David Thornburgh on raising civic expectations, tax reform and ‘strategic impatience’

    David Thornburgh is President and CEO of Committee of Seventy, a non-profit, non-partisan government watchdog in Philadelphia.

    “Five Questions with …” is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers. David Thornburgh is President and CEO of Committee of Seventy, a non-profit, non-partisan government watchdog in Philadelphia. He is part of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government.

    Tell us about an amenity or service that you’ve seen in your travels to other places that you wish you could bring back to your city?

    On my wish list? A 21st century fare collection system for SEPTA (I’d even settle for a late 20th version). While we’re at it, an updated transit system that doesn’t look so Dickensian.

    A more positive and productive political culture. Better street musicians and performers. Cleaner streets—it makes me crazy to see people throw stuff out of their cars.

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    Turning the microscope around, here’s a few things that I think visitors envy about Philadelphia: Our quirky authenticity. The “pop up” movement. Our food trucks and Night Markets. The Wissahickon. Our DIY culture and sensibility. The Mutter Museum. Eastern State Penitentiary.

    What’s one urban improvement idea that you could categorize as “nice try but didn’t work”?

    It ain’t over til it’s over, but I’m sorely disappointed that the wage tax reform movement lost traction and political leadership after 2008.

    Philadelphia’s two big challenges are educational attainment and a competitive tax structure, and I am wholly convinced that a modern tax structure would allow Philadelphia to rebuild its private sector job base in a way that no other investment could match. Unlike educational attainment or other big lifts, it’s also a change we could make—given the political leadership—with a stroke of the pen. For that reason alone it’s a tantalizing proposition. No other change to the city’s competitive environment could come close to tax reform in promising to create jobs and wealth and put people to work.

    Describe a person in your city who is a “spark” —someone who seems to get things done and inspire people. (This does not need to be an elected official.)

    There are lots of them, most of them not elected officials. I’m a big fan of Paul Levy at the Center City District, Meryl Levitz at Visit Philadelphia, Sharmain Matlock-Turner at the Urban Affairs Coalition, Josh Koppelman at First Round Capital, State Rep. Dwight Evans, Chris Wink at Technically Philly, Liz Dow at Leadership Philadelphia, John Fry at Drexel, Geoff DeMasi in his various civic guises. These folks are all great civic entrepreneurs, who see and seek opportunity and act with a sense of strategic impatience. We’re in the midst of a significant generational transfer of talent and it’s exciting to see new folks emerge and dig in.

    What flaw or habit does your city/community have that you would like to see it change?

    Gregg Melinson was my chair when I led the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia (he’s now head of government affairs at Hewlett-Packard) and he and I used to muse that what kept Philadelphians back is our low expectations. If we expected more—of our political leadership, of our ability to imagine and achieve, of ourselves and our communities—we’d get more, even when we didn’t totally succeed. I think a lot about how to raise civic expectations. Expect more, Philadelphia!

    Tell us about a movie or book that depicts, in a way that grabbed your attention, how a city can thrive or fail.

    Driven, entrepreneurial leaders with a clear sense of where they want to go make cities thrive. In that context, my Fels students would be disappointed if I didn’t mention Robert Caro’s masterful “The Power Broker,” the biography of Robert Moses in New York that stands as the best book ever written on urban politics and power. It’s a story not so much about success or failure, but about how one man—a man who never held public office and whom few people remember today—so mastered the levers of power that he changed forever one of the most powerful cities on earth. It’s assigned reading for my Politics and Public Leadership class, all 1,200 pages of it (but I swear to my students it’s a quick 1,200 pages).

    Is there someone you know who thinks hard about cities and knows how to get things done? Someone whom Keystone Crossroads should spend “Five Questions with …”. Please let us know in the comment sections below, via Twitter @Pacrossroads, or on Facebook


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