Forget Dems and Repubs, Let’s Organize City Politics Around Actual City Issues

Local and national politics getting mixed up in South Philly. Credit: Flickr user freakapotimus

Domination of Philadelphia by the Democratic party had become almost total, and within the party the machine excluded much of the old liberal/black coalition on which its strength was formerly based, as well as the smaller interest groups that had begun to characterize Philadelphia political life… Most of these groups, most of their ideologies, are not powerful enough to create policy, but they do have the strength, in the face of a government without a strong set of positive goals and objectives of its own, to stop things from happening — government by veto, it might be called.

This passage, from Stephanie G. Wolf’s chapter in Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, describes political life in the 1960s and ’70s at the dawn of the Democratic Party’s monopoly on city politics. It could just as easily describe Philly political life in 2013.

Party competition has been moribund in Philadelphia for decades, but there may be some ways to reorganize municipal politics around a real ideological division that polarizes city residents — growth and development. To understand what that might look like, it’s important to remember why political parties are so useful.

Wolf’s description of how city politics changed in the absence of parties is instructive. Normally it’s the parties who supply a “strong set of positive goals and objectives” that organizes donors, activists and interest groups. Clashes between the two contrasting issue platforms that each appeal to large numbers of voters animate civic participation, resulting in competitive elections.

The trouble lies with political party labels, which often tell voters 99 percent of what they need to know about a politician’s outlook on national issues. Individual politicos can hold some idiosyncratic positions, too, but if you entered the voting booth knowing nothing about a candidate for Congress other than her party affiliation, you’d be pretty well informed about her attitudes toward Obamacare or the fiscal cliff.

Yet party labels tell voters almost no useful information about a candidate’s stance on municipal-level issues. Democrats and Republicans are found on both sides of debates over zoning, parking, historic preservation and all the rest. So when Philadelphians vote their national party affiliation in city elections, they aren’t necessarily voting for the policies they want.

What are the ideological divisions at the municipal level that could fuel real party competition? Many of them arguably turn on attitudes about growth and insider-outsider issues. Here are a few examples:

  • Developers and future housing consumers versus incumbent landowners
  • Entrepreneurs versus incumbent business owners
  • Future workers versus incumbent workers
  • Future taxi drivers versus taxi medallion owners
  • Mobile vendors versus incumbent food sellers

If city politics were organized from scratch around these issues, we might see electoral competition between something like a Build Philadelphia party pushing for growth and a Preserve Philadelphia party supporting a more protectionist agenda.

In the absence of coherent agendas for municipal-level issues, city politicians mainly compete to prove their responsiveness to constituents by stopping things from happening, such as new housing construction, bike lanes and demolitions. “Councilmanic Prerogative,” the unilateral control members of the Philadelphia City Council afford each other over land use and development issues, is a perfect expression of this.

Even though last year’s zoning reforms will allow some more development projects to be built without special political approval, council members will retain the right to spot-zone individual parcels on a whim, purely on the basis of political discretion and without concern for the citywide interest in more housing growth and a bigger tax base. The new code was supposed to make the process more rule-based and predictable for housing developers, but continuing Councilmanic Prerogative ensures that random, politician-directed remappings will continue to put parochial neighborhood interests ahead of the broader citywide interest.

Kim Wilson, a professor at Temple University’s College of Education, argues that the arbitrary nature of the Philadelphia political system, where the rules change based on whom you know, depresses political engagement:

The concerns of the community are never really taken seriously, unless that community is in a high-status area. In other communities, local voices tend to be marginalized. That’s a recurring theme in the literature and we see it in terms of what actually gets developed. Who gets a voice is contingent on where that community is located. People who have already been mistreated and ignored don’t think getting involved in the process will improve things.

This is consistent with Wolf’s observation that “participation in the political process as measured by registration and voting statistics declined continuously” under one-party control. When there’s no hope that an election can change the direction of municipal policy, people don’t see the point in showing up to vote. They become cynical about the ability to affect change through elections.

How can this dynamic be changed in favor of a less dysfunctional set of political incentives?

One idea is to create new development politics outside of City Council by directly electing members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) to at-large seats, rather than selecting them through mayoral appointment.

ZBA is the political body that determines whether to grant variances for projects that don’t conform to the zoning code. In theory, after outdated neighborhood zoning maps are updated, fewer variance cases should go before the board, because more projects will be built by right. The requests that do come through may land in more of a political gray area, where board members’ ideological views on growth and development color their votes on projects. If that turns out to be the case, why not make the political nature of these choices more explicit by selecting ZBA members through at-large citywide elections?

Developers and building trades unions could back more pro-development candidates, neighborhood groups opposed to more growth and development could back others, and then the electoral system could sort political preferences, just like it does when Democrats and Republicans fight for control of the policymaking apparatus. Easy enough, right?

When I asked Christopher Goodman, professor of public policy at Rutgers University-Camden, about the idea, he pointed out some complications:

Christopher Berry at the University of Chicago has published research# showing that elected single-focus districts, typically citywide, tend to get captured by whatever industry or group they are overseeing. So in the case of ZBA, that would be developers. The issue is that you’d be balancing the council against the ZBA, and it seems like the people in the districts that are either for or against these things would get a little drowned out.

In some ways, a ZBA captured by developers — and therefore inclined to allow more projects to proceed — might be preferable to a status quo where housing doesn’t keep up with demand. Philadelphia might get more total housing construction with such a board. On the other hand, construction might not stay in line with the delicate political compromises that allowed the new zoning code to pass. It’s easy to imagine a developer-stacked ZBA that disregards the Planning Commission’s design guidelines and binges on, say, sidewalk-facing residential garages.

Alternatively, might an elected ZBA be captured instead by neighborhood groups opposed to more infill development?

“I think that could work if there were district seats,” Goodman said. “If they were at-large seats, that would be a high bar to clear… my fear would be that these races would be so far down ballot, and the turnout would be so low, that we would have very few voters determining who sat on these boards.”

David Schleicher of George Mason University’s School of Law echoed these fears of too-obscure and low-information ZBA elections:

In most cities, the result of having citywide elected officials below the mayor is that it gives the major political party the ability to appoint them. If you look at non-mayoral elected officials, there are sometimes primaries, but for the most part the party organization does the appointing. The people who have the heft to get them on the ballot end up with the appointment power.

Rather than creating an arena for more competitive development politics, in other words, the outcome might be that ZBA elections simply create more positions for Democratic ward leaders to fill. So even with a single-focus political body concerned with a city issue, national party labels would continue to work their mischief.

“The benefit of doing something like this would be that you could create a development politics separate from the usual City Council politics,” Schleicher said. “But you have to think about who votes in primary elections, which would in practice be the general elections. It’s not the full citywide electorate. It’s a much smaller group of people.”

There may be no getting around the need for brand new local political parties. That may sound like a daunting challenge for those familiar with efforts to form viable third parties and elect third-party candidates But there is a simple hack to Pennsylvania ballot access rules that could allow new Philadelphia parties to overcome both a lopsided Democratic affiliation and the “first-past-the-post” problem facing most minor party candidates.

That hack is called fusion voting. It allows two or more parties to list the same candidate on their ballot lines, and then pool the votes for that candidate. So rather than having to choose between a Democratic candidate and a Build Philadelphia Party candidate, a voter could cast her vote for a pro-growth Democrat on the BPP ballot line. All votes for that candidate from all the ballot lines would be tallied up, so there’d be no risk in voting for a minor party.

This system exists in New York, Connecticut, South Carolina, Vermont and Oregon. It used to exist in Pennsylvania.

In the lead up to the great Philadelphia municipal consolidation of 1854, a Consolidation Party was able to pressure major Democratic and Whig candidates to support putting Philadelphia County under a single municipal government. The Consolidation Party was just one of several local parties including the Paid Fire Department Party, the Prohibition Party and the Native American Party.

With fusion voting, some motivated Philadelphians could circulate petitions to put a Paid Sick Days Party (or a Mixed Use Party) on the ballot. Then the Democratic candidates would compete to secure those parties’ endorsements by adopting some of their issue preferences, and appear on their ballot lines in addition to the Democratic Party ballot lines.

This would turn municipal politics into open competition between interest groups and make it clear to voters which policies are likely to be enacted if they vote for this or that candidate. The fusion ballot would go a long way toward fixing the information problems created by national party labels. New local parties and coalitions might also spend resources on educating voters about the issues at stake, registering new people to vote and generally expanding the sphere of civic participation — a role now outsourced to policy-agnostic good government groups like the Committee of Seventy.

It’s unfortunate that the lack of competitive politics in Philadelphia is so often blamed on the voters, who simply make the best choices they can with the limited options they are given. The city is bursting with civic participation and volunteerism in other areas outside the narrow scope of elections. Opening up greater issue competition through fusion voting could channel some of that activist spirit into the city’s municipal elections, and restore the robust civic energy that once percolated in the birthplace of American democracy.

Jonathan Geeting is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, where he writes about land use and public space politics. His work appears at Next City, This Old City and Keystone Politics.

Tags: philadelphiareal estatezoningcity councils