City Life

New Book Examines Philadelphia’s Appetite for Corruption

November 2, 2023 | by Amy Cohen

The hit sitcom Abbott Elementary is set in a Philadelphia public school. In the pilot episode, the idealistic first-year teacher Janine Teagues is frustrated in her quest to get a new classroom rug from School District authorities. Veteran teacher Melissa Schemmenti, a proud South Philly resident, explains how things work.

Janine: “Hey, it’s not impossible to get things. Melissa asked for those new toy cash registers for her classroom and got them.”

Melissa: “Yeah, those aren’t toys. I know a guy who worked a Walmart demolition. I got a guy for everything. I know a guy right now working the stadium build. Need rebar?”

By the end of the episode, one of Melissa’s contacts has supplied a new rug.

According to the recent book by Brett Mandel, Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting, this fictional dialogue epitomizes the way things work, and, more importantly, the way many believe things work, in our city. In 1903, the journalist Lincoln Steffens labeled Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented.” Mandel thinks that 120 years later, corruption continues to hold the city back, and Philadelphians are all too ready to condone or ignore corruption in our political processes.

What is Corruption?

Corruption is the betrayal of the public interest by public officials. It is the combination of cronyism, favoritism, nepotism, bribery, pay-to-play politics, misuse of taxpayer money, and selective enforcement of laws and regulations that make people assume that government only works for insiders. In his book, published in May by Temple University Press, Mandel says that in Philadelphia, we are so accustomed to corruption that “[w]e are more willing to put faith in a friend in City government who can get a pothole filled than in a policy proposal to improve the operations of the Streets Department.”

Former Philadelphia City Council President George X. Schwartz announcing his resignation in 1980 after the FBI recorded him taking a $30,000 bribe during the Abscam scandal. | Photo: Akira Suwa, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1980

Corruption can look like FBI agent Bradley Cooper setting up a sting operation with the help of Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence to target politicians willing to take money from an Arab sheikh, as depicted in the 2013 film American Hustle. Indeed, the Abscam scandal on which the film was based led to the conviction of, among others, three members of City Council and two local members of Congress. But most Philadelphia-style corruption is more subtle. It is rarely prosecuted, and, often, it’s not even illegal.

Corruption is “knowing a guy” who can “fix” a parking ticket. It’s the awarding of no-bid contracts to companies that happen to be major campaign donors. It’s the trading of gifts (from cash to cars to home remodeling) for voting a certain way on legislation. Corruption, some believe, is the way that councilmanic prerogative allows members of City Council  to control all real estate transactions within their districts. It’s all the ways, both large and small, that money and power undermine the functioning of government. And, in Philadelphia, it has been and still is rampant.

The Deep Roots and Continuing Scourge of Philadelphia Corruption

According to Mandel, Benjamin Franklin used his position as the clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly to get contracts printing laws and paper money. Self-dealing among city leaders and construction contractors is one of the reasons that it took three decades to build City Hall. The construction of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and other City Beautiful projects were also drawn out and well-above budget because of decisions made to enrich those in power and their associates. Mandel points out in his book, though, that “[t]he graft-ridden projects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries at least left the city with architectural treasures and grand edifices. Modern corruption simply lines the pockets of the connected few.”

City Hall under construction in 1875. It took 30 years for the building to be completed. | Photo courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty’s career is the salient case in point. Although Mandel describes dozens of corrupt schemes and personalities in the city’s distant and recent history, he spends more time on Johnny Doc than on any other individual. The unseemly story of Dougherty abusing his position as the leader of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 98 and the head of the Building Trades Council is woven throughout the book. During his time in power, Local 98 became the most important source of campaign donations in both the city and the state, and instances of Dougherty expecting political favors in exchange for his largesse were abundant.

In addition to virtually buying a City Councilperson (Bobby Henon, who served as Majority Leader while also collecting $70,000 a year for a no-work job with the IBEW), Dougherty spent huge amounts of ill-gotten funds on expensive sporting events, fancy clothes, and pricey meals for relatives, associates, and himself. Even after a 2019 federal indictment on over 100 counts of crimes such as wire fraud and public corruption, Dougherty continued to be the most influential power broker in the city and to have the ear of Mayor Jim Kenney and other important officials. Despite being charged with crimes including honest services fraud and bribery, no Philadelphia politicians called for Henon to resign or even to step down from his leadership position.

Why Us?

How did Philadelphia become a place where a figure such as Dougherty, widely known as being both corrupt and venal, could hold such dominion over our city? And why has Philadelphia been associated with corruption since long before the journalist Lincoln Steffens coined his indelible phrase? In his book Mandel offers multiple compelling answers to these questions.

From early in city history, educated Philadelphia elites eschewed running for office and engaging in the political realm. Compared to other American cities, our leaders have tended to be more recent arrivals, more self-made, and more likely to see elective office as a source of economic gain.

The main factor contributing to persistent corruption, however, has been our collective penchant for one-party rule. From 1884 to 1952, Philadelphia was a Republican city. Republicans maintained their hold on power through the spoils system and their sway over public contracts. Political bosses routinely exacted votes and donations from citizens in exchange for patronage jobs. City-wide “rings” developed in which dominant Republicans grew rich by controlling sectors of the urban economy such as gas and construction.

Democrats James A. Finnegan, city chairman, Joseph S. Clark, Jr., candidate for mayor, and Richardson Dilworth, running for the office of district attorney, predicting a “clean sweep” in the 1951 municipal election. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Republican scandals eventually caused enough outrage that in 1951 Philadelphia adopted a home-rule charter that included anti-corruption measures such as civil service exams and financial controls. This, in addition to other factors, led to the election of Democrat Joe Clark as mayor and Richardson Dilworth as district attorney. Clark and Dilworth promised a “clean sweep” of the corruption that had characterized one-party Republican control. However, Democratic bosses soon enough arose to replace their Republican counterparts. We are currently in our 7th decade of Democratic party rule.

One-party rule is fertile ground for corruption. Anti-corruption reformers who don’t belong to the single dominant party rarely have an impact. Well-intentioned members of the party in power are unlikely to find success through criticizing members of their own group. Trading favors, looking the other way, and going along to get along becomes the norm. Although we may associate corruption with marquee names like Johnny Doc, corruption is much more about a system of interconnected backscratching than it is about the proclivities of individuals. Although other cities also have one-party rule, Mandel asserts that we are in a league of our own when it comes to our notably cozy form of corruption.

Part of Philadelphia’s Charm?

The collegial corruption that characterizes Philadelphia politics has evolved due to many of the things that make the city lovable to its residents. Philadelphia is a big city, but it can feel like a small town. Compared to other large American cities, Philadelphia has a much higher percentage of people who were born and raised here. We can be provincial: in Philadelphia the question “Where did you go to school” refers to high school. We resent suburbanites who say they are from Philly, and we often consider even long-time residents to be outsiders if they can’t claim hometown status. This makes singing lyrics like “We’re from Philly, fucking Philly, no one likes us, we don’t care” quite gratifying.

But, according to Mandel, this also fosters corruption. Figures like Dougherty and  Henon are seen as “one of us,” and their malfeasance is overlooked. In a city that operates as a small town, the honest public servants often mingle socially with the purveyors of corruption. There are expectations that people in positions of power will assist a friend or neighbor in time of need. However, there is a fine line between a bit of help and cronyism.

The Price We Pay

If many of us “know a guy,” then what’s the problem? After all, Ms. Teagues’s second graders did get their classroom rug. In Mandel’s analysis, however, we pay a steep price for operating in this manner, and he provides many examples in his book both past and present of the way that corruption undermines the greater good.

Tax money that could be spent fixing roads or renovating schools is diverted to feathering the nests of the powerful and well-connected. Unqualified entities receive City funding (anyone remember Philly Fighting COVID botching the vaccine roll out?). Fearing a corrupt process, developers don’t bother bidding on public contracts, which reduces competition and increases price. Businesses avoid locating in the city because of the complicated web of permissions needed to operate. Residents become cynical and distrust government, especially as we have seen a sheriff, a district attorney, a state representative, a state senator, high ranking members of mayoral administrations, members of Congress, and others sentenced to prison just in recent memory. We exist in a vicious cycle in which idealists view city politics as a dirty insiders’ game and stay away, enabling their opposites to maintain control. Mandel cites numerous examples of Philadelphia’s low national rankings in measures such as ease of doing business, financial transparency in government, and creditworthiness compared to other American cities. Corruption, he believes, is the root cause of our dismal position.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Eliminating corruption is a tricky business. Limits were put on donations to City electoral campaigns to decrease the influence of wealthy individuals. This led to the increased sway of political action committees and other less transparent entities. Federal indictments are rare and can only be used in the most egregious and clear-cut situations of wrongdoing in which there is ample evidence to prove corruption beyond a reasonable doubt. In our one-party city, even the watchdogs have a history of getting caught with their hand in the pot. Some anti-corruption efforts lead to more red tape, providing new ways for officials to either slow down or expedite services.

The heart of Mandel’s argument is that Philadelphia’s corruption persists because we collectively accept it. We are “consenting” as the book title indicates. Mandel likens corruption to litter: it is a scourge we bring upon ourselves and one only we can fix. We need to stop relying on “knowing a guy,” and instead citizens of Philadelphia need to demand more from their politicians and public servants. Even facing indictment for multiple counts of corruption, Henon was easily reelected by his constituents. Mandel thinks we should expect better and suggests numerous policy changes that could reduce corruption. His many ideas include public financing of campaigns, the elimination of “row offices” where patronage hiring continues, the abolition of no-bid contracts, greater transparency in City finances, an improved 311 system, and the eradication of councilmanic prerogative. Policy changes, however, cannot be enacted until the people of Philadelphia demand it.

Look Forward, Philly

As we go to the polls next week, many of the contests are foregone conclusions given our one-party status. It is critical, though, that we keep a close eye on our elected leaders. Cherelle Parker, the presumptive winner of the mayoral race, received more campaign money from the building trades unions, including the IBEW Local 98, than any of her opponents in the primary. Kenyatta Johnson, although acquitted of corruption charges last year, has clearly used councilmanic prerogative to enrich his associates and punish his enemies. He is expected to be chosen as City Council president. It is essential that the actions of these and other officials be carefully scrutinized.

As citizens, we must stay informed and be ready to speak up. Local media is crucial in this effort. It is easy to get our news for free these days, but a subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer supports the investigative journalism that is necessary to keep public officials on their toes. The Philadelphia Citizen is a weekly on-line publication that regularly calls out corruption and proposes concrete steps to promote transparency and efficiency. Participation in and support of anti-corruption efforts is also essential. The Committee of Seventy was founded as a good government organization in 1904, and it continues to fight for fairness in elections and governing. Young Involved Philadelphia is a much newer group geared to getting young adult residents engaged in improving how the city functions.

To really understand how and why Philadelphia came to be “corrupt and contented,” and to envision how we might finally rid ourselves of this epithet, I highly recommend that you take the time to read Mandel’s important, timely, disheartening, and, ultimately, hopeful book.


About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.

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