Tom Knox is Serious.

Former and likely future candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia, Tom Knox, tells me, quote, “The only thing that’s going to keep me out is if I die.”  Knox said that in response to my question if anything could prevent him for running for Mayor in 2015.  Tom Knox finished second to Michael Nutter in the Democratic primary of 2007.  Knox tells me, “We need new leadership.” And, “I’m not very optimistic about the health of the city of Philadelphia.”   Knox has ideas for gaining revenue for the school district (health centers), for saving taxpayers’ money on property the city leases and further tax reform.  He doesn’t think Philadelphia has a “Detroit” problem right now, but he says defined benefit plans are a thing of the past and that future government employee hires should be moved into 401K type plans (557s.)

Plea for Bipartisanship

Early seeds of change?  I had a conversation with former Maine U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe and former Governor Ed Rendell about political gridlock. Snowe is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center which was created 6 years ago by former Congressional leaders, Republican and Democrat.  Rendell told me that it’s “time for those of us in the majority to wake up.” He saysImage“We’re not as avid voters as the fanatics(on both sides.)”  But that people are “hungry” for an end to the stalemate.

Snowe says currently, “There are too many incentives to divide.” She wants the American people to demand that Congress pass a budget (which it has not formally done for several years.)  Rendell believes there is plenty of room to compromise at the margins without violating each side’s principles. He says the “media are a little responsible, too.”  Both think voters can pressure Congress into action. They also want open, not closed primaries and other incentives to take away the political rewards that divisiveness allows right now.

I inferred from Snowe’s comments that President Obama and the White House also need to do more. A “President has to engage and so do his people.”

“My Way”

Pall bearers steadily moved the flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Senator Arlen Specter through massive Har Zion Temple, and as they took their small, halting steps, Frank Sinatra’s large anthem of a full life, “My Way,” played to the 15 hundred people who had gathered to recall a “great statesman” and a remarkable man.Image

Friends, family and dignitaries gathered today in Penn Valley:  Vice-President Joe Biden, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, past and current U.S. Senators, elected officials from throughout the region, the Deputy Israeli Ambassador and more. The nearly two hours of reflection was at times humorous, at times tearful, but always as the Senator might have liked, moving forward.  It was also at times presented as if attorneys were making the case for a man’s greatness.  If it were a debate, they would have won it.

The Vice-President canceled campaign appearances in western swing states today to be here to say goodbye to his friend. He began his remarks with, “My name is Joe Biden. I was Arlen’s friend.”  He was in full Biden seriousness and in full Biden humor. It was no doubt like the train rides the two of them shared. Joe Biden said of his friend, “Arlen had exceptional character,” and that he had “never seen a man with as much undaunted courage.”

Former Governor Ed Rendell, who was hired by District Attorney Arlen Specter,  said ”We were proud of you…We will always be proud of you.” Rendell’s voice broke a couple of times as he praised his mentor and colleague.

Longtime friends of Arlen Specter remembered his early days and the personal side of the very public figure. Words such as “true grit,” “will,” and “integrity” filled the eulogies.  Arlen lived, “A productive and meaningful life.”  “He wasn’t afraid to fail.”

Tribute was paid to widow Joan Specter.  Granddaughters spoke, too. Said Sylvie of her grandfather, “He worked tirelessly to be the best grandfather ever, and he succeeded.”  Specter’s son, Shanin, summed up the afternoon’s recollections and expanded on his father’s love of the fight for fairness and of standing by friends in trouble, regardless of political consequences.  Said Shanin, “He was “the patron saint of lost causes.”

The above were among the public statements I heard, but before the service began I spoke with people from various walks of life, all who genuinely are pained by the loss of a man who made a difference. Among them, those with a stake in the fight against cancer, community leaders, as well as public figures indebted to his leadership. Pall bearer and Congressman, Pat Meehan, for example, who wore the loss on his face.

Arlen Specter did not plan this final  service. As he told his family, “surprise me.”  But as Sinatra filled the quiet of the Temple, it felt, after 82 years on earth, 59 years of marriage, kids and grandkids, students and colleagues, wins and losses, causes, quests, and even windmills, it felt right to say that Arlen Specter did do it his way.

Remembering Senator Arlen Specter

Senator Arlen Specter lived the U.S. Constitution. Yes, he lived it.  He saw the document as alive and properly adjusting with the times. He saw that as part of its greatness. Maybe it describes his greatness, too.

Mr. Specter lived as a thinking, adjusting public figure. His ground was a sense of fairness, and of need, with a solution reached through reason. He had many critics, but Pennsylvania’s longest serving U.S. Senator will be among the most studied.

Arlen Specter passed away this weekend at the age of 82.  Colleagues and those who admired him are remembering him as courageous, intelligent, a task master, influential and as effective. All true. He was always in the fight. My score count makes him 7 and 5 in elections.  There is a lot of resilience in that ratio.

On toughness, as a reporter I got to see glimpses of the personal courage. After one news conference in which he announced a diagnosis of cancer, he left the microphone with his notes rolled up and as he passed me, he paused and rapped me on the arm and said, “I’m going to beat this.” Another time, in talking about politics and tough times, he said to me, “I’ve got shock absorbers.” In his last interview with me I could see the body failing, but the spirit never wavered.

Arlen Specter, says Senator Bob Casey, “had a brilliant mind.” I think Specter enjoyed finding the path others could not see. As for his positions, he had a keen sense of self-worth but also a desire to find accord among competing factions and that often was the path he discovered or had the courage to embrace.

He will be remembered for the single bullet theory, which he told me is the single bullet “fact.” He will be remembered for being the deciding Stimulus vote, for his criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court (he complained to me that it it is too political) and many other stands and opinions at various crossroads of history. But, at them all he did not cower from controversy. He was there in the room in the very serious game.

He was cerebral, not warm and fuzzy. He enjoyed sports as much as anyone, from his squash games to his belief that the Patriots stole the Super Bowl from the Eagles. He was an observer of people and that often informed his humor.

He was willing to have a give and take with voters. I saw it when I covered his short-lived run for President in 1996 in New Hampshire. Everyone saw it when he was one of the few elected officials to hold real town hall meetings in 2009.

Late in life, as he discussed with me the cannibalism of Washington politics, he bemoaned the debilitating partisanship among elected officials and citizens who failed to see what is derisively referred to now as common ground.

Arlen Specter would have loved the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  Rarely have I met a political figure who would revel as much in the give and take of  ideas, of law, and of the possibilities inherent in a policy or belief.

The National Constitution Center, as the Constitution itself, has many parents, but if there is to be a father of the Constitution Center, it is U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, a man who lived it.

Mitt Romney won the debate, but what did he win?

Here’s the problem.  We’re a nation more into style than substance. The 1st debate between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney had the makings of a conversation about in what direction the nation really needs to move. However, unless you had already devoted much time to knowing the issues and the candidates’ promises, it was difficult, as it usually is, to know not only the truth but also the effect of different paths of tax and spending policies. Each candidate did express different paths, but did we learn anything about which is the better way? We learned what we sometimes do, that one candidate was more convincing and politically profited from the moment.

If the candidates were honest and each more intelligently challenging of the other when his opponent painted too optimistic or too negative a take on a policy, that might have worked. If the moderator had known when someone was stretching a fact, and was willing to speak up, that might have helped, too. But neither happened consistently in the October 3rd debate. The moderator occupied a chair. If he had intelligently interrupted more it would have upset some partisans, but it  could have provided clarity.

The bigger fault, however, rests with the candidates. To his credit, Mitt Romney was more challenging and engaging than Barack Obama. President Obama failed at several key moments. Obama at times seemed unhappy about not being there, which has happened before to sitting Presidents. He at other moments seemed insecure or unfocused. When he spoke substantively, it often sounded like the first layer of a response and not the stronger, confident statements of a leader. When he did respond, sometimes it ironically was the failure of style, as much as substance to refute the aggressive, confident Romney. He also missed opportunities. For example, when Romney said he never heard of the tax deduction Obama talked about for companies sending jobs out of the country, Romney joked that maybe he, Romney, should get a new accountant. The President could have countered by asking Romney if that meant that Romney had sent  jobs (or cash) overseas. That would have certainly been a debating point. Perhaps, it would have led to a deeper discussion. For his part, for example, Romney could have done a better job challenging the President’s $4 trillion deficit cutting breakdown or explaining where the President’s savings were or were not in health care.

Both candidates made statements that were not entirely true and larger, more specific questions about hard choices were not answered, if asked, and the candidates seem to be saying,”Here’s all you need to know.” That is not saying that Mitt Romney would not have been able to hold his own in a more sophisticated discussion, but he rarely had to try. Romney also pretty much succeeded in criticizing without being disrespectful. Whether President Obama, by being so low-key, was trying to remain higher than Romney in favorably, or likeability, ratings I don’t know, but real discourse about American domestic policy suffered.

While images are an important part of leadership, the debates tend to limit most of the discussion to those images.  Would our opinions of who won and lost be changed to some degree if the split screen were not employed?  I’m not suggesting that it not be used, but rather that its effect is another example of how we are influenced in our conclusions about who won a debate. Substance has a hard time triumphing over style, especially when a candidate is complicit.

For the people who work hard every day, for the people concerned about liberty, for the U.S. Armed Forces personnel who died or were wounded, for the people living in violent neighborhoods, for the homeowner who is trying to live up to her financial responsibility, is a debate like this one or one between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, doing them much justice?

Republicans since 2008 have been claiming that America bought style and image over substance. Democrats may be worried that they’ll be uttering the line after November 6th. But more importantly, are we as Americans substantially any more educated about how government works, about how capitalism works, and about the serious financial problems which confront our nation, or are we just closer to deciding who looks like a leader, this year?

Butkovitz on Your Money

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz says the reassessment of Philadelphia real estate taxes will be a tax increase for many.  In his words, “It may knock a lot of people’s socks off.”  Butkovitz says some people may see “a doubling or tripling” of real estate taxes. 

Alan Butkovitz has been the City Controller for 6 years.  In that time he has performed audits and other reviews identifying hundreds of millions of dollars in potential savings. I asked him how much mayors, council members, school administrators and others have responded to his ideas. His answer: “Hardly at all.”

Butkovitz estimates the level of waste, fraud and abuse in the Philadelphia School District is about “20 something” percent.  He believes there is “a long history in the school district of the not respecting the (budget) numbers.” Butkovitz says he would not be surprised if there were federal indictments related to some charter schools that have or are operating in the Philadelphia School District.

On the city government side, Alan Butkovitz gives Mayor Nutter, Inspector General Amy Kurland and other s “A+’s.”  He says Mayor Nutter has ended the pay to pay culture.  He does, however, think the administration may be too academic and theoretical and still has “weaknesses on the operational side.”

Runyan Off and Running

In another race to watch this fall, Congressman Jon Runyan says “We’re gonna get our country back.” The Republican New Jersey Congressman from the 3rd Congressional District Tuesday night officially kicked off his campaign for re-election in Burlington County. He made a similar announcement Monday night in Toms River, Ocean County. Speaking at the Westin Hotel in Mt. Laurel, Runyan warned “I don’t think anyone of us thinks the American dream will be there for our children and grandchildren.” Runyan said he is fighting to reign in out of control spending. He blames the Harry Reid-led U.S. Senate and President Obama.

The 3rd District seat was long held by Republican Jim Saxton until his retirement. Democrat John Adler won the open seat in 2008. Runyan defeated Congressman Adler in 2010. John Adler died in 2011. Adler’s wife, Shelley, is now the Democrat seeking the job this year. She is a former Cherry Hill Councilmember. Reapportionment after the census has made the 3rd more Republican leaning. It is most of Burlington County and much of Ocean County. Cherry Hill is no longer in the district. Federal law allows Shelley Adler to run in the 3rd even though Cherry Hill has been removed. There are reports she will move within the new district lines. Look for this contest to be one of different ideas in an emotional Presidential year.

“Occupy” Runs for Congress

An “Occupy” challenger to a Democratic incumbent has entered a Democratic primary race for Congress in the Philadelphia region. Nathan Kleinman hopes to defeat veteran incumbent Allyson Schwartz in the 13th Congressional District, which is parts of Montgomery County and Northeast Philadelphia. Nate Kleinman made his announcement today on the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown. He says “We’ve got to establish accountability for our members of Congress.” He adds, “Too many people are being left behind in this country and that’s why I am running for Congress.” I asked him if he is saying that Allyson Schwartz is a tool of corporate America. Kleinman says he’s not saying that, but he notes that she voted again net neutrality and “for the Bush tax cuts for the rich.” Kleinman is one of the first involved with the Occupy movement to declare for Congress in the U.S.  He states that he is proud of his involvement with Occupy, though he says he is “running on his own platform.”

Kleinman was joined by retired Philadelphia Police Department Captain Ray Lewis who has been vocal in the Occupy effort. He calls Kleinman, “The real deal.” Nate Kleinman pledges to take no corporate money and to spend no time raising money if elected to Congress.

 A spokesperson for Congresswoman Schwartz says Philadelphia and Montgomery County want “someone who stands up for their values while also working to find common ground.”  The Schwartz backers note that she was a player in the compromise to continue the payroll tax cut. They see Schwartz as a centrist and best fitting the 13th District.

Your Home’s Worth What?

What is your home worth and what can revive the housing market? Recognized housing expert Kevin Gillen, Ph.D., tells me that home prices have declined about 18 percent in Philadelphia since the peak of prices in 2007. The decline in the suburbs has been about 22 to 30 percent.  Gillen says the larger drop in the suburbs is a first. The extra drop has happened mainly because of energy prices. Says Gillen, “The longer the commute and higher your utility costs, then the more in (home) value is lost.” The attraction of Center City,  Philadelphia, and the desire for smaller environmental footprints have also contributed to more price losses in the suburbs.  But, the value of your home may also depend on other factors.  If you are in the suburbs and close to mass transit, you are less affected than those farther from a train. The larger your house, the more you are adversely affected by the cost of heating and cooling.

Dr. Gillen, of Econsult and a member of the Boards of Directors of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors and the Homebuilding Industry Association, says one other interesting fact is that “This year it actually became equivalent in Philadelphia to own versus  to rent a home.” Home prices have come down but rents have actually gone up. Gillen says there is good news for homeowners.  We are near the bottom and we have fallen less than the national average. But, he adds, “There is no one sure fire solution to this housing crisis.” It will take several more years to recover, but it might be only another 5 years compared to 10 years for a lot of other places. The nation still needs to settle on the right level of regulation of the mortgage sector and jobs need to continue their upward rebound.

More than 1 in 5 homeowners in America are underwater. Why should you care about your neighbor who is underwater?  While our region, except the city of Philadelphia, does have fewer foreclosures than the national average, financially speaking, says Gillen, what happens to a neighbor affects you unlike any other investment your neighbor could make. Foreclosures and people who walk away hurt the people who pay. Concern about foreclosures has fueled a new Congressional proposal.  New Jersey U.S. Senator Robert Menendez is chair of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development.  He tells me, “A very significant universe in the housing population is underwater,” meaning homeowners who owe the banks more than their houses are worth.  It adds up to $700 billion dollars.  Menendez says the recently announced settlement in which banks pledge $25 billion to help some avoid foreclosure is helpful, but just one of several actions needed. The senator wants more reform of government sponsored mortgage holders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and more refinancing incentives.

Menendez speaks of “pushing the urgency of now.”  His Preserving American Homeownership Act would create pilot programs in which lenders lower mortgage values for some people who are underwater and, in exchange, the lender would get a share of the equity that the home will eventually build.  Kevin Gillen says a similar proposal didn’t work so well in England. One potential problem is whether homeowners stop investing in their homes because they don’t feel they’ll see the gains in equity. Menendez’s plan tries to address that by capping what lenders could reap. He also wants to make available more mortgage counselors. Says Menendez, “Home mortgage counselors for those who are facing a challenge, make all the difference in the world.”  Through several proposals and reforms, the senator says he is looking for “a positive ripple effect.” Gillen says that a real estate transfer tax holiday period in Philadelphia might spur sales locally.

So you want to sell your house? For now, Kevin Gillen says homeowners need to understand that inventories are still 30 to 40 percent above historical norms and prices could drop a little more, as much as 3 to 5 percent more. The pace of sales is still well below normal.  Homebuilder confidence is rising but still not near normal.  Homeowners need to have their homes looking their best, repairs made and get a good realtor.  

For buyers, there is some easing of credit, (loan to value ratios are now about 82 percent, up from the 70’s range), but still buyers need to have good documentation, need to have paid their bills and need to have a good credit score.

Game On: Update Petitions

Both major candidates have now filed in the heating up race for Congress in the newly drawn 7th Congressional District.  Republican incumbent Pat Meehan announced today he has filed 4,750 signatures with the PA Department of State to become an official candidate.  A minimum of 1,000 signatures is required.  Democrat George Badey says he has submitted in excess of 3,000 signatures, gathered from all 5 counties in the 7th.  Badey says he is “gratified by the support” which he garnered in about 3 weeks since enterting the race only recently.  He says a formal announcement of his candidacy will come in the next couple of weeks.

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