After 16 years on City Council, Wilson Goode looks forward to moving on
“Tuesday was Election Day,” announced Wilson Goode, Jr., from his seat in Council Chambers just a few days after the primary election in May. “I lost the race for the first time in 24 years, when I first ran for City Council at the age of 25. So now I’m eight for ten, and I’m good with that. All is well with my soul.”
Goode, who turned 50 this summer and who has served as the youngest at-large member of City Council since 2000, is certainly gracious in defeat. He also seems genuinely happy to be moving on. In an interview with PlanPhilly earlier this month, Goode said he wasn’t surprised at the outcome of the primary election. He spoke highly of mayor-elect Jim Kenney, who he sometimes didn’t get along with while the two served together on Council, but wouldn’t address rumors that he might land a job somewhere in the new administration.
“I was never in it for the politics,” Goode said in May. “I was raised better than that. It was simply a means to an end.”
Goode noted that he has introduced 160 bills during his 16 years on City Council. By the time he leaves office in January, he said, 147 of them will have been adopted. Since 2012, when the most recent Council took office, Goode has sponsored 66 bills that have become law, almost twice the rate of the next-most-prolific at-large Councilmember, Bill Greenlee. For context, as the chairman of the appropriations committee, Goode is the sponsor of record on a number of routine budgetary measures in addition to matters of policy that he has championed. For additional context, David Oh, a Republican Councilman who won reelection in November, has only managed to sponsor 5 bills that have become law, while around a dozen of his measures have not advanced.
“Like I said, I am pleased with the achievement over those years, which were the prime years of my life,” Goode said in an interview. “I could offer more as a legislator, but I can also offer more just continuing policy work without having to be a legislator. And at this point, I simply prefer to approach it from a different perspective.”
Goode is the son of Wilson Goode, Sr., who served as Philadelphia’s mayor from 1984 to 1992. He grew up in West Philadelphia, went to Penn, and in the 1990s, after losing his first City Council election, worked on economic development policy in the Commerce Department under Mayor Ed Rendell.
The 1990s in Philadelphia were a period of intense population and job losses. Many policymakers have instinctively reacted to that type of situation by trying to remove government red tape, in the form of regulations and taxes, in order to make reinvestment as easy and hassle-free as possible. Goode has approached the problem from a different angle. Where investments are being made, he has tried to establish laws that draw the benefit of those investments to underserved populations. Goode has spent his career on City Council working to advance an equity agenda, even as income inequality has become a defining focus of political campaigns nationally and in other big cities.
“Clearly, people debate the issue of poverty, and why poverty exists, and where poverty exists and why,” Goode said. “There are multiple approaches that can be taken that include things like improving public education. But at the end of the day, people who are in poverty need money. And if they are the working poor, then they need fair wages.”
Shortly after taking office, Goode embarked on a series of lending-disparity studies, which showed that banks, locally and regionally, were disproportionately making small-business loans in middle- and upper-income areas, and in areas with small minority populations. Through a series of laws that required banks to submit goals for investment in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, Goode was able to increase the proportion of loans going to those communities.
“There was a dramatic rise in the amount of lending being done, small-business lending being done in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods,” Goode said. “When you dig into the data a little bit more, of course, it was being done in moderate-income neighborhoods, not as much in the low-income neighborhoods, but there was that shift … We did not have the impact that we wanted to have in terms of low-income neighborhoods or in terms of communities of color. But we did move the numbers.”
These initiatives were designed to use the power of the municipal purse and simple public shaming to induce banks to improve their performance for investing in underdeveloped areas. If banks didn’t submit investment goals or consistently failed to meet them, the city could remove them the list of banks it would use for deposits.
Goode also created a tax credit for businesses that invest in one of the city’s dozens of Community Development Corporations. The bill allows big businesses to invest $100,000 a year for ten years in a CDC and reduce its bill for the Business Income and Receipts tax by the same amount. Over a ten-year period, that means $1 million for each participating CDC.
Rick Sauer, the director of the Philadelphia Association of CDCS, said the tax credit has been transformational for a number of groups, including his own, allowing them to make hiring decisions based on stable funding, rather than the uncertainty of yearly grants that many nonprofits have to live with.
“The beauty of that program, beyond that it’s flexible funding, is that it is long-term funding,” Sauer said.
Goode has also focused on building opportunities for Minority, Women, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (MWDBEs) by requiring the City to set contracting goals for those businesses on public projects. In addition, he sponsored a law requiring Economic Opportunity Plans (EOPs) for developers who receive public funding or other types of assistance.
These plans can be difficult to enforce, and Goode’s method of publicly interrogating developers and administration officials about their participation goals could arguably be as effective a motivation as the law itself.
He has also sponsored bills setting living-wage requirements for contractors taking city work. Most recently, that wage was raised to $12 an hour, and the requirement was also extended to subcontractors.
Goode has been among the only members of City Council to truly question certain development subsidy programs. He has voted against Tax Increment Financing packages for various projects, and has sought to tweak the city’s ten-year tax abatement, which many development advocates seem to view more as a talisman that might lose its magical powers under scrutiny than as a tax program created by legislators.
“First,” said Council President Darrell Clarke, “I want to say that I think it’s a significant, and I emphasize significant, loss to this Council and this city, in terms of a person being in the forefront of supporting those who have experienced challenges as it relates to discrimination, as it relates to the lack of opportunities. Without a doubt, he has clearly been the most aggressive as it relates to those particular issues, and I don’t know how we fill those shoes or that level of dialogue that he has brought to the table—and that legislation.”
Goode has come to be known as something of a lone wolf on City Council. Politics puts a premium on name recognition, and Wilson Goode, Jr., has it. But unlike Frank Rizzo, Jr.—who gained a reputation as a do-nothing legislator collecting checks on his father’s infamy before being ousted from City Council amid the DROP scandal in 2011—Goode has used his name recognition to try to stay out of the darker corners of the political universe.
In 2005, he rejected a meal and a $1,000 campaign check from the Chamber of Commerce, which was handing them out as a thank-you to Council members who had supported cuts to the business privilege tax. Goode, who also sponsored some of the city’s first campaign-finance limits, ripped up the check on the floor of City Council, according to a report in the Inquirer.
Mayor-elect Jim Kenney was a Councilman at the time, and he accepted the Chamber’s contribution.
“If your father was a firefighter instead of a mayor, you have more need to get a name out, and that takes money,” Kenney told a reporter. “I’m not ashamed at any of my contributors.”
In 2003, Goode stayed out of a behind-the-scenes power struggle, when 3rd-District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was making moves to unseat Anna Verna as the Council President, according to reports in the Inquirer. Shortly thereafter, he introduced a bill that would have allowed voters to elect the City Council president.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, on multiple occasions Goode has broken with councilmanic prerogative, the tradition that usually gives district Councilmembers unanimous support from their colleagues on matters related to the areas they represent. Most recently, Goode voted against a public financing package meant to subsidize the development of a W Hotel at 15th and Chestnut streets in Center City.
Earlier, he signed onto a bill introduced by former Councilman Thacher Longstreth rezoning the area surrounding what is now the Ikea shopping center in South Philadelphia for commercial use. Frank DiCicco, the district Councilman at the time, had favored a more limited measure that would have rezoned just the Ikea parcel.
“In the end, sometimes you have to break tradition for progress,” Goode told an Inquirer reporter.
Goode has been involved in one notable scandal. In 2008, the local TV station Fox 29 aired a report about Latrice Bryant, an aide to Councilman Goode with whom Goode had been romantically linked, questioning timesheets she had submitted for work in City Hall. After the spot aired, Bryant held up signs on the floor of Council saying “Jeff Cole KKK,” a reference to the Fox 29 reporter.
Goode later acknowledged that there had been some mistakes on the timesheets, and repaid the $836.35 that Bryant was supposed to have owed.
A notable scandal. One which may say as much about local broadcast news as it does about Goode.
When Council is not in session, Goode can occasionally be seen walking City Hall in track pants and a backward baseball cap. But he prefers to do business in dark, loose-fitting suits.
In hearings, he treats most witnesses he engages with as hostile. He asks a lot of “yes” or “no” questions, often ones that aren’t related to a point the witness is trying to make. Usually, these questions involve issues of minority-participation goals, or requested public subsidies for development projects. He doesn’t like it when people are unprepared. Sometimes he makes them feel small. Sometimes, frankly, he is mean.
Angela Dowd-Burton, the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which monitors the city’s minority contracting goals, has been grilled by Goode repeatedly during Council hearings. She initially agreed to an interview with PlanPhilly, but a few hours later she seemed to have changed her mind, and sent us a fairly canned statement instead, saying she appreciates Goode’s legislative work and admires him for trying to hold the executive branch accountable.
“He could be unbelievably tenacious on these things, and really withering in his criticism,” said Peter Kelsen, a development attorney.
But Kelsen, like others interviewed for this story, said Goode was always after the same thing.
“My experience with Goode was that if you had a plan that was thought out and vetted through the Office of Economic Opportunity well prior to the hearing … and you took the time to explain the parameters of the EOP plan and the participation levels, he was satisfied,” Kelsen said.
One reason that Goode didn’t win his election in May is that Helen Gym, a former teacher, journalist, and education activist, did win hers. Gym will be one of five new Council members to take office in January, and she said that over the course of the months since she won the primary, Councilman Goode has become something of a mentor to her.
“I’m sure [his style] has turned some people off,” Gym said. “But I think his approach has been, it’s very rare that certain groups of people come before City Council, and if you have the opportunity to ask them questions that need to be asked, are you going to walk away from that opportunity? … I’m sure it’s made people feel unhappy or uncomfortable, and I think it’s worth noting that those are the people who feel most comfortable in the city with their positions.”
For his part, Goode said he’s persistent in his questions because he knows how the game works.
“One of the things that I was taught early on about even interviews with the media is that, if you have a point to make, then make sure you get your point out, regardless of what the question is. You’re allowed to say whatever you want to say. And with that understanding, I think there are certain witnesses that take that same approach that regardless of what the question is, they’re going to get out whatever message they want to get out and stay on message. And so, at the end of the day, I’m simply trying to get the questions answered that I want answered, as opposed to allowing them to simply sell me whatever message they came to sell me.”
“It’s not enough to just win,” Goode said in May, a few days after losing the primary. “You should do something.”
Many Councilmembers throughout the years, particularly those who have represented districts, have gotten by on the strength of their constituent-service operations. Helping people navigate bureaucracies, notifying the appropriate administrators to potholes and downed power lines, taking calls when the trash trucks don’t arrive. Those can be important services, and many residents associate City Council with that kind of work.
The point is, there’s nothing in the City Council playbook that requires you to have even a passing interest in public policy. Councilman Goode has focused on nothing else.
“I wish everybody in elective office—city, state or federal—was as passionate and had as much of a clear vision for what they wanted to try to accomplish as Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr.,” said Joe Grace, the vice president of local and state advocacy for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Grace, who previously ran an unsuccessful campaign for City Council, now represents an organization that has butted heads with Goode in the past. But he said he admires Goode for actually influencing the legislative agenda of City Council in one direction or another.
“He has been one of the most prolific legislators in City Council,” said Helen Gym. “He is somebody who really sees legislation as an incredibly important tool. And it’s important for me to understand that, to use that effectively.”
“It’s hard to define yourself,” Gym added. “And I think that he’s done that through his legislative accomplishments, and particularly around economic justice issues …”
Goode says he believes that the legislative agenda of City Council has been set, in recent years, by Council President Darrell Clarke. He thinks that Council’s agenda, as well as the incoming mayor’s, is in line with his own. More than that, he said, the point of being a legislator is to put permanent laws on the books that help the people you want to help even after you’ve left office.
“I’ve done a lot, so politics has served its purpose for me,” Goode told his Council colleagues after losing the primary. “As for my future … God is not through with me yet.”
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