall, he had saved the city $35 million a year. By the fall of 1993, without raising taxes and through a host of cost-cutting measures, including renegotiating city vendor contracts, his administration had eliminated the structural deficit it had inherited when Rendell first took office.
On top of that, Rendell as mayor radiated ethnic warmth and helluva-guy ebullience—just the qualities that won him the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in September 1999. Attending as many as a dozen events in a single day, making tearful visits to the relatives of wounded police officers, jumping into city swimming pools, on his hands and knees scraping off years of accumulated dirt from the walls of City Hall's men's room, downing hoagies, he raised Philadelphia's spirits and hopes. It began to seem as if the city might become as lively, lovable, and entertaining as Ed Rendell himself. And to raise their spirits even more, Philadelphians woke up to the morning papers to discover that they had been clever enough to elect a mayor worthy of glowing articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
Yet there were ominous signs. The mayor himself, the city's Booster-in-Chief, was privately gloomy about his city's future. "We're dying," Bissinger recounts the mayor saying mournfully to the White House aide in charge of intergovernmental affairs. "Forget all the good things I've done; Philadelphia is dying." He had cause to worry. Black and white middle-class families with children were continuing—as they do today—to pour out of the city. They always cited the same reasons: schools, crime, and taxes. Schools, crime, and taxes: it was a recurrent chant—but not one to which Rendell was able to respond. Caught up in conventional assumptions, the mayor, after his budgetary triumph, was ultimately unwilling to grapple with the deeper structural problems that virtually guarantee Philly's continuing decline—showing that even a brush with disaster isn't always enough to galvanize an administration into pursuing wholesale reform.
High taxes head those problems. A study by Penn professor Robert Inman found that the wage tax had cost the city 100,000 jobs between 1966 and 1992. The taxes needed to pay for an aging population of pensioners and current public employees, according to a study by Vertex, a publisher of business tax software, gave Philly the highest business costs of the nation's 27 largest cities, squelching employment. Despite adding 10,000 jobs in 1997 and 1998, during a red-hot national boom, Philadelphia is still down 57,000 jobs from the start of the decade. The city doesn't attract the kinds of start-up businesses flourishing elsewhere. In 1997, Philadelphia had one new business started for every 275 residents, compared with one in 97 in San Francisco and one in 66 in Houston. Meanwhile, the surrounding counties experienced such a boom that a city resident is now more likely to commute to the suburbs than a suburbanite is likely to commute into the city. Though why city residents would want to stay remains a puzzle: a family of four paid 15 percent more in local tax than it would in high-tax New York or Chicago, and twice what it would pay in L.A.
Rendell has made job creation a top goal, yet in response to what he himself calls Philadelphia's "oppressive tax structure," he has managed only a fractional reduction of both the wage and gross-receipts tax. Once he had successfully balanced the budget, he failed to seek other ways of saving the city money—such as further privatization or shrinking the city's workforce—that might have allowed greater reductions. The result: during his entire tenure, city expenditures have risen faster than inflation, and taxes are nowhere near the level that would make Philly attractive to business.
Still, Rendell did understand that Philadelphia's economic future lies not in neighborhoods centered on local factories but in a vibrant Center City, home to what East-Coast developer Bill Rouse calls a "new, hospitality-driven economy" that takes advantage of Philadelphia's rich colonial history. The new convention center, begun before Rendell's election but opened early in his mayoralty, has helped him make the city a tourist and convention stop. In addition to an explosion of new hotels—15 of them in the last five years—Rendell's hands-on promotional efforts produced the groundbreaking for a new performing-arts center, a Disney Quest entertainment center, the 2000 Republican Convention, and probably, courtesy of money from Harrisburg rather than the city treasury, two new sports stadiums. Today, Center City contains 40 percent of the city's jobs, a fact that sometimes provokes grumbling from the neighborhoods that Rendell is really only the mayor "from Pine to Vine," the two streets that mark the boundaries of downtown.
Rendell's personalized deal-making, though, has an old-fashioned, big-city-mayor quality that has blinded him to the opportunities that the new biotech and finance firms blossoming in nearby Chester and Montgomery Counties present, even though many of these firms along booming suburban Route 202 had their start at the city's universities and medical schools. Instead, the mayor has sought to revive—expensively—the antiquated but historic Philadelphia Naval Yard. He and Governor Tom Ridge have given the Anglo-Norwegian firm Kvaerner over $400 million in subsidies, for which Kvaerner was obligated to create between 700 and 1,000 jobs—a $400,000 subsidy per job, at best. Worse still, Kvaerner, faced with low-cost competition from other countries, has now withdrawn from the shipbuilding business, as if to mock the city's superannuated approach to job creation. So that $400 million—which, notes David Thornburgh of the Pennsylvania Economy League, could have begun buying down the wage tax that is chasing off more innovative businesses—bought virtually nothing.
Nowhere are the limitations of Ed Rendell's public-subsidy, deal-making approach to job creation clearer than in his agenda for impoverished North Philadelphia. Rendell had once described the area as a "tumble-down, emptied-out, garbage-strewn sprawl . . . , where seven of ten adults are unemployed and where children by age 12 develop a total lack of hope." In truth, North Philadelphia's "badlands" are probably the worst American slums of the last half century, more like the shantytowns of Santo Domingo than anything we associate with the United States. With their collapsed houses, abandoned lots, and daytime drug zombies, areas like Kensington, ten minutes north of Center City, compare unfavorably to the South Bronx of the 1970s. This is the district of City Council president John Street, a man who often casts himself in the familiar Philadelphia role of defender of the neighborhood against Center City interests. "We pay and pay," he once cried (with some hyperbole), "and all we see is fancy buildings going up in the center of town."
This sort of charge must have made Rendell wince, for he had often worn his compassion for the inner-city poor on his sleeve. More than any other big-city mayor, he continuously opposed welfare reform because of the "fiscal and human catastrophe" that he warned would ensue once thousands of former recipients looked for work in his job-hungry city—despite the mounting evidence that seemed to contradict him in his own streets. He displayed some of the same moral urgency when he set out to get federal money for an em-powerment zone in North Philadelphia, aimed at bringing jobs to those same welfare recipients. Author Bissinger, who makes Rendell's testimony before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on empowerment zones the emotional high point of his book, describes him as speaking of the city's plight and its economic decline "with passion that reached just a notch below outrage, . . . urgently as if his words couldn't keep up with the fervor of his belief in them." His plea for federal funds, Bissinger assures us, wasn't just another request for a handout from Washington. Instead, says Bissinger, he was "seeking a way, at minimal public expense, of bringing an obliterated portion of the American landscape back to life."
It was quite a performance, but its outcome casts doubt on its sincerity. In a series of searing articles in the Daily News, investigative reporter Paul Davies described how both Street and Rendell looked the other way as the empowerment zone degenerated into a useless patronage operation. It appears that Rendell's administration rested on an alliance that was at once a stroke of political genius and a devil's bargain. Street delivered the City Council for Rendell's agenda of relative fiscal restraint and downtown development, while Rendell gave Street a free hand in North Philly and the promise of support when the councilman ran for mayor, as he is now doing. Their cooperation has cooled racial passions, but at the cost of the continuing collapse of North Philadelphia.
Now, five years and many millions of dollars after the mayor's dramatic performance before the Senate, the empowerment zone has produced numerous jobs and contracts for John Street's allies, several large holes in the ground where the Billie Holiday Entertainment Complex was supposed to be, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills. And the response from Philadelphians? Davies's stories have produced a collective "What did you expect?" True, as the zone has come under federal and state investigation, Rendell has felt compelled to take action: the sign touting Rendell and Street at one of the sites has been removed.
Rendell's crime policies have been feckless and outdated, too, though this time some Philadelphians refused to be satisfied. The Philadelphia police needed reforming, for sure. The department, notes Temple professor and former New York cop James Fyfe, "has never been accused of professionalism." It had the dubious distinction of being the first police force sued for systematic brutality and the only big-city force, Fyfe says, "where even white ethnics feared the police." Still, the citizens' fear paled next to city officials' fear of the police as a political force. Thanks to a residency requirement, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which includes commanding officers, patrolmen, and retirees, is a powerful voting block in Philly as well as a big campaign contributor. Judges, D.A.s, mayors, and other elected officials criticize the cops at their political peril.
Rendell played by the old political rules. Trumpeting "statistics" proving that Philadelphia was the safest big city in America—even though as a former D.A. he probably knew that the numbers had been cooked, as has since come to light—Rendell not only pooh-poohed ex-New York City police chief William Bratton's innovative and successful zero-tolerance policing strategy; he also refused requests for a New York-style Mollen Commission to look into systematic, widespread police misconduct. Meanwhile, bowing to pressure from both the FOP and black ministers, who, now that they had a white mayor, were determined to have an African-American police chief, he gave the job to the ineffectual Richard Neal, a department lifer. The mayor's "crime policy," explains Inquirer columnist David Boldt, "reflects a tacit deal with black leaders," which made Neal the figurehead, while Rendell and his indispensable aide, David Cohen, ran the force on a business-as-usual basis.
Rendell, the FOP, and John Street might passively have let crime ravage North Philadelphia through the mayor's second and final term, had it not been for a North Philadelphia state legislator named Dwight Evans. Evans, who understood the lessons of successful police reform elsewhere, couldn't stomach the toll that crime was taking on North Philadelphia—or Rendell's stubborn provincialism. He askedBill Bratton to give a Convention Center speech on how he had dramatically cut crime in New York. But in a bravura performance, Rendell continued to insist it was all a perception problem and stole the show back with a handout "proving" that crime had dropped 17 percent in Philly. A few days later, the Inquirer showed that, even using Philadelphia's phony statistics, which systematically downgraded those crimes that were allowed to be reported, the numbers had gone up 9 percent. It was only under continued pressure from the African-American Evans and the so-called Gang of Five—a biracial, bipartisan group of state legislators from Philly—that Rendell finally took action. Despite the protest of the NAACP and the black ministers, he pushed Neal aside and brought in Bratton's former top aide, John Timoney, in March 1998.
The FOP has fought Timoney—only the third top cop ever brought in from outside the ranks—tooth and nail. Since the Philadelphia police commissioner can appoint and dismiss only his two top deputies—the rest have both union and civil-service protection—it's been a lonely battle. When Timoney tried to bring in Penn cartographers to help reproduce New York's successful Compstat crime-mapping system in Philly, the FOP filed a grievance that those had to be union jobs.
Even so, the formidable Timoney, who holds two masters degrees and likes to quote Yeats and Joyce, has mobilized popular support for his reforms through virtually nonstop meetings with community and church groups. He has brought hope to neighborhoods that city government had long abandoned. When he launched Operation Sunrise, a full-throttle assault on gun and drug dealing in the "badlands," residents stood on their porches and applauded as police cars and sanitation trucks paraded into Kensington to start the operation, the Inquirer reports. Police morale (especially for those cops who had been chafing under the old regime) and public confidence in the force have been rising as crime and complaints against the police have dropped. Murders fell from 418 in 1997 to 338 in 1998, and 1999 looks to be even better, with 166 homicides as of August 16, compared with 200 in same period last year.
Rendell seems of two minds about the policing success forced on him. Though he's been publicly supportive of Timoney, he clings to his old illusions that crime can't fall as a result of better policing but only as a result of an improvement in its supposed "root causes": poverty and racism. Even after Timoney had begun to reduce Philly's crime, Rendell told the Washington Post that a growing economy and the decline of crack use were "as responsible as anything for the decline in homicides." It's a slow learning curve.
On education, Rendell has shown more interest in reform than earlier Philadelphia mayors, but even here, because he is ultimately wedded to an obsolete orthodoxy—and because he has been unwavering in supporting a prickly superintendent who has offended everyone—his efforts haven't borne fruit. When he took office, the Philadelphia District—over 75 percent black and Hispanic—looked like any other failed big-city system, with only a quarter of the elementary-school children reading at grade level and high-school seniors scoring more than 200 points under the national average on their SATs. For every 100 high-school kids, there were six incidents of crime during the school year, and 25 students suspended. A cumbrously bureaucratic Board of Education oversaw everything from hiring the superintendent to the toilet-paper contracts, often enough granted to board members' relatives. The mighty Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had, among other perks, one of the shortest schooldays in the nation, so short it didn't meet the state requirement for minimum hours of schooling. So bad was the situation that Philadelphia's ordinarily passive business community began to get involved.
When Rendell named David W. Hornbeck superintendent in 1994, he must have thought he was truly living up to his reputation as America's Mayor. Unlike past in-house appointees, Hornbeck had won a national reputation as a visionary reformer as Secretary of Education in Maryland and the architect of statewide reform in Kentucky. The business community, the City Council, even usually wary state officials, greeted his arrival enthusiastically. Board Chairman of the Children's Defense Fund and both a lawyer and doctor of divinity, Hornbeck is an old-fashioned civil-rights liberal, zealously dedicated to the plight of poor minority children.
In a ten-point agenda, with which even his now-numerous enemies have few quarrels, Hornbeck imposed tough standards, testing, and full-day kindergarten, and he sought increased accountability and longer workdays from teachers. But in one key respect, Hornbeck took Philadelphia back to the tired approaches that America's Mayor was supposed to have transcended: he blamed poor school performance chiefly on inadequate funding from Harrisburg—and he did so in the most pious and provocative terms. Philadelphia spends a little over $7,000 per student—a bit more than the state average—and about half of that money comes from the state. But as Hornbeck has pointed out, suburban Lower Merion spends about $12,000 per student. Never mind that most of that money comes from local taxes or that the state provides considerably less money per pupil to wealthy districts than to poor. For Hornbeck, the conclusion was obvious: the gap between Philadelphia and Lower Merion was a consequence of racism.
He has lectured relentlessly—hectoringly—about the need for more state money. In one indignant speech, he likened Harrisburg's distribution of education funds to apartheid in South Africa. "Our children," he self-righteously intoned in another, "have been held in bondage, . . . condemned to a modern form of slavery." The climactic moment came in the spring of 1998, when Hornbeck, with Rendell at his side, announced that he was submitting a $1.5 billion budget that would require another $85 million or so from Harrisburg, though the state had not agreed to it. Should the district run out of money, he implied, he would merely close the schools.
By then, Hornbeck had managed to enrage everyone from whom he needed help—not just Republicans like Governor Ridge but several black, Democratic legislators, his most likely allies. Appropriations Committee head Dwight Evans, for instance, took offense at Hornbeck's charges of racism. Other legislators blasted his strategy as "blackmail." Fed up, Harrisburg passed an emergency measure that would allow the state to take over the district and, for good measure, would significantly weaken the teachers' union by forbidding strikes and bringing entitlements like the assignment and transferring of teachers under state control if the schools did indeed shut down. Radicalized by Hornbeck's hectoring, some legislators got further fired up by the idea of taking over the troubled district. They began to look at school reform in innovative Cleveland, Houston, and Milwaukee. With the governor, they formulated the Academic Recovery Act, a radical attempt at reform that offers distressed districts cutting-edge possibilities, from vouchers to the power to convert existing schools to charter schools or to contract out the running of schools to for-profit companies.
And what was Ed Rendell's view of all this? Just when the state legislature seemed on the verge of passing the Academic Recovery Act, it's widely reported in Harrisburg that the ever-dealing mayor called several Philly legislators to help block it temporarily—which they successfully did—arguing that they could trade their support for the measure later in exchange for more money for city schools. The truth is, though Rendell doesn't strongly disbelieve in charter schools or vouchers, he is no real education reformer; he is stuck in the increasingly outworn belief that more money, rather than systemic restructuring, is the true key to fixing the public schools. A memo from pollster Neil Oxman warned Rendell that schools were going to become the number-one issue in the next election if he didn't do something as dramatic as he had finally done with crime. Oxman went on to say that few citizens believed the argument that insufficient funds were the problem, and fewer than a third of Philadelphians thought Hornbeck should be rehired. According to the Inquirer, Rendell pronounced the memo "bizarre" and extended Hornbeck's contract into the next mayoralty. And in 1996 he accepted a teacher's contract that was a sorry decline from his heroic 1992 struggle with the unions. It managed to win another 19 minutes of teaching time from the teachers—just barely enough to satisfy state minimums—but that was about it.
Rendell claims that the Philadelphia schools are improving under Hornbeck. True, test scores have risen in the lower grades, but too little, too late. Almost half of fourth-graders and two-thirds of eleventh-graders still can't read at grade level, and Hornbeck has failed to inspire confidence in the very minority families he was dedicated to helping. They want out of his system. When Ted Forstmann and John Walton's Children's Scholarship Fund offered private vouchers to poor families, Philadelphia received 41,000 applications for 5,000 positions, 33 percent of those eligible—a proportion second only to Baltimore. Philadelphia blacks and Hispanics support vouchers by over 72 percent and 78 percent, respectively, according to a recent poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. And now African-American leaders like Evans and Tony Williams are calling for what Williams calls a "family-driven process, not a system-driven process."
Morale is low for everyone in the system. Only 38 percent of newly appointed teachers are still on the job after two years, while 15 per cent of the principals and assistant principals have left in the last 13 months alone, in what Michael Axelrod, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, calls a "massive brain drain." As for the students, up to a third of them do not show up regularly in some high schools, prompting Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok to scoff, "Class size is not a problem in Philadelphia. No one is going to school."
Shipping executive Steve Van Dyck, until recently Governor Ridge's top appointee to PICA, the city's financial oversight board, summarizes the Rendell years accurately: "Ed did a nice job of picking the low-lying fruit. But he did not fight the big battles that need to be fought." The danger is that the big battles will continue to be put off, because, after eight years of Rendell's irrepressible boosterism, Philadelphians believe their city is in better shape than it is. Councilman John Street, the mayor's "partner" and designated heir, is running for mayor on the premise that there is no need to disturb the current era of good feeling, no need to tackle school and tax reform. In fact, Street, who seems unenthusiastic about Timoney's attempt to curb patronage in the police department, may not even want to hold on to the low-hanging fruit that Ed Rendell picked.
Street's opponent, Sam Katz, though a Republican, is the true successor to the Rendell who warned that "what's dangerous is the belief out there that we've got it licked." One of the financial advisors behind Rendell's first-term success, Katz argues that "Philadelphia must end denial and face up to reality" with "sharply lower taxes" and substantial school reform, including charter schools and vouchers. He promises to leverage the Rendell-era self-esteem into wider reforms. He can't be the favorite in a city that is three-to-one Democratic. But Street's "I'll get even" personality and Katz's ties to black, homosexual, and Jewish voters provide the possibility of a competitive race.
Ed Rendell has kept his bargain and thrown his support behind John Street. But in a moment of stunning candor, he told Philadelphia magazine, "If I woke up the day after the election and Sam Katz was the mayor, there'd be no reason to be concerned." It's as if he senses that his own legacy may well be judged on the success of his successor. Rendell saved the city from immediate disaster, but he didn't stop Philly's long, slow, downward slide. The question for this election is whether Katz can, without undermining the city's newfound optimism, convey enough urgency to the voters to get the chance to try. If he can't, expect the city's decline to continue.
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).