Should we loosen the reins on Philadelphia politicians?

For more than 60 years, elected officials in Philadelphia have faced a restriction that’s rare among American office-holders: They can’t seek another elected office without first resigning the one they hold.

That means a Philadelphia official can’t seek any elected office – mayor, governor, Congress, president – without first resigning his current office.

The framers of the 1951 charter wrote that permitting city officials to run while holding an elected office would encourage them to pressure their employees to work on their campaigns, and would distract them from the duties of their office.

But think about it. When Barrack Obama ran for president in 2008, he didn’t have to resign his U.S. Senate seat, even though the campaign kept him running all over the country for a year. Same for John McCain, his Republican opponent.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

And in Philadelphia’s 2007 mayoral election, two members of Congress, Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah, were free to spend as much time as they saw fit running for mayor while keeping their congressional seats. Ditto for state Rep. Dwight Evans.

But City Councilman Michael Nutter had to resign his seat in 2006 to work on his campaign, while three of his rivals ran against him while collecting government paychecks.

You get to decide

City Council has voted to remove the restriction, permitting elected city officials to run for another office without resigning, though it bars them from running for re-election while being on the ballot for another office (which happens all the time in federal and state elections).

But because it requires a charter change, voters have to agree, and it will be on the ballot May 20 of next year.

The change wouldn’t take effect until 2016, taking away the suspicion that this is just a move to clear the way for Council members seeking a risk-free way to run for mayor in 2015.

There are arguments for keeping things the way they are, and when Council held a hearing in November, Mayor Nutter’s chief integrity officer Joan Markman made some of them.

She said the public isn’t clamoring for this change because they see no need to fix something which isn’t broken. Plenty of good candidates have run for city office, and city officials are used to making the choice between keeping their current posts or resigning and aiming higher.

And, she said, it keeps officeholders focused on their current jobs, as the framers of the charter intended.

Reformers support the change

It’s interesting that the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia and the watchdog group Committee of Seventy support lifting the resign-to-run restriction. The city Board of Ethics offered comment, but didn’t take a position one way or another.

Supporters of the change note that, if you’re worried about public servants being distracted by campaigning while in office, you should be just as worried about them running for re-election, which is permitted under the charter.

They also make the case that the city will be under-represented in state and national offices as long as Philadelphia officials face a restriction that politicians from other places don’t.

And City Councilman Bill Green offered an interesting notion, suggesting that the charter was drafted in 1951 by officials chosen by the Democratic Party machine, and that party officials wanted a resign-to-run provision in the charter to limit the ambitions of city officials.

Tougher restrictions on seeking higher office, he suggested, made it easier for party leaders to protect congressional representatives and state officials they’d put in place. Only aspirants for higher office whom the party chose would be allowed to advance.

Green might know something about this. His grandfather was chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party.

What do I think? Having read the transcript of the hearing, I don’t see a compelling case to keep the restriction, and would probably favor taking the cuffs off our local politicians.

Oops, maybe a bad metaphor.

But you can read the transcript of the Council hearing and decide for yourself. Just click here (several bills were considered in the hearing — the debate over the resign-to-run policy starts on page 30).

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