Change at the Top Depends on a Commitment from Below


What goes around comes around, they say, and we Philadelphians have been treated to more than a healthy dose of that reality of late.

What goes around comes around, they say, and we Philadelphians have been treated to more than a healthy dose of that reality of late. As we proudly watched our city take the world’s center stage — last fall in hosting Pope Francis and then this summer, when it welcomed the Democratic National Convention — we also found it impossible to ignore the train wreck of failed politicians, one after another, seemingly falling from grace.
I’d like to say that when it comes to its politics Philadelphia is a better city in 2016 than when I left for Israel in 2006, but alas, so much appears unchanged now that I’m back. The region may be one of the best in the country to educate your children and the city one of the hippest for the millennial set, but when it comes to the misdeeds of its public servants and their benefactors, it sadly leaves much to be desired.
This has become an historic summer for unsavory news, first with the conviction of then-U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah on bribery and other charges, then with the raiding of labor leader John Dougherty’s home and offices by the FBI, then with last week’s conviction of Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Kathleen Kane (she’s not a Philadelphian, but it was hard to ignore her trial in nearby Norristown), and the most recent headlines of District Attorney Seth Williams’ failure to originally disclose upward of $160,000 in gifts and a federal investigation into his finances.
As many across the United States bemoan the two choices atop this November’s ballot, we’re left wading in our own cesspool of apparent greed and questionable conduct by our leaders.
“Is it sloppiness or willful deceit?” David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the election watchdog Committee of Seventy, told The Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday regarding the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, which City Controller Alan Butkovitz accused of being used as a “slush fund” during the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter.
“Who knows?”
So where does that leave us? We could choose to view these developments as cyclical manifestations of a political system that has a tendency to take promising professionals who have the best of their communities at heart and spits them out as grotesque caricatures of well-meaning, but corrupted suits.
We might also seize upon King Solomon’s observation, ein kol chadash tachat hashemesh, “There is nothing new under the sun,” content that corruption is a part of life, that what is will be, that however bad it is, it’s happened before.
Both of those approaches are cop-outs, mere excuses to defend inaction.
It’s those types of attitudes that got us here, and nothing less than an ironclad commitment among each of us to demand change will fix the problem. I’m not saying that we have to go all Howard Beale and scream that we’re “mad as hell and … not going to take it anymore,” but we do have to acknowledge that collectively, the citizenry has power at the ballot box, in letters to the editor and on social media. Our ability to effect change is only a matter of how much we care and how much light we can shed upon the shortcomings of our government.
“It sounds like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Thornburgh told me, “but also happes to be true. Voters … I think underappeciate the value a few phone calls can make.”
Now, in the hyper-politicized environment we find ourselves, it would be incredibly easy to dismiss the problems in Philadelphia and around the state as a Democratic issue — all of the politicians I’ve mentioned are Democrats, after all. But that would be a mistake.
The other side of the aisle has its own bad apples and, as we’ve seen in the presidential race, no party can pretend to have a monopoly on virtue. That’s why, come the day after Election Day, we better be prepared to stop thinking of things in terms of the Republican and Democratic divide, and instead embrace a politics that puts an emphasis on compromise and achievement instead of obstructionism and the status quo.
For myself, I’m going to use this column over the coming  months to highlight those areas where I feel we, as a city, as a region, as a community and as a people, are falling short, where we’re succeeding and how we can do better. Our tradition teaches that although perfection can only be achieved in the messianic era, constant improvement is both an individual and a collective imperative.
Let’s break the current cycle of indifference and apathy enabling cynicism at the top and turn our politics into a system worthy of representing a city as great as Philadelphia.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He welcomes your comments at


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