11.14.2009

Old Post: My Political Journey

[Originally posted December 2005]

My Political Journey: A Monologue by Lee Huang

Act 1 – Possibility
I’ve always swum against the current. While my high school classmates in California opted for nearby schools like Berkeley and Stanford, I headed east and found a home at Penn. While my Wharton peers got jobs at Wall Street i-banks, I chose a tiny non-profit business incubator in West Philadelphia – and stayed there for ten years. And after I had achieved success there, rising to the level of Executive Vice President, I left to go back to school. Why did I make these choices? Idealism. The chance to do a new thing, not what everyone else was doing. To live by my values, not by the world’s. To swim in a bigger pond, not settle for a smaller one.

But when it comes to city politics, I’m in for a rude awakening.

Act 2 – Conflict
I learn that city politics is ugly. The pie is dwindling. And the players, all hungry for a slice, have fundamental differences of opinions. So you’re going to have some nasty disputes.

How did this happen? Let’s start with that dwindling pie. We can talk about the pie as city residents, tax base, or political power. In each case, Philly’s pie is getting smaller. Immigrant migration patterns, subsidization of mortgages, and massive highway construction aided suburban growth after World War II, draining older cities of a valuable middle class base. Economic factors, like the mechanization of manufacturing, the globalization of industry, and the rise of the service sector, led to a gradual erosion of businesses and jobs for cities heavy in Old Economy activity. Cities face a double whammy of decreasing tax revenues and increasing demand for social services, so neighboring jurisdictions work hard to diminish the political influence of those cities at the state and national levels.

You can imagine, then, why there’s so much conflict. The haves and the have-nots fight, the cities and suburbs clash, and political parties as well as ethnic groups have their scuffles. But it’s not just about battling for a piece of a shrinking pie; it’s also a matter of differing political cultures. The individualists see politics as a business, meant for professionals only. They view politics as a brokerage of private interests by various competing groups. The moralists see politics as a commonwealth, meant to be for all the people and by all the people. They favor nonpartisan local government in which concerned citizens act altruistically for the public good . Elazar, Banfield, and Wilson, among others, have all written about these cleavages. They go back several generations, and like physical canyons have been formed by repeated waves of erosion. So anyone who tries to get the two sides to come together is asking for it.

So much for idealism. The pie is shrinking and the fists are flying. How am I going to carve out my place of influence and impact without getting punched in the eye?

Act 3 – Resolution
There is no resolution. There is, however, renewed resolve. Idealism ungrounded in reality is just fanciful thinking. Idealists don't shun reality because it's messy; they embrace it because it helps them get stuff done. So here's what I'm going to do to improve my political career here.

First, given what I now know about the evolution of older American cities, I'm going to quit trying to make Philly into what it'll never be, and work to make it what it can be. For example, last year I went to Phoenix on a leadership exchange program, which I described to a friend as a "political spa." Public and private sector leaders enjoyed helping one another, city agencies fussed over how to work better for citizens, and elections had a tenth of the campaign spending and the dirty deal-making of Philadelphia's. But as much as I was tempted to just bash Philly, I realized that Phoenix's situation is different. The city's physical and political infrastructure is newer, its political culture more moralistic, and it isn't constrained by union pressures. Besides, I left Phoenix feeling grateful for Philly in many ways: we run circles around Phoenix in terms of night life, a walkable downtown, and historical and cultural sights. So my political message isn't going to be about bashing Philly or trying in vain to make it Phoenix; rather, it's going to be about celebrating Philly's uniqueness and playing to its unique strengths and opportunities.

Second, I’m going to be a bridge between warring factions. There’s still a future in this city for bridges, even if a noted reconciler once said that all that means sometimes is you get walked on from both sides . Indeed, in this town, when you’re in between, sometimes you get the elbow intended for the person behind you. But given how divisive city politics is, you might argue that you can’t get anything done unless you are a bridge; that is to say, unless you are able to work between factions and get people to cross alliances to be on your side. Take the recent proposal to change the way property taxes are calculated in Philadelphia. I happen to believe this is a good idea for the city as a whole, but I realize the plan will have its winners and losers. By eliminating fractional assessments and taxing against current market values, residents in booming neighborhoods will now be paying higher property taxes than before. If I want to help get this proposal passed, I’m going to have to bridge over to those constituencies and to their representatives. But there’s a second set of winners and losers: the politicians themselves, and related power people in the city. After all, politics, like life, is all about mushy things like relationships and egos and saving face. So you also have to consider where the power people are coming from. Who gets the credit if it goes well? Who gets the blame if it doesn’t? Who will be able to keep their people in line, and whose people will break ranks? Who needs a win to get reelected? Who can't stand to agree with someone else, and who will have to disagree with someone whose favor they're trying to curry? To break through on these issues, you have to understand what political culture people and groups are operating under, and how those cultural rules dictate how they’ll act and who they’ll agree and disagree with.

I understand that in the city the pie is shrinking and the fists are flying. Some idealists conclude that means it’s time to get out. And some conclude that means now is just the right time to get in, and to take that understanding of why the pie is shrinking and why the fists are flying to get in there and make a difference. Count me in the second group. Wish me luck!


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