Something people seem to love to do with respect to Alison Perelman’s good government nonprofit, Philadelphia 3.0, is to use its name to make a point.
David Thornburgh, director of the century-old good government group Committee of Seventy, describes his own organization as having been “Philadelphia 1.0” back in its early days; meantime, Louis Agre, Democratic leader of the 21st Ward, derisively referred to the efforts of Philadelphia 3.0 in The Philadelphia Inquirer as necessitating a new name, “Philadelphia 0.3.”
That spectrum is, in some ways, a broadly accurate way to describe the perception of Perelman’s organization in Philadelphia, which started in 2014. It is a smaller, newer and more agile version of the good government institutions that it shares goals with, focusing on greater democratic participation, electoral reform and more competitive city council elections. At the same time, the organization’s challenges to traditional city politics have ruffled feathers among both old guard Democrats and younger, far-left organizers.
Perelman, 36, is content to suffer the slings and arrows of both incumbents and upstarts for a simple reason: It seems like she’s starting to make waves.
Philadelphia 3.0, a 501(c)(4), was founded on the supposition that one of the more corrosive aspects of Philadelphia’s democratic process was the lack of competitive elections for City Council seats, among other issues. So, Philadelphia 3.0 supports candidates for council that challenge incumbents according to a set of standards determined by Perelman and those who provide funding to the group (more on that later).
“We just wanna know that you are smart, and have a vision, and that you’re willing to take risks, and that you have a creative approach to problem solving,” she said, describing the profile of a candidate that would garner their support. “They can be ideological, but that’s not for us to adjudicate, necessarily.”
Perelman, who is “Ali” to those know her, is the granddaughter of Raymond Perelman, the legendary businessman and philanthropist who recently died at the age of 101. She is a graduate of The Baldwin School and Princeton University, where she studied art history. She spent a few years in Hollywood as an assistant at a talent agency, then working on the Tori Spelling sitcom So Notorious, before she found herself called back to Philadelphia.
“I wanted to make Philadelphia my career,” she said.
She began her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, focusing her dissertation on the ways that politicians, largely at the national level, make themselves legible to voters as “likable” or “approachable.” Academia, she said, was a good way to “exercise a certain part of your brain when you’re just thinking with such rigor about such incredibly specific questions,” but it didn’t stimulate the part of her that wanted to make an impact in the tradition of her family.
Perelman knows her name carries for weight for Philadelphians, in particular Jewish Philadelphians, but sees her family name as something to work toward.
“Inasmuch as there is like a weight that I carry — and it’s not a weight that I carry — but inasmuch as there is something that is banging around in my head around that, it’s more just that you feel so responsible for this place,” she said.
Jewishly speaking, Perelman hasn’t found religious practice to be as meaningful for her as it is for others, but credits a conventional culturally Jewish upbringing, replete with family dinner table conversations, with forcing her to punch above her weight class from a young age.
Alongside her academic work, she became further involved in city politics, and was in the inaugural class of Legislative and Policy Research Fellows for the City of Philadelphia in 2012. In the program, she found herself disabused of the notion that one had to work in the mayor’s office to get in on the real action of Philadelphia. Rather, she said, it was City Council where things could really get done. It was around then that she was approached by a group of intentionally anonymous Philadelphia civic leaders about heading up Philadelphia 3.0.
One oft-repeated criticism of the group is that it represents a serious contradiction to, on one hand, call for greater transparency and openness to the public when it comes to, say, electoral reform or committee-person elections, while also failing to disclose its own source of funding.
And it’s hard not to think that Perelman is unfamiliar with that line of thought; sitting on the desk in her office (situated in a co-working space that literally overlooks City Hall) is a copy of Jane Meyer’s Dark Money, a book that describes what Meyer sees as the nasty consequences of invisible donors. Her detractors have grabbed onto this issue.
“Philadelphia 3.0 is more or less a group that was founded to make the city of Philadelphia government more business-friendly. It was founded by money, and it’s backed by money,” Agre said.
Perelman is familiar with these criticisms, but stresses that a look at Philadelphia 3.0’s endorsements during the last election cycle — which included candidates like Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Isaiah Thomas, among others — reveals that any attempt to characterize the candidates they support beyond possessing a general resolve to upend the status quo would fall flat.
Her supporters are as effusive as her detractors are sure of her insidiousness.
“She’s clearly very bright, she’s determined, she has a pretty good feel for the ins and outs of politics here, which takes some doing,” said Thornburgh, who has been at the Committee of Seventy since 2014. “I think she’s trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. I’m an admirer of hers.”
Jon Geeting, Philadelphia 3.0’s director of engagement, said that even from afar he could see how intelligent and driven she was, which was part of what drew him to join the group in August of 2016. (Geeting, Philadelphia 3.0’s only other full-time employee, is more focused on engaging prospective committee members than on City Council.)
And in 2017, Ed Rendell told Philadelphia Magazine this: “I can close my eyes and see Ali Perelman as mayor of Philadelphia.”
She’s proud of Philadelphia 3.0’s staying power thus far — these types of groups usually have a short shelf life — and moreover, believes that they’re much better positioned for the upcoming election cycle than they were for the previous one.
As for any personal political ambition, Perelman said she can imagine running for office at some point in the future, but remains focused on the task at hand.
“This year presents such an unusual opportunity to drive transformative change,” she said, “and I’m thrilled that I get to help try to make that happen.”