With mayor’s race looming, Philly ethics board takes on big spenders

     (From left) Former city economic development official Terry Gillen, former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo, and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham (NewsWorks Image)

    (From left) Former city economic development official Terry Gillen, former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo, and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham (NewsWorks Image)

    On a day when not one but two candidates said they’ll run for mayor next year, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics took steps to try to impose some rules on an expected flood of money in the coming Democratic primary.

    The two candidates jumping in were former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo, whose announcement was formal and expected, and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, whose intentions were signalled by a longtime political adviser and hit me like a thunderbolt, even though I’d heard she was thinking about a run.

    More on the candidates in a moment. First,  I must report that the Philadelphia Board of Ethics is again ruining Philadelphia’s image as corrupt and contented, this time by proposing some new rules for the coming campaign that would limit uncontrolled spending in a way federal regulators have so far failed to do.

    As I and others have reported, it’s become a common practice in congressional campaigns for candidates to shoot commercials and then post flattering video of the candidate on YouTube,  knowing some friendly “independent expenditure” group that takes unlimited contributions would grab the beauty shots and flood the airwaves with ads that make a mockery of campaign contribution limits.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    The city ethics board has proposed regulations that would call that kind of game a coordinated expenditure between the candidate and admirers, and make the spending on the ads subject to contribution limits.

    Several campaign reform groups praised the proposal at a hearing Wednesday and said it was constitutional.

    Election lawyer Adam Bonin said he agreed it was constitutional, just dumb.

    Bonin is a knowledgeable figure  in city election law, and he offered technical and substantive  criticisms. The most substantive was that the proposal was too broad, “a blunderbuss solution to a very minor problem,” he told me.

    He said it would chill valuable and protected speech, such as creative remixing of video on the Internet for political and comedic purposes.

    John Dunbar of  the Center for Public Integrity in Washington told me Philadelphia’s proposal is “very aggressive,” an approach he hadn’t seen anywhere else. He said it makes common sense, but was sure to come under attack.

    The ethics board will consider the public comments and could have the rules in place by the end of the year.

    Meet the candidates

    Ken Trujillo, the former city solicitor, formally announced his candidacy Wednesday. I’ve written about him before, and you can read Holly Otterbein’s report on his announcement here. I’d also recommend this take from Patrick Kerkstra.

    Trujillo could be a flop, or he could pick up some momentum and become the outsider reform candidate. The fact that he’s wealthy and prepared to finance his own campaign makes him a man to take seriously.

    Lynne Abraham’s stated intention to enter the race is beyond surprising to me. Abraham has historically flirted with the idea of running for mayor, but never took the leap. The chatter among the political class was that she was never up for a real battle, and a battle this will be.

    Abraham was a potent political force during her 22 years as city district attorney, easily winning re-election battles, getting high favorability ratings in polls, and winning over crowds at community meetings.

    Of course, crime fighters tend to be popular, and it was never clear whether she had the interest or policy depth to make an effective bid for mayor. But Ed Rendell was district attorney and is regarded as one of the city’s most successful mayors of the 20th century.

    It’s also interesting that we now have two women among the announced field in a city that certainly needs more gender-balanced leadership. Former city economic development official Terry Gillen is also in the race.

    I’ll impolitely note that Abraham will be 74 if she runs next spring and close to 75 when she takes office. When I asked her political consultant Eleanor Dezzi how old she is, she answered, “old enough to know she has the energy and smarts to do the race,” then wondered if I would ask that question of a man.

    I’ll note that I did when I wrote about Frank Rizzo Jr.’s interest in running, and he’s a bit younger. While 74 is younger than it used to be, we’re talking about committing oneself to four or eight years of an around-the-clock grind that I’ve seen put gray hairs on younger folks. It’s between Lynne and the voters.

    Welcome to the dance.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal