Last September, the Confidentials drove through Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania. We were road-tripping from Massachusetts to Maryland, and as we looked around, I harbored a vague notion that Harrisburg was somehow famous (or infamous) for malfeasance. The details eluded me at the time.
Only now does it come full circle with me. We’ll begin this amazing story with a new post at CityLab.
The Mayor Who Broke Harrisburg, by Brentin Mock
Stephen Reed used to be known as Harrisburg’s “Mayor for Life.” His tenure as head of the Pennsylvania capital spanned almost 30 years, and in some quarters he still holds that title, even after he was voted out of office in 2009. Now he may be known as the “Mayor Who Avoided Life,” after dodging a sentence of thousands of years in prison for a 499-count indictment of theft, bribery, and corruption while he was mayor.
Today, Reed was sentenced to two years probation after pleading guilty to 20 counts of the least-serious crimes on his docket. Earlier this week, he admitted that part of his small collection of artifacts was bought with taxpayer money. The stolen items were part of an even larger collection of Civil War-era trinkets, documents, statues, and other memorabilia left over from Reed’s failed campaign to make Harrisburg a “city of museums.” Reed began siphoning taxpayer money into a secret account that he used to purchase heaps of 19th century American relics, all in an effort to transform the city into a “Westworld” of the East.
This was just one of Reed’s poorly (and criminally) conceived schemes that brought Harrisburg to the brink of bankruptcy—and almost landed the ex-mayor a 2,439-year jail sentence. How he got off with a two-year no-prison cakewalk instead is owed to a unique confluence of circumstances …
The writer Mock makes several references to an article written last year by David Gambacorta at The Baffler, and as a resident of New Albania, I felt my neck hair doing calisthenics while reading it.
No, the billion-dollar economy of scale isn’t the same. But the parallels are eerie, indeed. We pick up the narrative several paragraphs into Gambacorta’s essay. I’ve marked certain passages in bold. Be sure to click through a read this in its entirety.
Called to Purchase: How mayor Stephen Reed shopped Harrisburg, PA, straight to hell, by David Gambacorta
… No one was really prepared to question Reed, or to peek behind the curtain of his kindly, eccentric persona. If they had, they would have found a petty autocrat hunkered down on a pile of redevelopment schemes, mistaking hoarding for a model for governance—a scenario only too possible in municipal America, the land that term limits forgot. The artifacts? Oh, they were just the spoils of a spending bender fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. When the spree was over, Reed would end up facing hundreds of criminal charges, and Harrisburg would be left in fiscal ruin.
The shared rise and fall of Reed and Harrisburg was decades in the making, a story of ambition and corruption that stands out even in Pennsylvania, a state that can’t go more than a few years without seeing one of its political giants succumb to arrogance, egotism, or the irresistible urge to take, take, take. As Reed prepares to finally go to trial on 114 charges, including theft, his case offers a stark reminder that the urban renewal and revitalization initiatives of the last century continue to dog our cities—and that too many of those initiatives turned out to be rip-offs, luring tourists to urban “playgrounds” at the expense of existing residents.
Sound familiar? Bright shiny objects, rather than daily nuts and bolts.
… According to state prosecutors, in the decades that followed (Reed’s election in 1981), he set out to seize the puppet strings of anyone who had a say in the city’s financial decisions.
To the public, he appeared to use this power for good. Eateries and museums cropped up, along with hotels and a university. Reed was like a gleeful patriarch who continually surprised his children with vacations and shiny new toys—just never mind about how any of it would be paid for.
Imagine how many boards Reed packed. He was mayor for life, but elsewhere it was poverty for life.
Reed sometimes ran unopposed for reelection, earning the “mayor for life” tag from the media along the way. And why not? The ongoing projects seemed to prove that Harrisburg was a city on the rise. But with at least 33 percent of its residents now living in poverty, according to 2014 census data, and with state-owned tax-exempt land comprising a significant portion of the capital, where was the money coming from to cover the cost of these huge efforts?
“Nobody asked those questions,” sighs Patty Kim, a Pennsylvania state representative who worked with Reed when she served as a Harrisburg city councilwoman from 2005 to 2012. “He was able to play a shell game. He always had a new project to distract people.”
Note the connection between Reed’s Special Projects Fund and the city’s bond-compounded debt.
So money began to flow into the Special Projects Fund from every imaginable direction. Mealy said Reed began tacking on inexplicable “administrative fees” to the multitude of bond sales and debt that the Harrisburg Authority incurred at the mayor’s direction, and those fees were routed directly to the fund, according to the grand jury records.
Not unexpectedly, enforced loyalty maintains the cult of personality. Remember when Diane Benedetti and own John Gonder were messily deposed for failing to agree often enough?
“It was always, ‘You vote with me or you are the enemy,’” former Harrisburg City Council president Richard House told state investigators, according to the records. But Reed, apparently, had a lighter touch too. House said Reed offered him a community relations coordinator job in 2001 with the Harrisburg Senators—a position that previously didn’t exist—with the understanding that Reed was buying House’s votes, and the votes of other council members.
In the end, the accumulated debt could no longer be hidden.
… After a month of combing through handwritten records, (Eric Papanfuse) pieced together the big picture: Harrisburg was fucked. Everyone knew the incinerator was costing the city a fortune, but it seemed no one had done the math on the years and years of bond and debt deals that had built the city’s new attractions and also covered the cost of Reed’s artifact obsession. The total sum was north of a billion dollars—for a city with a population that couldn’t fill up a professional football stadium.
Such was Reed’s hold that it took several years for Papenfuse to interest anyone in investigating, but once the state attorney general intervened, the house of cards collapsed. Reed was defeated for re-election.
(Linda) Thompson, at least, broke the “mayor for life” cycle, lasting only one term. She took heat for spending $35,000 to renovate the mayor’s office, after complaining about the inescapable cigarette odor that Reed left behind—and was replaced by Papenfuse, who was tasked with rescuing a city that had been revitalized almost into oblivion.
Looking for epitaphs?
Maybe Reed’s growing pile of dead-end revitalizing fantasies, tied more to his idiosyncratic understanding of leisure than to the interests of his city, was firmly in line with late twentieth-century urban-planning trends, which held that no city was too small to bet the farm on tourism-first redevelopment projects, the benefits of which would somehow trickle down.
Lots and lots of similarities, don’t you think?
Hmm. Does Harrisburg have a luxury doggie park?