|A state senator in Rhode Island represents fewer people than a city councilor in Philadelphia. Here, Councilman Bryan Principe of the West End's Ward 14 tours the 6/10 Connector. Should Philadelphia be able to lead highway-removal campaigns in its boundaries? Sure should-- especially since the major designer of the Schuylkill Expressway, Edmund Bacon*, described it as one of his failures in life. But will Philly? Probably not. As tough as the 6/10 Connector campaign was in Rhode Island, the smallness of its political units made it much more likely to get a campaign even going. God bless the person who finally gets Philly off its urbanist laurels, because whoever does has a great city to work with.|
Readers of this blog, who know that my theme is complaining bitterly about how behind our city and state are, will be shocked-- SHOCKED, I say-- to find me warmly regarding the Ocean State's political system as I make way for a return to Philadelphia. There are a lot of things that Philadelphia is ahead on, and I make use of my home city to push that point often, but in a lot of ways Philly and Providence are both cities that are stuck inside themselves and unwilling to think big (maybe I'll move home and find that that's changed, but it's certainly how I remember it). Philadelphia has one of the better transit systems in the country and is the #1 biking city over a million in the U.S., but like Providence (and Rhode Island generally) is resting on its laurels.
But more than that, what I fear about moving back to Philly is the city/state dynamic. Lord knows the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is not kind to Providence-- just look at the environmental racism that motivated Governor Raimondo's White-Citizens-Council-like stand on the 6/10 Connector-- but by contrast with Pennsylvania, Rhode Island as a state is quite cozy with its largest city. If all of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh excluded, possibly-- but possibly not?) could pass a law saying that Philadelphia had to join New Jersey, they would.
Why is it that Philadelphia (and increasingly Pittsburgh) are such progressive hubs, but the state of Pennsylvania is such a regressive dumpster fire of scary Pennsyltucky racism and exclusion? Some of it is demographics-- there just are yuge (pardon me, the Philly is kicking back in) parts of the Commonwealth (yeah, Pennsylvania is a commonwealth) that are expansive tracts of white ruralness. But part of it is that the districts that Pennsylvania pols have are so much larger than in Rhode Island, that political leaders of any stripe or any political flavor are less accountable to local activism.
So take someone like Philadelphia's City Council President Darrel Clarke. Clarke has been around on the council a long time, and his big project seems to be trying to tear apart what urban advantages Philadelphia has. I'm sure that as I'm moving back
to the edge of District 5 into District 7 that I'm going to find myself eventually crossing swords with this guy. His attempts to subsidize his own driving in a district that has very low car ownership in a city that should be chasing transit and biking make housing in the city less affordable and assure that Philadelphia will fail to meet its climate and equity goals. But what if I wanted to challenge Clarke on that? What would that look like?
Philadelphia has 17 council people (10 that serve specific districts, and 7 that are at-large). For a city the size of the Narragansett Bay that has 70% more people than Rhode Island as a whole, that's a very large swath of people being represented by just one person. You take the 1.6 million people of Philadelphia and divide that by 17, and you get just shy of 100,000 people. And if you just divide by the geography-specific councilpeople-- ten of 'em-- you get basically a Providence-sized district that is represented by a single city council person.
Contrast that to Providence, which has 15 city councilors: You take 170,000 people and divide that by 15 and get just a bit over 11,000 people. There are probably some block captains in Philadelphia with more (unelected) power than that.
As a young person who was intensely political, I voted in all the local elections. But through my years at Temple University, and even as a West Philly neighborhood activist, I had little sense of what really mattered in local politics. I see some of that here in Rhode Island as well. Certainly, because Pennsylvania is a swing-state, there was an intense push to get college-aged kids to vote. I could stumble out of the Broad Street Line and get accosted (yes, accosted seems the right word) by three or four people to get me to register before I made it a block from the station. The seeming lack of effect that a Rhode Island vote can have on anything national probably results in a lot of disengagement from city politics from the Renaissance City's tens of thousands of students. And yet you look at the results of activism and there are a lot of things to be envied: the Community Safety Act is a herald of incredible activist strength in Providence, and makes us a leader nationwide. Would that happen in Philadelphia (Well, there is this to be encouraged about. . .). Not sure.
At the state level, one's ability to challenge leaders to do anything is also much more limited in Pennsylvania. I've been to Harrisburg a few times in my life-- one of the things I remember was marching to end the death penalty in freshman year of college, and though there is a moratorium on death sentences, that still has not happened (!). But I can't count how many times I've been to the Statehouse here. When I walk down the Statehouse hallway, there's a pretty damn good chance someone in a major position of power is going to say, "Oh, hi James." And while I like to comfort my ego by saying that that's because I'm some kind of hot-shot extraordinaire, it's not really true. It's a result of having a state capital that is highly accessible to the whole population, and of having government processes that are relatively open. Pennsylvania would be so lucky.
Take a look at how many people a state senator has to represent in Pennsylvania vs. Rhode Island:
In Pennsylvania, you have 50 state senators, representing 13 million people. That's more than a quarter million per senator.
For Rhode Island to have that many people per senator, it would have to have a state senate of just 4 people. It has 38 state senators, so they actually represent just a tenth of that.
Even with large districts, in Pennsylvania there's a sense in which certain urban districts allow a person to get out on foot and door-knock their way to fame. When I lived in Philly the big potential upset seemed to be maybe getting one Green Party activist for state rep. (representing close to 70,000 people). It came close, due to the heowme-spun Philly charm of the candidate (Oh, Lord! The accent!) but ultimately it failed. Whereas here, in Rhode Island, I get some serious interest in the issues I represent even from some Republicans, because despite being far outside of anyplace I could vote in, there's a sense of statewide cohesion and vulnerability to statewide bad press that motivates bipartisanship. The fact that Rhode Islanders keep wishing me well "in Pennsylvania" strikes me as odd, because I have never in my life ever identified myself as a "Pennsylvanian" as if that were a thing. I say I'm from Philly, or maybe from Delco, and people from Scranton or Pittsburgh or Altoona or Lancaster all do the same. And they should-- I ain't got nothin' in common with those Midwesterners out in Pittsburgh. They should go join Ohio. :-P
So Rhode Island, as usual I got a lot to kvetch about when it comes to your political system, but I will miss your small wards and districts. I wouldn't have had so many extended conversations with the two front-runners of my city council ward if not for that (but Darrel Clarke, look out! That parking promotion's gotta' stop!).
*Kevin Bacon's dad! Yeah, get your six-degrees of Kevin Bacon going!