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Philadelphia is in trouble. Not because of toxic political infighting that pits one neighborhood against another, but because of its strained relationship with the state.
To a certain extent, this is nothing new. There has long been an anti-Philadelphia bias in Harrisburg, and nearly a decade of hyper-partisanship has widened the divide. Despite all that, Philadelphia has always been able to receive its just due from the state. After all, our city, when combined with our immediate suburbs and Allegheny County, accounts for more than a third of Pennsylvania’s revenue.
In recent years, however, things have changed. The state, in many ways, has become more of an adversary than an ally, and while some blame cultural or political differences for this phenomenon, there is a more practical explanation. Philadelphia, which is home to 1-in-8 Pennsylvania voters, doesn’t vote in large enough numbers in statewide elections. We must change that beginning with the gubernatorial primaries this May. If we don’t, we may once again find ourselves living out a cold political truth: Elections have consequences.
We are facing those consequences even now.
In the last gubernatorial primary, in 2010, only 198,047 Philadelphia voters turned out to vote. In the general election, just 435,565 out of 1 million eligible Philadelphia voters showed up at the polls. As a result, former state Attorney General Tom Corbett won the governor’s race by about 350,000 votes.
Almost immediately, Philadelphia began to suffer.
With the state facing a $4-billion deficit in the wake of a national recession, and federal stimulus funds about to dry up, Corbett and the state legislature slashed about $961 million from education. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center estimated that more than a third of those cuts hit Philadelphia.
With the state budget cuts playing a major role in creating the Philadelphia School District’s $304 million structural deficit, two-dozen Philadelphia public schools were shuttered. The state eventually provided funding to help close the budget gap, but in an ugly irony, the state provided funds for a $400-million prison in Collegeville, Montgomery County, even as Philadelphia’s schools were closing.
One could argue that the state’s initial refusal to provide additional education funding was about extracting concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).
But for those who watch voting patterns, the schools debacle can be traced to one thing—voting.
“I think that the lack of resources for our schools is a consequence of our poor turnout in the 2010 gubernatorial,” City Commissioner Stephanie Singer told me in an interview. “I think the difficulty Mayor Nutter has had when he’s gone to Harrisburg to ask for things—sales tax, schools, a bunch of things—it’s always a struggle for him. If we had voted at full force it would be a little easier for the mayor of Philadelphia—no matter who the mayor is—to go to the governor of Pennsylvania—no matter who the governor is—and say we need this. Simply because of the turnout, those are the kind of real consequences for Philadelphia.”
And the consequences aren’t just about political party or ideological bent, though in today’s polarized political climate, both certainly play a role. The consequences are really about power, and what happens when it is exercised.
“The example I like to use is Hispanics coming out to vote in the 2012 presidential election,” Singer said. “Before the 2012 presidential election, immigration was not necessarily dead in the water. It wasn’t swimming the backstroke, but it wasn’t dead in the water. Well, Hispanics came out in large numbers and voted Democratic in large numbers. Who’s moved the most on the issue of immigration since then? It’s not the Democrats. It’s the Republicans.”
That’s the power of the vote. It can move ideology and change priorities. It can open closed minds and blur hard lines. It can control what happens years after the fact—not just for us, but also for our children.
As I look back on the events of the last four years and recall the protests and rallies that took place in the wake of Corbett’s education cuts, I grieve for the closure of our city’s schools. I remember the passion of people who saw neighborhood institutions shuttered. I remember the anger of communities that felt victimized. I remember, quite frankly, that it didn’t have to be that way.
In the years before the budget cuts, before the closures and before the rallies, we had an opportunity to change the course of history. That opportunity didn’t come with a bus trip to Harrisburg in 2013. It came with the chance to walk to a polling place in 2010.
If 350,000 more of Philadelphia’s eligible voters had taken that walk when it mattered most, perhaps the budget priorities would have been different. Perhaps our schools would still be open. Perhaps our city would be different.
Elections have consequences, Philadelphia. It’s my hope that four years after this one takes place, we won’t be looking back once again with regret.