OK, friends – we’re about to do a trust fall here. I am going to admit something really embarrassing, and somewhat horrifying. I am making myself vulnerable here, so please be gentle when you laugh:
I do not confidently know, or understand, the branches of our government.
I hide this ignorance like a bad flare of eczema – shifting around it, covering it nonchalantly, avoiding situations where it might be exposed. But yesterday my curiosity – and self-reproach – got the best of me. Watching the news with so many different politicians commenting on Sandy Hook, I was lost trying to follow who exactly was saying what. Everyone seemed to be called Senator, Congressman, and State Rep interchangeably. Who the hell were these people, what did they do, and who had seniority?
And so, in the privacy of my kitchen, with nobody but my puppies to see and judge me, I googled the difference between Senator, Governor, and Congressperson. I was surprised to learn that both Senators & Representatives are Congresspeople, and that Governors don’t even factor into the mix, since they are part of the state, not federal government.
(If you need to leave the room at this point in utter disgust, please pretend to have a coughing fit and excuse yourself.)
This opened a pandora’s box, which should have been opened in fourth grade and shut by sixth. I learned a lot – too much. Things I should have learned from Sesame Street.
For example: I didn’t know that there was a state senate and a state house of representatives.
If there are any of you wonderful, benevolent dummies out there who, like me, have long suffered from your crippling ignorance which belies your many degrees, your being a published author, an educator, a decent human being – whatever your intellectual & spiritual claims to fame may be – then for you I lay my pride on the floor, stomp all over it, and offer it to you as a welcome mat at the doorway to enlightenment. Here, in a nutshell, is how I summarize our government structure:
- Vice President
- Senate – each state gets two senators
- House of Representatives – each state gets a number that depends on the size of their population.
Together, the Senate & House of Representatives is called the Congress – so anyone is the Senate or House of Reps can be called a Congressperson. The Vice President is top dog of the Senate. Speaker of the House is top dog of the House of Reps. President is just top dog.
- State Senator
- State Representative
The Governor is like the president of the state. The State Senator & Representative are part of the State General Assembly. They are overseen by the Governor. Same structure/dynamic as President & Congress.
Having gotten what I needed, I put my laptop away with a sense of shame and relief that should come from watching internet porn, not reading about the legislative branch on wikipedia. But alas, I get my kicks where I can, and I went to bed thinking that nobody needed to know about my little secret research, and assumed I wouldn’t be asking these questions again any time soon.
Little did I know it was just getting started.
This evening, I went to an event through the Junior League – volunteering at a Holidays for the Homeless event. I had no idea what the event was, or who was putting it together – just that I needed to wear my stiff and boxy JLP t-shirt, arrive at the Philadelphia Conference Center a little before 3:00pm, and get ready to face paint or serve food.
I had no idea the event would be so huge. Entering the lobby of the Convention Center, the sculptures and cubist industrial carpets were offset by piles – hills – mountains – of gifts, categorized by recipient ages/genders (“Boys 0-2 yrs; Girls 4-7 yrs.” I wondered how they decided which stuffed animals were for boys, and which were for girls . . . ). Passing the endless tables stacked with presents, I entered a gigantic conference space, with balloons, crafts tables, and a stage for a band. Out the tinted window facing 12th street, I could see adults and children lined up around the block. I took my seat at the JLP table – where we would be helping to decorate gingerbread cookies with the kids who came by – and braced myself for four hours of volunteer work by sampling a cookie (hey, someone needed to check that they weren’t poisonous before those precious children ate them, right?).
We had 450 cookies; they were gone in 70 minutes.
Once our supplies were shmeared with icing, covered with sprinkles, and devoured by toddlers with bags under the eyes and mothers sucking their teeth and yelling when I wouldn’t let them take cookies for themselves, we busied ourselves with helping to organize the bicycles that were being given away in a raffle, and hanging helmets on the handlebars. I struck up a conversation with the woman overseeing the bikes. She worked for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, managing all their privately owned properties in West Philly; in her spare time she volunteered with Jannie Blackwell’s office. I obviously looked as receptive to this name as a plank of wood would, so she prodded.
“Jannie Blackwell? You know?”
“No, I actually don’t know who that is.”
She continued as though she hadn’t heard me.
“She does one of these for each holiday – Halloween, Christmas, even her own birhtday. She throws a party for the homeless for her own birthday.”
“Wow, that is incredible.”
“It sure is.”
“Now who is she?”
“Jannie? Jannie Blackwell?’
I could see she was confused. I chose an approach that’s worked well to cover the scabs of my dumbdumbiness these past five months.
“I just moved here, so I’m learning who’s who.”
“Oh! Oh ok. Well Jannie Blackwell’s a Councilwoman who does these events.”
“Ah, I see.”
I didn’t see, though. After the event I walked home, looking down at the glistening pavement, listening to the soft swoosh of cars through deep puddles, and wondered- who is Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell? Who are any of the Council people?
There are two other Philadelphia Councilmen I’ve heard of: Kenyatta Johnson and David Oh.
Kenyatta Johnson I know of because his name has come up at a number of events I’ve been at involving education and jobs growth – from a town meeting about school closings, to the POWER meeting I went to last Wednesday, which was me plus a group of sassy septegenarians from various churches and synagogues across Philadelphia organizing to help schools lined up for the closure-guillotine do it gracefully, and help to build libraries (my kind of people!).
David Oh was the host of a fantastic symposium I went to that connected non-profits with corporate sponsors – Coke, Comcast, Wells Fargo, etc. – to tell us how/why corporations get into these relationships, and allow for great panel discussions and Q&A opportunities. I was unsure of why David Oh’s office hosted this event, but it was one of the first moments of civic awareness I had upon moving to Philadelphia, and I was also surprised, and intrigued, that he was a Republican so committed to helping non-profits, and whom I found relatable, and sincerely interested in helping urban youth.
I thought I knew of a third council person – Jordan Harris. Harris I know of because he represents the neighborhood of Point Breeze, and I’ve been working with a great organization – Urban Roots – that is looking to do a major redevelopment project there; Harris has been on board, so I hear of him often. But upon further googlication, Harris isn’t a Councilman; he’s a State Representative, like Brian Sims. They are ostensibly opposites: Sims is the child of two Army Lt. Colonels, a former football star, Michigan State Law grad, first gay State Rep from Philly representing District 182, which includes Rittenhouse Square, City Hall, and the Gayborhood; Harris was raised by his mother and grandma in Philadelphia, went to public high school, produced a gospel radio show and became active in civic engagement as a teenager, and became a teacher, while currently pursuing a doctorate in Educational Leadership and representing some seriously gritty areas of Philly. But they both live in the areas they represent; are – from all accounts of friends I have who know/work with them – sincere, passionate, and deeply caring; are young, driven, and in it for the long-haul. I wonder if they know each other, how closely they work together, if at all, if they collaborate . . . (hey, I just learned about the existence of the General Assembly – I’m not going to pretend to know how it works, but I can pretend it’s like making best friends with your hallmates the first day of college).
(Side Note: I don’t know what it is about those two – but I feel in my bones that I will have a chance to meet them; I keep my fingers crossed that in some way, if I keep chugging along on the path I’m on – working within my own neighborhood to harness the energy and resources of the folks who live here, to make visible changes to the way our neighborhood engages residents in civic involvement- I will have an opportunity to work with them in some capacity. Is that crazy?)
Not fully understanding whether Harris was a Councilman or Rep at first led me to a deeper (more embarrassing) question – if I don’t know who is a Councilperson and who isn’t, do I have any idea what council person actually does, and how it is is different from what a state representative does?
The answer, obviously is no.
So, back to the research I go.
There’s a website that shows all the council people for Philadelphia. The description given there is straightforward and helpful:
Ten Councilmembers are elected by district and seven from the City-at-large. Each is elected for a term of four years with no limitations as to the number of terms that may be served.
Every proposed ordinance is in the form of a bill introduced by a Councilmember. Before a bill can be enacted by Council, it must be referred by the President of Council to an appropriate standing committee of Council, considered at a public hearing and public meeting, reported out by the committee, printed as reported by the committee, distributed to the members of Council, and made available to the public. Passage of a bill requires the favorable vote of a majority of all members of Council. A bill becomes law upon the approval of the Mayor. If the Mayor vetoes a bill, Council may override the veto by a two-thirds vote.
The functions of City Council influence a wide range of public affairs in Philadelphia and directly impact the quality of life for its citizenry.
That gives a clear picture of how the process works, and what the aim is. Turns out my councilman is Mark Squilla. Reading his biography, I’m really intrigued: he started off by organizing neighbors to save a local playground; motivated by how this brought the neighborhood together, he organized a Saturday clean-up crew to keep the area safe and neat; this led him to bring further concerns – broken street lights, cracked pavement – to the attention of city government. (Sounds like what we strive to do with our Civic Association.) Eventually his neighbors elected him to higher and higher positions of local power, which started his ball rolling. His “vision” statement resonates with me:
Councilman Squilla’s experience as a community organizer, public servant, husband and father have taught him that strong families and engaged neighborhoods are the key to Philadelphia’s future. As the city grows and evolves, Mark believes that bringing together the best of each community’s tradition and new life is crucial to Philadelphia’s success, block by block and group by group.
So far the City Council has had a first date, nailed it, and scored a second with me. Tell me more, City Council – what else have you got? Are those committees I see? Oh, you know me so well already!
In poking around to find out more about the various standing committees the Council has, I clicked on Education. Who happens to be the chair? No other than Jannie Blackwell – which snapped me out of my treasure-hunt-stupor and reminded me that I wanted to learn who she was.
Jannie Blackwell represents poor areas of Philadelphia, and uses her role as the Chair of the Education Committee, as well as her strong ties to Housing, to work to bring up her constituents and their neighborhoods. She’s focused on housing, blight, homelessness, and economic development. I found little on her educational policy. She also succeeded her husband, who served as Councilman for 15 years; during that time, she worked on his campaigns, and served in his office.
Interesting – but I like that she organizes parties for the homeless as her own birthday celebration more than her working for her husband.
The thing I enjoy about these Council biographies is that they are close to the bone – they don’t have the macro-level jargon of other politicians’ pages, where the mission and vision sound like something I would write if I had a gun to my head and had to improvise my my own non-existent political campaign on the spot – lacking in concrete examples, overflowing with buzzwords, painted with broad strokes, repetitious, and vague. These biographies, in contrast, give a roadmap from humble beginnings to Council seats; they are gritty, specific, and real. I find them fascinating, and somewhat inspiring, actually.
So, I’ve now become intrigued by the city government. I might be ready for a third date. I see that many of their meetings are open, and you can actually access all of the meeting agendas through this website . . .
Clear the calendar, and Lord help me.
So what about you – are there any government offices or positions that either befuddle or fascinate/romance you?