Is Terry Gillen one of The Incorruptibles in Philadelphia’s race for a new Mayor?
• Wed, Oct 15, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Is it ever possible to trust a politician?
When a friend suggested that I accompany him to meet 2015 mayoral candidate Terry Gillen, I saw this as an opportunity to meet a future mayor of Philadelphia. The small Old City house party for this ‘get acquainted’ session was an intimate affair, about twelve people including two members of Gillen’s staff.
Of course, put any politician in a room full of people and you’re likely to get a polished, canned delivery. Politicians have to sell themselves. They have to be like those Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen of old who used to go door-to-door —men in meticulous suits and shiny black shoes with winning, toothy smiles.
Politicians are at their best in such settings because they have a captive, mostly friendly audience.
When I attended a Michael Nutter for Mayor "house" event years ago in Center City, the enthusiasm in the room was contagious. The room was filled with genuine true believers. I’d been brought to the event by a conservative Republican woman friend of mine, a Tea Party sympathizer and a supporter of George W. Bush. I have friends of many different stripes, and I wanted to know how and why "articulate Meredith," as I called her, was such a solid supporter of this big city liberal politician.
Meredith’s fascination with Nutter reminded me of Walt Whitman’s famous line, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." Meredith and I could have conducted workshops on how to get along really well with someone of opposing political views. We learned to listen quietly to one another, and to offer unemotional counter views. We both realized that no political issue is ever worth the loss of a friend.
This was certainly not the case with my older friend McCall, a cantankerous but usually very loveable left wing soapbox kind of guy. While I usually agreed with McCall on the issues of the day, over time he found that sometimes the tone in my writing and columns diverted from "orthodox" progressive paths.
McCall let me know how he felt about my political deviations one night after inviting me to dinner. The coupe de grace occurred when we went out for an after dinner drink.
"In your writing you’re beginning to sound like a damn Republican! What’s happened to you—you’re turning conservative… I’ve half a mind to throw you a punch right here!"
In the past, McCall had told me about his periodic tendency, while sloshed, to "let somebody have it" if the situation warranted. McCall is no knucklehead, however. Intellectually, he usually impressed people as brilliant. He has academic degrees from all over the world. Politics, however, is his Achilles heel.
"Conservative!" I said, as shocked as if I had heard him call me a closet Rosicrucian.
Of course, McCall didn’t deck me, but just the idea that he thought about doing so caused me to take another look at what politics can do to people.
From that point on our friendship seemed to deteriorate. It went from chatty dinners at his place to cursory "hellos" in the street and then to sometimes pretending we didn’t see one another when we were out. It was painful to realize that our once cozy friendship had become a skeleton of its former self. Today when I see McCall with friends at the theater or movies, I assume that that each and every one of them has passed my old friend’s political acid test.
As for Meredith, she was so in love with candidate Michael Nutter that she wanted to have a small fundraiser for him in her apartment. This is in sharp contrast to the political fundraisers she threw for Tea Party candidates, or the Republican fundraisers she’d invite me to in Old City, which always seemed far more upscale and lavish than overcrowded "cheese and crackers" Democratic events. In many ways when I went to compare the two events I thought of Marie Antoinette versus the peasants. Your heart may be with the peasants, but your love of good food and nice things will always tilt towards Marie.
Before I return to the Terry Gillen part of my story, let me say that halfway through Nutter’s first term as mayor, Meredith had become so disillusioned with the mayor and the, as she put it, continual decline of the city, that she bought a house in New Jersey. At the time of her move she was complaining about the crime and the riotous late night street behavior outside her high-rise condo at 13th and Spruce Streets. Perhaps the late night racket wasn’t the city’s fault at all but had more to do with Meredith’s advancing years and a growing need within her for peace and quiet. In any case, Meredith left the city and never looked back.
Center City, of course, is hardly experiencing a serious decline. In fact, the opposite of that it true because Center City is its own city apart from that other Philadelphia: the city of neighborhoods. The city of the neighborhoods is far from anyone’s definition of a Utopian ideal.
And there are many reasons for that.
As Gillen told the assembly of twelve gathered in her honor, it’s the city’s Byzantine tax structure that causes many businesses to relocate in the suburbs. Another problem, according to Gillen, is the sad state of Philly public schools. While college grads—seduced by the glamour and fun of Center City-- may choose to live in town after graduation, the moment they marry and have their first child, they exit stage right. That’s because the city’s public schools seem to be a hybrid mix of The Blackboard Jungle (a 1950’s film starring Glenn Ford) and a National Geographic Special on untamed wild life. Gillen wants more funding for the city’s public schools so that each and every one of them, in every neighborhood, becomes "high functioning."
When someone in the room asked Gillen about the plight of teachers, she insisted that there should be no pay cuts but that this issue can be discussed later, once funding comes through. Without proper funding, nothing else can happen.
Gillen’s call for reform of the city’s Byzantine tax structure, increased public school funding and ways to help small businesses, all sound very attractive even if her Utopian goal of creating 5, 000 to 10,000 new jobs in a city seems a bit of a stretch.
The city’s possible next mayor was educated in public schools before going off to the University of Rochester and then getting an M.A. in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago is generally considered to be a conservative place, spawning monsters such as economist Milton Freidman. She then went onto the University of Pennsylvania where she edited the Law Review.
In 1993, she spearheaded a campaign to challenge the Pentagon’s attempt to cut 10,500 defense jobs in the city. She’s also worked with the Rendell Administration in Harrisburg and before that as Deputy Commerce Director under then Mayor Rendell. Most of her expertise is in the financial world. Her resume is filled with words and phrases like, "developed the infrastructure for the City’s new land bank," "implemented the $64-million HUD stimulus grant program," and "directed the reorganization of Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority."
She’s all about fixing the city’s financial woes.
Her financial focus can be seen in her choice of words as well as in the manner in which she conducts herself before a crowd: she uses an economy of words, gets her point across, and then frames her answers during the Q and A in tight fitting manner that reminds me of a bank teller stuffing coins into wrappers. If, for instance, you ask her more than two questions at a house event Q and A, you might find that her eyes don’t look at you but instead focus on someone else in the room. It’s as if she is sending a message that only verbal spendthrifts let themselves go with too many questions.
Of course, taking a canned political speech on the road and dressing it up with smiles also has a speed dating quality to it. A politician—in this case, Gillen—wants to win you over, so she’s going to go to the limit in exhibiting the best human qualities—patience, an ability to listen, as well as exercising a careful watch for facial expressions and grimaces that might be perceived as sardonic or condescending. Politicians on the make have to watch themselves every step of the way. One cross word, one thoughtless gesture, one statement only half thought out or uttered too casually can come back to haunt.
It’s not easy being a startup politician, but the potential rewards are many. The power rewards that await the winner of an election are very seductive. It is this power that has corrupted the most wholesome and best intended of novices.
We can only hope that this hard working public school grad is one of the incorruptibles.