Civic cowboy rides into the sunset

    Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Zack Stalberg is leaving his post as president and CEO of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

     

    He’s 67, and he and his wife, Deb, have a piece of property in the Santa Fe area that borders a 4,000-acre wilderness preserve and is down the street from a horse stable.

    What’s not to like about that?

    But somehow I can’t quite imagine Philadelphia without Stalberg occupying some spot in the civic landscape.

    We go back

    My personal relationship with Zack goes back to 1990, when he hired me to work at the Philadelphia Daily News. He was an editor-in-chief who wore cowboy boots, kept a machete on his coffee table and ended every staff memo with “p.s. This is no bulls**t.”

    Many years before that, he was at the center of the best Philadelphia political story of the past 50 years, when he convinced the mayor of the city and the chief of the Democratic Party to settle a dispute about who was telling the truth by taking lie detector tests and giving him the exclusive results. By pure coincidence, I recalled this episode in a post yesterday.

    As a journalist, I always valued digging deep, but one of the things I learned from Zack was that how you present your stuff can matter as much as the content itself.

    It’s a critical sensibility for a tabloid, which has to earn its readers every day on the newsstand.

    I remember Zack wrote a column once calling a federal judge “public enemy No. 1” for her determination to reduce the city’s prison population.

    When she complained, Zack wrote a second column in which he said that he’d called the judge public enemy No. 1 “because I couldn’t think of anything worse.”

    I remember Zack taking me to lunch one day at The Palm. When we sat down, he said he wanted to see more edge in the columns I wrote.

    I told him I knew what he meant, but that I had this thing about always being thorough and fair. He paused a second, then shook his head and said with a laugh, “that’s really a terrible quality.”

    We talked more and I got his point: Sure, report the story thoroughly. Yes, talk to everyone you should. But when it’s time to write, get to the heart of it.

    It was a good lesson, one I’m still learning.

    From scribe to player

    Zack left the Daily News in 2005 and took over the Committee of Seventy, a venerated civic watchdog group that had lost its bark. With the help of an activist board, Seventy started making noise again – filing lawsuits, advocating for policy change, hosting debates, producing issues papers, promoting civic dialogue and sometimes calling out elected officials in fine tabloid fashion.

    Zack’s rhetoric earned him condemnation on the floor of City Council more than once.

    I called him yesterday and asked how running the Committee of Seventy differed from that part of running a newspaper that was advocating for change.

    “Being here is more like being a part of ground-level politics,” he told me. “Yes, a lot takes place in the media, but some of it really takes place in direct conversations with political figures, and with a little horse-trading and applying direct pressure.”

    “I’ve had situations where I’m listening on the radio to some city official pissing on me, and, at the same time, he’s calling me and asking for advice or support for a bill or something like that,” he said.

    There were satisfying moments in all of it, of course.

    He described a 2005 lunch conversation with a political contributor and fundraiser who said he might just sit out the coming mayor’s race if the city’s new campaign finance rules were going to be taken seriously.

    Zack said that drew his attention to the city’s legally untested campaign contribution limits. He got his board interested, and the organization filed suit, leading eventually to a state Supreme Court decision that fundamentally changed the nature of city elections.

    It’s not clear whether the limits will be effective in the next mayoral election, and Zack said a factor in his decision to leave was “the sense that things don’t change enough.”

    Zack says he plans to do some kind of work in New Mexico, but “with some luck, not in politics or the media.”

    Maybe. But I bet before long he’ll be sipping drinks with locals who know the score in Lamy, New Mexico, just so he’ll know what’s going on.

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