Adjusting to New Regional Realities

PHL’s pragmatic caucus is driving regional improvement in the face of federal and state transitions and uncertainty.


There certainly has been a lot of heat and contention in our civic discourse over the past several months. All of the talk about a divided America, distrust of our institutions, and retreat from the global stage has been disheartening, to put it mildly.


That’s why at this year’s World Class Summit held earlier this month, the Economy League asked five top public officials from across Greater Philadelphia to share their current priorities and how they are advancing local and regional work amidst transitions in Washington, D.C. and Harrisburg. These leaders demonstrated that while partisanship and paralysis can feel like the norm at other levels of government, meaningful regional improvement work continues apace at the local level.


They represent what Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution calls the “pragmatic caucus” of metro-area elected, business, university, civic, and philanthropic leaders who are putting party, politics, and dogma aside to forge practical approaches to grow our economy and ensure opportunity for all. Members of the pragmatic caucus recognize common ground even if they have different political or ideological learnings. They remain close to the ground and prize place over party, collaboration over conflict, and solutions over dogma. They’re not waiting for others in DC, Harrisburg, Trenton or Dover to solve their problems. It’s a spirit that we at the Economy League wholly embrace as we support our region’s emerging pragmatic caucus by providing practical insights about key regional challenges and connecting diverse, cross-sector leaders.


At the Summit, officials from Mayor Kenney’s administration, Philadelphia City Council, and Chester and Montgomery counties admitted that they face some new regional realities – potentially dramatic policy changes from Washington, decreased federal and state resources, and challenges associated with hyper-partisanship. But they offered some inspiration and wisdom about maintaining a can-do approach and overcoming these obstacles. Here are five big takeaways that I brought back from the Summit:  


1) We’re in dire need of civic safe spaces and a willingness to listen to differing points.


Our region sprawls across 11 counties, three states, and covers the full spectrum of viewpoints. But shared civic spaces where people of differing opinions on key public policy matters engage and listen to one another are as scarce as ever. At the Summit, Pennsylvania State Rep. Kate Harper shared her concerns with recent protests that shut down a PA Senate committee hearing on Philadelphia’s beverage tax at City Hall. It’s one thing to passionately disagree – but when we forego any discussion at all or talk past each other, that’s a problem with lingering political and civic consequences.


2) There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fix a bridge.  


All of the speakers at the 2017 Summit displayed their drive to move the needle on addressing community needs and noted that several of the most important issues faced at the local level rise above party lines, including workforce and economic development, transportation, and community revitalization. County commissions in particular are frequently tackling these issues collaboratively with members from both political parties. As Montgomery County Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence put it, “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to fix a bridge.”


3) Elected officials need public support and cover to boldly address our biggest challenges.


The passage of Act 89 in 2013 delivering long-needed dedicated transportation funds was only possible due to a vocal statewide coalition of business and local leaders that not only called for the increased funding but supported the tax increases to pay for it. Similarly, last year’s passage of the beverage tax in Philadelphia was bolstered by vocal and sustained support from advocates including the Pre-K for PA campaign. To move the needle on education, business growth, and infrastructure – the pillars of our World Class agenda – elected officials need a broad coalition of stakeholders to build the groundswell that makes the tough votes possible.


4) Boosting equity will be awfully hard for Philadelphia without more robust growth.


At the Summit, City of Philadelphia Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis and Councilwoman Helen Gym focused on efforts to ensure shared prosperity across all Philadelphians, including investment in community facilities through the Rebuild initiative and education reform. With Philadelphia finally experiencing modest job growth after years of losses, there’s greater opportunity to ensure this growth reaches all parts of our community. However, Philadelphia’s continued slow-growth trajectory compared to other large, mature cities significantly hampers the City’s ability to make transformative investments. Equal energy needs to be put into new growth initiatives to ensure long-run success in boosting equity.  


5) New blood is vital to the region’s civic health.


Making a positive difference at any level of government is tough work. And while there’s certainly no substitute for experience, new blood is bringing much-needed fresh ideas and energy to the region’s civic arena. Several of this year’s Summit speakers – Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline, Lawrence, Gym – may have just a couple of years in elected office under their belt, but each is bringing a career’s worth of civic experience to public office. Their enthusiasm and passion for the region are as good a reason as any to be bullish on Greater Philadelphia’s future.