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Here it is just two weeks in 2014, and already I have to break one of my New Year’s resolutions. I promised myself that I would not write a word about the mayor’s race until at least the first day of summer.
But, then along comes Kevin Johnson, the pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, telling Sean Collins Walsh of the Daily News that he’s considering running for mayor.
This could be a game changer.
Johnson, 39, is new to the city—he became pastor in 2006—so apparently he doesn’t know the rules under which we operate. You can’t walk into town and run for mayor. You have to pay your dues over a period of, say, 20 or 25 years.
Johnson told Walsh that he was in the thinking stage about becoming a candidate, though obviously he is thinking out loud.
He has time to cogitate—the Democratic primary isn’t until the spring of 2015.
There is a lot that would make Johnson a good candidate. He is bright, young, articulate, a minister and pastor of a venerable and famous black church
that was the home of the late Rev. William Gray III, a political power broker and congressman.
Charisma and a power base can take you a long way, as Gray proved.
Johnson is bound to create buzz mostly because the other ‘mentioned’ candidates haven’t. Alan Butkowitz, Anthony Hardy Williams, Darrell Clarke, etc. Excuse me while I suppress a yawn.
It explains why there has been so much said in these early stages about “Someone Else” as a mayoral candidate. A business executive? A university official? A woman with political smarts? Any random millionaire?
Johnson puts a face on that “Someone Else” yearning among the chattering class and the political folks who aren’t joined at the hip to the Democratic political organization.
He also has history on his side. With the exception of James H.J. Tate, none of our mayors have been machine Democrats. In fact, most of them ignored the party organization or openly opposed it. And the party reciprocated. Bill Green the Elder, Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter were opposed by the party organization.
To put it nicely, the Democratic organization hasn’t exactly served as an incubator for political leaders. It’s gotten to the stage where serious candidates for citywide office find it best to distance themselves from the party.
Do being ward leaders disadvantage Williams (Third Ward) and Butkowitz (54th Ward)? It does, though maybe the fact they are also elected officials offsets the negative.
It should be noted that Michael Nutter was and is Democratic leader of the 52nd Ward. In Council, though, Nutter was always more of a rebel that a regular.
Beyond the pro- or anti-party issue lies more important ones. They center on this question: What qualities does the next mayor need?
Personal integrity, of course. Political courage certainly. An ability to mobilize public sentiment and use the bully pulpit the job hands you. A willingness to look for new answers to old questions. A good eye for talent. A pragmatic approach to big problems—as opposed to throwing rhetoric at them.
As mayor, you also have to be aware of the fundamental division in this city: about half the people worry about services and about half worry about taxes.
There’s been enough said about the fact that our tax structure, particularly as regards business, retards our economic growth. I think we have had at least three mayoral commissions point that out. Our competitors for new businesses and the jobs they create lie just over the city’s boundary lines, but extend farther than the eye can see.
There’s an equally strong desire to maintain city services—police and fire, recreation and streets—that cannot be denied, certainly not by any elected official.
The costs associated with delivering those services currently exceeds our income from taxes, due mostly to so-called “legacy costs” associated with public pension, wage and benefit costs.
We never got a chance, really, to see how Nutter would handle that division because circumstances forced his hand. The Great Recession hit at the end of his first year in office. He ended up both increasing taxes and downsizing city government.
The trajectory of government costs exceeding government income has to change.
Which of the candidates—if any—will have the willingness to confront it? It’s easier to change the topic, especially if you are a bona fide member of the Democratic establishment. For you, the status quo works just fine.
The fact that we are, increasingly, a one-party town limits our options. A viable Republican, offering an alternative view of the possibilities, would be a big help, at least in defining the issues. But we can’t look to a moribund local party to offer up such a candidate.
And we can’t expect someone like Johnson to bear the full weight of talking seriously about issues central to the city’s future. But, it’s a start. We shouldn’t limit this race to the usual suspects. The possibility of “Someone Else” entering the race is exciting.