By 1903, things had gotten out of hand. Philadelphia had become “the worst-governed city in America,” the muckraker Lincoln Steffens said in a magazine article titled “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented.”
Not everyone was content, and on Nov. 14, 1904, a group of business and civic leaders that included names still familiar today (Strawbridge, Fels) met at the Philadelphia Bourse to do something about it. Two months later, the Committee of Seventy was up and running.
It wasn’t the first time that civic elites concerned about corruption’s toll on their enterprises and the local economy had banded together to push for better government. Nor was it Philly’s first good-government group with a number in its name. There was the Citizens Committee of Fifty for a New Philadelphia (1890) and the Citizens Committee of Ninety-Five for Good Government (1895).
So why did we land on Seventy? It’s in the Bible, the books of Exodus and Numbers, specifically: God orders an overworked Moses to enlist the help of 70 “elders” in leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. It was a well-known reference in 1904, and we’ve kept the name because it represents a powerful brand with the politically engaged. Besides, who can argue with the idea of wise heads offering solutions to common problems? That’s what our 70-member Board of Directors has been doing ever since.
In 1904, the Republican machine had run City Hall for 46 years (with only one four-year hiatus in the 1880s), and wouldn’t relinquish it until 1952. The Democrats have held power ever since, so some things have yet to change. But we can point to many successes, beginning with convictions of ballot-box stuffers soon after we began monitoring elections in 1905. Here are some other 20th-century accomplishments for which we can take some credit…
-The creation of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court in 1913.
-The 1919 and 1951 Home Rule Charters. Among other things, the 1919 Charter required the mayor to present an annual city budget to City Council. Incidentally, the chairman of the commission that drew it up, publisher John C. Winston, was also Seventy’s first board chair.
-Reforms in the Civil Service Commission in the 1930s and ‘40s.
-Fairer alignments of state-legislative districts and city wards in the ‘60s.
We have also kept politicians from overreaching. In 1926, for instance, GOP boss William Vare stole a U.S. Senate election. Seventy squawked (as did Gov. Gifford Pinchot) and the Senate refused to seat Vare. And in the ‘70s, we shaped the debate in a nonpartisan campaign to defeat a proposed charter change that would have enabled Mayor Frank Rizzo to run for a third consecutive term.
And we have kept Philadelphians informed about their government. In the 1940s, we produced “Your Right to Vote,” a series of radio broadcasts. Our “Governance Project” began in 1979 (and led to the creation of the organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts). And in 1996, we began delivering our “News You Can Use” reports (one of the precursors to “How Philly Works”) via e-mail.
In this century, we have led the fight to defend campaign financing limits, established a city Board of Ethics and made lobbying (and the spending associated with it) a matter of public record. Our wars against pay-to-play politics and officeholder pension grabs helped to turn the ideas of better government and fair elections into a movement. And we continue to be the go-to organization for trustworthy background and analysis on issues related to Philadelphia’s political culture and its government. We have broadened our scope and expanded our mission in recent years, but we have never lost sight of why we were created in 1904: “To keep watch and ward over the public interests.”