The mayoral issue bigger than any other: Who knows how to lead?

 This 'Voter Values Word Cloud' was created by Young Involved Philly (Image courtesy of YIP)

This 'Voter Values Word Cloud' was created by Young Involved Philly (Image courtesy of YIP)

When Bill Clinton rand for president in 1992, he didn’t field debate questions on how he’d handle the explosion of the Internet. In 2000, nobody asked George W. Bush about al-Qaeda in national debates. 

In 2007, none of us was prescient enough to ask Michael Nutter, “Hey, Mike, if the global economy melts down in 2008, how will you handle the budget blowback in Philly?”

Administrations often turn out to be defined by challenges that few people had on their radar on campaign time.

Even if you can’t predict those twists and turns, you can try to get a sense of what kinds of experience, values and mindset candidates might bring to bear at those critical times when events scramble plans.

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In other words, you can probe how ready they are to lead and to manage.

The six Democratic candidates for mayor of Philadelphia are proposing to lead a city of 1.4 million souls and to manage of a budget of nearly $4 billion. Do any of them really have a clue how to do that?

You cannot accuse this talkative crew of failing to present themselves for public inspection. They’ve gamely shown up at an impressive cavalcade of forums. Questions at those events tend to dwell on The Issues, and to have a certain sameness. After a while, everyone is so familiar with all the field’s index-card positions they could answer questions for one another.

It’s understandable to want to pin people down on what they’ll do if elected. But we should perhaps also ask: What should leave us to believe you can any of things you promise to do? And how have you prepared to handle the unexpected?

Today, WHYY is hosting a mayoral forum that will be a little different, as we try get at such leadership questions, which often end up deciding legacies.

By we, I mean WHYY, the Committee of Seventy, the Philadelphia Business Journal and Young Involved Philadelphia. Earlier, this year we conducted a little survey, working with YIP. We asked voters, particularly Millennials, which three leadership qualities they sought in city leaders.

For the nearly 100 respondents, the runaway winner was integrity, honesty or variations thereof.  In the city notorious for contented corruption, this is no small matter.

Persistence and tenacity also showed well in the survey, not surprisingly given what core Philly values those are. Vision and being willing to lead the whole city, not just selected parts of it, were also frequently mentioned. (See the word cloud above to get an overall sense on the responses. Thanks to NIck Marzano of YIP for pulling that, and the survey, together.)

More than one pragmatic respondent just wanted somebody who could “get stuff done.” although sometimes another word beginning with S was used.

We don’t pretend that one 90-minute debate can reliably measure the depth of those qualities in six very differentpeople. But we hope at today’s debate, by asking a different kind of question, to get some sense of whether these would-be leaders of our city have a theory on how to push change or what model of leadership they will seek to emulate.

You can see the debate online at, or listen to it (live to tape, as we say in the radio biz) on WHYY-FM at 9 p.m. tonight (Monday, April 27).  

Dave Davie will host that special, getting analysis from the three people who posed the questions at the debate: WHYY’s Katie Colaneri, David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy and Craig Ey of the Philadelphia Business Journal.

We hope you find it valuable.

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