One night this summer, my wife and I took a walk around our neighborhood. As we passed by the house of Philadelphia’s now-disgraced former district attorney, Seth Williams, we saw him in his front doorway, chatting it up with a group of friends.
It looked as if a party had just concluded and that, judging by the combination of levity and
concern evident in Williams’ delivery and written upon his face, it would be quite some time before a party returned to that house.
If one does anytime soon, it won’t be with Williams there.
Just weeks after that walk around the block, Williams abruptly pleaded guilty in the middle of his federal bribery trial and was escorted out of court in handcuffs. This week, the prosecution filed paperwork arguing for the maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. Formal sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 24. Williams’ house now has a real estate agent’s sign out front indicating that the property has been sold.
Just a few houses down and across the street sits the residence of longtime Philadelphia Democratic leader and U.S. representative, Bob Brady. Three months ago, his name came up in a federal investigation into campaign financial irregularities tied to an alleged payoff by Brady of a 2012 primary challenger who subsequently exited the race. That challenger, former Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore, is now cooperating with authorities, while the woman who shielded the transaction has pleaded guilty to fraud.
A couple blocks to the north and west and across City Avenue lies a suburban section of Pennsylvania’s Second Congressional District, which for years was represented by Rep. Chaka Fattah. He now sits in prison, serving a 10-year sentence after having been convicted on 23 counts of racketeering, fraud and other crimes. Go east across the Delaware River and up the New Jersey Turnpike and you’ll come to Newark, where U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez sits in judgment on federal bribery charges.
Clearly, something is wrong with our politics — in our city, in our state, in our region.
Some of you will be quick to point out that all of the names mentioned so far belong to Democrats, but corruption is not a disease belonging particularly to any one party.
On the other side of our commonwealth, the Eighteenth Congressional District will by this weekend be without official representation in Washington when Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican, resigns. The solidly anti-abortion congressman was named in divorce papers filed by a onetime mistress, whom reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicates was encouraged by her politician paramour to get an abortion when the married Murphy thought that he had impregnated her.
Maybe you’ll say that all of these names belong to politicians, that the swamp — either of Washington, D.C., or of politics in general — needs to be drained.
But that kind of argument presupposes that the crop of replacements rising up in former presidential adviser Stephen Bannon’s inter-Republican civil war are, by virtue of their being outsiders, inherently more virtuous. One GOP candidate running for Congress in Florida has, as recently as 2009, professed the outspoken belief that she was abducted by aliens when she was 7.
Around Philadelphia, it would be easy to dismiss any office holder as ethically compromised. It would be equally easy to give up altogether.
We as a citizenry must not give up.
When it comes to current officeholders facing investigations and trials, we must allow the justice system to run its course. And when it comes to those seeking our votes, we must give their races the utmost of attention.
Next month, we will not be choosing federal officeholders, but we will be voting for judgeships, municipal leaders such as school board representatives, and in Philadelphia, the next district attorney and city controller. Before Election Day, this newspaper will be looking at some of the candidates, but it is incumbent upon every voter to avail himself or herself of all available information. And above all, it is crucial that every one of us who is able to do so casts a ballot.
It’s easy to complain about what we see as ineffectiveness, inattention, inability or illegality in City Hall, in Harrisburg or in Washington. But if we refuse to vote, we lose the moral authority to speak up.
Taking our government back begins with caring enough to listen, to be informed and to then make a decision.