Staying informed on the things that matter is a struggle. There is so much data, so many images. So many sound bites, so many sources. No matter how hard I try, I’m always significantly under-informed about some issue that may amount to something.
As closely as I followed the pitched battle over Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed tax on soda, there are meaningful backstories I missed and have only recently discovered.
After having been twice rejected by City Council, a soda tax seemed to face dim, initial prospects. Titanic power shifts, led by labor leader John Dougherty, enabled the passage of a compromise bill that has already taken effect.
I am well acquainted with the maxim that we want to see neither sausage nor laws made. Well, part of what went into the passage of this tax was uniquely discouraging – but it must be acknowledged.
Through a Right-to-Know request, City & State’s Ryan Briggs discovered the pernicious use of “dark money,” attempts to create “fake news” and physical intimidation on the part of Kenney Administration staffers in an effort to literally coerce the support of Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.
The pro-soda tax forces funded a group of local activists – ACTION United – to create the appearance of “grassroots” support for the beverage levy. Kenney Press Secretary Lauren Hitt acknowledges shaping their message and public actions, and that her goal was to conceal the involvement of the Kenney Administration in this caper for fear it would have been “dismissed by the media.”
In a May 11 email, Kenney Chief of Staff Jane Slusser directed a plan to “corner her (Quiñones-Sánchez) out in front of cameras.” Viewed without sympathy, this was a plan to physically intimidate a woman with paid “activists,” in an effort to create a fake news story. This was not legitimate lobbying. This was a “smug-thug” tactic that needs to be repudiated.
Predictably, the Kenney Administration defends its actions in light of lobbying efforts by anti-tax elements. Implicitly damning are the claims of Slusser and Hitt that Kenney knew nothing of the plot. If they believed the transaction to have been kosher, there'd be no need to distance him from it.
And, let's get real. No staffer takes actions against their boss’ enemies without overtly taking credit. That is exactly how political staffers prove their loyalty and move up the ladder.
Kenney is no fan of Quiñones-Sánchez. She's the only Democratic incumbent he refused to endorse. This may be why no other recalcitrant member of council was singled out for manufactured public humiliation.
It seems the plan was foiled by a simple lack of competence in execution, but there is no absolution that accompanies failure. This was a dirty trick worthy of Richard Nixon.
For her part, Quiñones-Sánchez is angry and warns about this becoming an acceptable modus operandi. I share her fear and agree a very serious, cynical line has been crossed.
Labor unions are no strangers to the notion of picketing. In fact, city workers marched in front of the private home of Mayor Michael Nutter. But, they were never ordered to “corner” the mayor or shield the identity of those who manipulated them into action. It is that very “shield” - lie, actually - that deceives the news media and Philadelphia public. This is not politics as usual.
Equally distressing, despite this incident occurring months ago, no media outlet in our town bothered to report or inquire except this one. And, since they broke the story, no Philly media has followed up in any substantive fashion.
I fear our politicians have gotten out of control and believe nobody’s watching. They dazzle us with papal visits and political conventions while they secretly control staggering amounts of cash via the Board of City Trusts, the Hospitals & Higher Education Authority, and the Mayor’s Fund. In truth, we really don't know what they are doing.
We will never nail them for backroom skullduggery that involves high finance and rules designed for non-transparency. But, like a lucky umpire, we've got an easy call to make. The Kenney Administration casually violated a series of our few remaining political standards in an aborted effort to embarrass an “enemy.” It was a foul play.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director under Mayors Ed Rendell and John Street and former chief of staff to the late Council President Joseph E. Coleman.