On the choppy political shoals in Harrisburg Mark Schweiker has had a relatively smooth ride. Fifteen months ago when the 9/11 tragedy thrust him to the helm of Pennsylvania’s government the Democratic whispers in the halls of Harrisburg doubting his determination were soon silenced by his solid alliance with Harrisburg’s veteran Republican delegates. In the wake of his success in managing the Somerset Miners’ Miracle every poll shows that had he run Ed Rendell would be looking for a job.
As he starts his new job as president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Schweiker will have to hope that popularity stays with him.
The stereotypical media imagery of Chamber of Commerce presidents is not kind. Infamous among them is the film ‘Jaws’. The Chamber president begs the sheriff to open the resort’s beaches on the 4th of July even though a shark is using the tourists as an all-you-can-eat buffet. As Schweiker goes into his new job he may develop a certain empathy for his movie counterpart. In Philadelphia, there is a union feeding frenzy that left unchecked could swallow the city’s budget.
The biggest shark in Philadelphia’s fiscal waters is the Pennsylvania Convention Center. When its state funding was approved it was supposed to be a public/private partnership. It actually worked for a while. Downtown Philadelphia underwent a private sector renaissance virtually unmatched in any city on the east coast. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in new hotels creating thousands of jobs. In the last three years Democratic Mayor John Street’s close ties to organized labor have made the partnership a lot less private and the center’s status all too public. Unions bickering with each other and with customers have seriously damaged the center’s reputation. With 16 other cities building or expanding convention centers the competition has been eating the Pennsylvania Convention Center alive.
Fourteen major conventions have cancelled their bookings in Philadelphia. Among them is the East Coast Volleyball Association. After grudgingly paying $150,000 in cost overruns the non-profit organization documented how it took six union laborers and two plumbers two hours to set up a volleyball court at Pennsylvania’s center. A job that usually takes eight 14-year-olds an hour any place else. Begging the question of what kind of plumbing a volleyball court really needs?
Waiting until the last minute Schweiker signed bi-partisan sponsored legislation that effectively took control of Pennsylvania’s Convention Center away from the city. That Schweiker signed it over the Mayor’s protests is something the Mayor and his allies won’t forget.
The Ridge/Schweiker takeover of Philadelphia’s schools has the educational establishment circling ominously. Edison School Systems, chosen by the Republicans to run the school district, is hemorrhaging dollars. The big teachers’ unions and Pennsylvania’s School Board Association smell blood in the water. They aim to cripple privatization of the schools. It’s nothing more than survival of the fittest. They know that if privatization of public education works in Philadelphia someday competition will devour their antiquated ideas all over the state.
Schweiker won’t get the luxury of deciding whether or not to carry these problems with him into his new job at the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. They’re going to follow him because the vested interests in the status quo in the City of Brotherly Love neither forgive nor forget. With Schweiker colleague Sam Katz the likely Republican nominee in the upcoming mayoralty election Schweiker will be jumping into the murky waters of Philadelphia’s ward politics. It will be up to him to lead the fight to change the economic tide in the city. Undoubtedly he’ll be swimming upstream and the sharks will be circling.
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.