Marc Stier's blog

Ask Allyson Schwartz to run for Governor

From Marc Stier at Large

Barack Obama is back in office and moving in a liberal direction. So now it’s time to think ahead about building progressive power. The most important thing we can do in Pennsylvania is to replace Tom Corbett as Governor. So it’s a little surprising to me is that, with all the talk about this candidate or that, the one Pennsylvania politician who is best placed to defeat Governor Corbett, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, is not being asked by everyone to run. The main reason, I suspect, is that most people who pay close attention to politics don’t think she will do so. And some folks, for the usual reasons, have trouble getting their head around the idea of a woman as Governor.

I have no inside knowledge about whether Congresswoman Schwartz is considering a race. But I strongly believe that she should run. After explaining why, I’ll come back to the issue of whether she will or not.

What's the rush? Save the Cohen wage tax rebate!

One of the last accomplishments of long time progressive Councilmember David Cohen—a rebate on the wage tax for those with low incomes—may be repealed tomorrow. It shouldn’t be.

There are good policy arguments both for and against the wage tax rebate. I’ll come to some of them in a moment. But, frankly, at the moment those arguments are secondary. The key reason not to repeal the legislation tomorrow is that the decision to put off AVI for a year means that Council is going carry out a broad examination of taxation in the city next year. The Cohen wage tax rebate is not scheduled to go into effect until 2016 anyway. So there is plenty of time to reconsider it as we think through the future of taxation in Philadelphia.

Any city like Philadelphia has to balance considerations of progressivity and economic growth.

While, progressive taxation has very little negative impact on economic growth in the nation as a whole, and relatively little in states, it can have an impact on cities. If city taxes fall too much on people with higher incomes and businesses, then they can move with their feet.

On the other hand, when a quarter of our city or more is poor, a reduction in taxes targeted at those with low incomes really helps people who are struggling at fairy low cost.

AVI, when implemented, will make our taxes more progressive and help low income folks. Its’ impact might be greater than a targeted wage tax cut. So, had we implemented AVI this year, I might have been less concerned about losing the Cohen wage tax rebate.

But, now that we are waiting for AVI—and while we are uncertain whether it will ever be implemented in a progressive fashion—here’s good reason to keep the Cohen wage tax rebate on the books and reconsider it as part of a complete overhaul of our taxes.

The silence is deafening--our broken politics and the schools

Under tremendous financial pressure that is the result of recession and drastic cutbacks in funding from Harrisburg, the SRC is about to blow up our school system. The SRC plan reshuffles the chairs on the Titanic but as far as I can see does little to stop the ship from sinking.

They Mayor tells us we have no choice (and by the way, support my property tax proposal.) And so far, not one politician in this city, not one member of Council, not one State Representative or State Senator has made a public statement about this devastating news.

Why not?

Will the Mayor lead a movement to save our schools?

Michael Nutter talked a great deal about education during his reelection campaign. His inaugural speech focused on education. He said he wanted to take on responsibility for the schools.

But today the SRC announced that the School District in Philadelphia is going to be drastically downsized. Many schools will be closed. More students will attend charter schools. In a school system that has already suffered devastating cutbacks, even if some of these changes make for a more efficient use of resources, the overall consequences for our kids cannot be good. None of the suggested administrative changes deal with the fundamental problem--we don't have the resources to provide our kids with the minimal requirements of a decent education. We don't have money for enough quality teachers, teacher training, school books, and counselors.

And the financial problem we face comes from Harrisburg and Governor Corbett's relentless attack on school funding. That has me wondering if Michael Nutter has forgotten his top priority or is simply unwilling to do what it takes to address the funding problem schools face at its source, that is, in Harrisburg.

Cohen and Josephs for State Representative

There are some difficult State Representative races for progressives in the city this year. In two of them, long time advocates of progressive causes, Babette Josephs in the 182nd and Mark Cohen in the 200th , are in races with younger and ambitious challengers, Brian Sims and Numa St. Louis.

How do you choose between candidates who have no differences on issues?

There are few if any differences on policy between the incumbents and the challengers. Babette and Mark simply have the best voting records in Harrisburg. (When I ran my own race as a challenger and was looking to find questionable votes taken by my opponent, Rosita Youngblood, I quickly compared her votes to those of Cohen and Josephs. There were many differences and, in each case, Cohen and Josephs had taken the progressive view.)

So when there are no issue differences, how do you make up your mind in a race like this?

Well, you could simply choose the candidate to whom you are personally closest. In that case, I would definitely endorse Brian Sims in the 182nd. We were colleagues at CPL and I really like and admire him. He is smart and energetic and will be a great political leader someday. I don’t know Numa St. Louis as well but I like what I’ve seen of him.

And there have been times when I’ve gotten into conflicts with both Babette Josephs and Mark Cohen. When I spoke for Mark at an ADA meeting a week or so ago, his sister Sherrie reminded me that Mark and I once got into a very loud public disagreement. And Babette and I have not seen eye to eye at times either. (In particular, I very much wanted her support when I ran for City Council and did not get it.)

Reaching out to the grassroots

Why is this mandate different from all other mandates?

One of the central concerns that conservatives have about the individual mandate is that it would lead to unlimited federal authority over our individual lives. If Congress can require us to purchase health insurance, conservatives sometimes ask, can’t it require us to purchase cars or broccoli or cell phones?

Defenders of the mandate have been so concerned to show that it is justifiable under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper clauses—and there the argument seems quite straightforward—that we have not been focused enough on making sure that we don’t prove too much. And that’s partly because we tend to be political progressives and are not as worried as conservatives about limiting federal power over our economic lives. We are not libertarians, after all. While we progressive are adamant about defending civil liberties, we generally don’t believe that there is a general right to economic liberty. And thus, unless government forces us to make purchases that reflect particular ideals or conceptions of how we should live our lives, we are not going to get too exercised about government directives in our economic lives.

Why progressives should worry about federal power

We need transparency in criticism as well as budgeting

Some critics of Mayor Michael Nutter are calling him out for hiding a real estate tax in his new budget since the budget proposes that after the new market based system of setting property values is put in place, tax rates will be set so that the city takes in an additional $90 million in real estate tax receipts.

There is a just a little bit of truth in the criticism. But most of it is really just hogwash.

In an ideal world, as the city switched to the new system of setting property values that moved them up to reflect market values, the tax rate would simultaneously be adjusted downwards so that the total take from the real estate tax from one year to the next would be roughly the same. Since the new system is supposed to, and most likely will, give us fairer assessments, some people would pay more and other less. But the overall real estate taxes take in by the city would remain about the same.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Because the property assessment system has been totally broken, the values placed on property for the purposes of the real estate tax have not gone up as the actual market values of those properties have gone up. There has been no city wide reassessment since 2004 and in response to protests other upwards reassessments have been rolled back.

This failure to capture rising real estate market values, along with the recession’s effect on overall tax returns, is why the city had to enact two temporary increases in the property tax rate in the last two years.

Fighting for Our Health

During the 18 months of the Health Care for America Now (HCAN) campaign in support of what became the Affordable Care Act, I gave over a hundred speeches to thousands of activists who were working us in Pennsylvania. I frequently concluded my speeches this way:

Who is most responsible for the most popular domestic program in our history, Social Security? (Someone would, of course, shout out ‘Franklin Roosevelt.’ Or a history buff would say Senator Wagner.) No, that’s not really true. Franklin Roosevelt was President when Social Security was enacted and his support was crucial. But he came late to supporting it. Long before he did, a mass movement called the Townsend Movement made retirement security an issue of national importance. The Townsend movement held meetings, just like this one, in living rooms, in church basements, in fire houses, in union halls, and in public libraries. It never brought 100,000 people to tin Washington. But little by little, one city and congressional district at a time, it created the pressure and support without which Franklin Roosevelt would never have embraced and Congress would never have passed the Social Security Act.

As Joshua takes power let's thank the Moses of Montgomery County Democrats

On Wednesday, Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards will take office as Montgomery County Commissioners after winning the most important political race in the state in November. As you must know, this will be the first time in this history of the County that Democrats have controlled the County Commission.

At the same time Joe Hoeffel will be leaving public office, perhaps for the last time.

But everyone, from Josh and Leslie down, know that without the efforts of Joe Hoeffel, there would be no Democratic majority on the County Commission in Montgomery County. Without Joe, Allyson Schwartz would probably not be the member of Congress for the 13th Congressional district which includes a big part of Montgomery County and which Joe once represented. And many other Democratic public officials would not old the offices they do today.

An open letter to Mayor Nutter about Occupy Philadelphia

Dear Mayor Nutter,

In the last few months, the Occupy Movement, of which Occupy Philadelphia has been an important part, has had a dramatic impact on politics in America. At a time when most Democratic politicians have shied away from raising critical issues of inequality in income, wealth, and power, the movement has moved them to the forefront of our public debates. Democratic legislators in Harrisburg and Washington have recognized that this movement has already made a difference. It promises much more for the future.

Thus, while we have been proud of your response to Occupy Philadelphia to this point, we were terribly disappointed to read your recent statement about Occupy Philadelphia. It is disrespectful to the movement and the people who have created it. It raises complaints about Dilworth Plaza with regard to public safety and cleanliness that are exaggerated about that site yet true of too many neighborhoods in our city, where men and women suffer from dangerous and unkempt streets.

We understand that a renewal project, which will create much needed jobs, is in the future of Dilworth Plaza. We have and will continue to encourage Occupy Philadelphia to work with the city to find an alternative location when that project is ready to begin. However, our understanding is that the city has not been forthcoming in discussing, in any detail, alternate sites with Occupy Philadelphia. Nor has the city been transparent in offering details about when construction will begin at Dilworth Plaza.

So we encourage you and your administration to continue to be supportive of the broad goals of this important populist movement and to put aside bluster and threats and, instead, work with Occupy Philadelphia to address the issues that have arisen at the current site and a possible move to a new location.

Above all, we encourage you to avoid any precipitous actions that might lead to unnecessary and perhaps violent confrontation.


Yes, I'm asking you to vote for a Republican: Singer and Schmidt for Commissioner

Are you really asking me to vote for a Republican?

That’s the question I get all the time, when I encourage people to give one of their two votes for City Commissioner to Al Schmidt. (The other one, of course, should go to Stephanie Singer.)

I’m a liberal / progressive Democrat. I don’t recommend people vote for Republicans often. I’m pretty sure the last time I voted for Republicans it was for my dad for Village Justice in my hometown of Liberty, New York. New York elections have some peculiarities. One allows for cross-party endorsements. My dad was a Democrat but, knowing they could not beat him for reelection, the Republicans endorsed him. And knowing that I might not ever have a chance to vote for a Republican again, I voted for him on the Republican line.

We have some electoral peculiarities in Philadelphia as well. One of them mandates that only two of the three City Commissioners can come from one party. Another gives us only two votes for Commissioner. Given that rule, each party nominates only two candidates for Commissioner. And given the overwhelming registration edge of Democrats in the city, the two Democrats win. Only one of the two Republicans will win.

So if we liberal / progressive Democrats use one of our votes to vote for a Republican, we can decide which of the two Republicans will hold the seat.

Vote for Al Schmidt and Stephanie Singer

Now why should we do that? Because one of the Republicans, Al Schmidt, is committed to good government as is Stephanie Singer, the leading Democratic candidate for Commissioner.

Make no mistake, Al is a Republican. He believes in economic policies I don’t care for. And he wants to build up the Republican Party in Philadelphia which is not my goal (although you could make a case that stronger competition with Republicans would keep Democrats honest.)

Picking the right target for Occupy Philly

The Occupy Philly meeting last night was one of the best examples of direct democracy in action I’ve ever seen. We had some serious talk about where and when to being Occupy Philly. People listened to each other and changed their minds as the discussion proceeded. We made a decision. And we did it in less time than expected.

Decisions to come

There is a lot more to be decided and understood. We are just at the beginning of figuring out in detail what this movement is going to be and how it will impact the future of our country. But most of those decisions can come later. We all know what this movement is broadly about—the increasingly unequal distribution of power, wealth, and income in the United States. It’s a movement that aims to reverse the decline in American Democracy which we have all witnessed in the last 30 years.

We don’t know how the protests just now beginning will change our politics. But we don’t have to know that now. The most important thing is to build a movement with the broad goals I just outlined. Such a movement will find many ways to flow into and influenced our day to day political lives. It can’t help but stiffen the spine of the political leaders who claim to be on our side but run away at the first sign of conflict.

Should we have occupied Rittenhouse Square?

But before look ahead, I want to revisit one decision made last night, just because it will be a useful way of thinking about who stand in our way.

There was some substantial sentiment in the meeting to occupy not City Hall but Rittenhouse Square. The rationale was that the people who have gained power and wealth while the rest of us have lost it--the top 1%--live in and around Rittenhouse Square and thus ought to hear us and be inconvenienced by our actions.

Great victory today on earned sick time!

At a time when working people are being kicked around in Harrisburg and Washington, Philadelphia’s City Council, today, stood against the tide and passed the earned sick time legislation.
This legislation is a great victory for working people, as it enables workers to earn time that they can use when illness keeps them out of work. And like most legislation that helps working people, this bill helps the entire community as well. It is in all of our interest for people who have a cold, flu, or other communicable disease, to stay home rather than spread the disease to the rest of us. And that is especially important for people who work in restaurants and child care providers.

The bill now comes before Mayor Nutter whose administration has qualms about it. So now we need to call Mayor Nutter at 215-686-2181, and tell him how important it is to sign this legislation.

In the newspapers, the chief opponents of the bill were said to small business people. But, a minor change in the bill, which exempted small “mom and pop” businesses from the law, satisfied most small business people. And, while members of the coalition were not entirely happy with this exemption, we know that a lot of small businesses—like my own operation, Penn ACTION—actually do treat our employees like members of a family and are always willing to be flexible when our employees are sick.

However, in Council, it was not small business people, whose concerns one can understand even if one doesn't agree with them, but the Chamber of Commerce, Comcast, PECO, and Wal-Mart that stood against the bill. And--here is the kicker--Comcast, PECO, and Wal-Mart all provide earned sick time far in excess of the bill, and certainly have the margins that would enable them keep providing it to their employees. So why did they oppose the legislation? My sense is that two things motivated them.

First, while some of these companies have sick days, they also want to be free from rules that prohibit them from punishing workers who take those sick days as, for example, Wal-Mart does. In other words, these companies oppose any efforts to put into law any legal requirement that their employees be treated with respect and fairness. They don’t want to give up the tyranny that too often characterizes labor relations in most large, non-union companies.

And second, there was the matter of ideology. When working people are suffering from attacks in Harrisburg and Washington in America, they are fighting back and winning in Philadelphia. They didn’t want us to win today, even if this victory meant nothing to their own business, because they knew that victories for working people build on victories. And, no victory in the on-going struggle between working people and large corporations is acceptable to them.

So now Mayor Nutter finds himself right in the middle of this struggle. And it really is a defining moment for the Mayor. Mayor Nutter has problems with organized labor, which he can blame Philadelphia’s economic situation. Signing this law, however, will have no impact on the City budget and, scare stories aside, will have no impact on economic growth in the city. (Those scare stories are the same ones told when child labor laws were enacted, when the minimum wage was enacted, and every time it is raised. They weren’t true in the past and they aren’t true now.)

So this bill offers the Mayor a clear choice, between standing with the corporations that are trying to undermine working people and standing with working people who are fighting back.

It is a crucial moment for Mayor Nutter, one that will, more than anything else he does as Mayor, defines his place in the most central struggle of our time. Helping us enact this bill will put Philadelphia in the forefront of a nationwide revival of a progressive politics that supports working people.

Call and come out in support of the earned sick time bill!

The earned sick time bill is moving towards a final vote in City Council this Thursday, June 16. Please join us on the 4th floor of City Hall at 9:30 am. Help us greet City Council members as they enter Session. Then we'll pack Council chambers to show the importance of this bill. Bring any signs or posters to represent why you support earned sick days. You can enter City Hall at the north-east corner. Remember to bring a picture ID.

Where is Bill Green on the legislation?

My first vote for Council at Large is going to Sherrie Cohen

Dear Friends,

I’m writing to urge you to vote for Sherry Cohen for City Council at Large in Tuesday’s primary.

There are a number of good candidates for Council at Large, including the incumbents. But Sherrie could bring something special to the office—a real commitment to building support throughout the city for progressive causes. Sherrie’s done that already, especially as a leader of the Coalition for Essential Services. With the resources of a Council, Sherrie could be even more effective in this role.

Why is this so important?

Philadelphia politics is conducted in the typical fashion of one party town—and that is the main reason politics remains broken in Philadelphia. Most decisions are made by the Mayor and Council in private discussions. Members of Council go to great pains to reach consensus and avoid public dispute.

Two bad consequences are the result. First, it is very difficult for new, innovative ideas to come before Council or to receive the kind of debate that will enlighten the public. Second, Council is very resistant to public pressure. Indeed, members of Council, are less open to public sentiment than our state legislators and members of Congress.

(As you know, I’ve run a few grassroots issue campaigns. I’ve never had a member of Congress or of the General Assembly yell at me for doing so or turn down an offer to build support for legislation they support. Council members have done that to me more than once.)

Sherrie will help change this dynamic. She will be a Council member who not only cares about the interests of the public but will work hard to work with progressive activists to build pressure on Council to make sure the public interest is served. That’s what her father—one of my role models—did on Council before her. That’s what we can expect her to do as well.

We all have five votes for Council. I’m going to use my first one to vote for Sherrie Cohen.

I hope you do as well.

Marc Stier

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