Citizen voices in 1999 election: the new Philadelphia Story

November 29, 1999|By Neal Peirce

PHILADELPHIA -- As 1999 dawned, there was deep concern among civic leaders of this economically battered city.

They feared the campaign to succeed Mayor Ed Rendell, forced to step down by term limits, would turn into a divisive, nasty TV-ad driven season, drenched in racial overtones.

It didn't happen. Even though the winner, City Council President John Street is an African American, and the Republican businessman he barely defeated, Sam Katz, is white, the contest was remarkably free of negative attacks and tactics.

Laid-back times

Maybe these are more laid-back times; people are resisting race-based or antagonistic campaigns. Still, some credit for the rush to civility in classically blunt, in-your-face Philly, should go to "Citizen Voices '99."

Sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, Citizen Voices was the third and biggest effort the newpaper's made since 1996 to give citizens a chance to confer and help define issues in an electoral campaign their way -- not the political handlers' way.

The first step came last January when 25 forums were held in schools, churches, community centers, neighborhood by neighborhood across the city. Over 400 citizens -- some attracted by newspaper stories, others from a random sampling done by the Annenberg School -- took part.

An ingenious format was used to figure out what issues concerned people the most. Participants were asked to imagine the year was 2010 and Places Rated Almanac had listed Philadelphia as the most livable city in America (a prospect arousing predictable guffaws in a self-effacing town).

Citizens were asked: What four or five things would have to change for the rating to come true?

A few people in each neighborhood group were then chosen to be panelists on an imaginary 2010 Oprah Winfrey show, explaining how Philadelphia had changed so radically.

The others became the studio audience, posing the tough questions: How did you fix the schools? Where did you get the money for improvements?

"People had fun," says Chris Satullo, the deputy editorial page editor who sparked (and reported) the year-long effort.

"We got a sense of what was on the minds of people in different neighborhoods, and neighborhood to neighborhood differences."

Then, in February, the citizens reassembled to brainstorm the five issues they'd picked as most vital in January -- education, jobs, public safety, neighborhood quality of life, and government reform.

In April, they met at the Penn campus to deliberate the issues jointly and draft questions for a televised debate among the five candidates in the contested Democratic primary.

Common values

In the process, citizens from fiercely independent, often parochial, neighborhoods discovered more in common than they'd expected. The valued outcomes, as Mr. Satullo described them, were "the surprising human connections, across barriers of race and class, the shared sense of love and commitment for this wonderful, maddening city, the experience of civic deliberation that tests and deepens one's views."

On the televised debate, security guard Sidney Toombs from South Philly, confounded the candidates by asking -- What's the problem with the schools? Don't they have enough money, or do they waste what they get?

In that debate, and another between Messrs. Street and Katz in the fall, the citizens proved to be bulldogs in pursuing questions when the candidates didn't want to answer.

And the citizens not only got to ask the questions; afterward, on live TV, they (not broadcast professionals) got to "spin" the results on how the discussions had gone.

The Inquirer also "framed" issues the citizens had chosen, distilling and then publishing distinctive strategies to deal with each. The idea, said Mr. Satullo, was to show tensions and differences between different approaches, to give voters a deeper understanding of the real world choices politicians face.

Never before had schools been a central issue of a mayoralty campaign; now they were.

Another recurrent theme: The city must pay more attention to neighborhoods, including attention to housing and Philadelphia's ample supply of vacant lots and buildings.

But the citizens revealed too a deep yen for more activism -- or what a West Philadelphia participant called a "citizen-driven city."

Said Penn's Harris Sokoloff, the lead moderator: "I was struck by people's sense that they are part of any solution."

Web site

All this was accompanied by an interactive, heavily used Internet Web site, a "Student Voices" component focused on high school students and managed by Penn, and growing public awareness that this campaign was different from those before.

Mr. Street's supporters, in the campaign's last week, cleverly appealed to black and traditional Democratic voters -- even brought in President Clinton -- to avert a Katz victory.

Elections, Mr. Satullo notes, are still about winning.

But the citizen panelists will meet in January to draw up a Citizens Agenda for the new mayor.

There's a new standard for mayoral elections in Philly. Other cities might copy it. Not bad, for a year's work.

Neal Peirce writes a syndicated column.

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