Strategy & Soul
by Daniel HunterHome.html
 
EXCERPT

Chapter 1
The Phone Call
FEBRUARY 3, 2004 – OCTOBER 13, 2006

where we learn how I got involved in the campaign • about two different styles of organizing • 
how to recruit with strategic questions

On February 3, 2004, a tiny, thirty-three-line bill was introduced into the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. It was a quiet, one-page bill about background checks in the horse-racing industry. It followed the uneventful procedural motions of a first, second, and third reading in the House and Senate, then sat abandoned for four months.
	This book has nothing to do with that bill.
	Instead of passing that bill intact, in early July, the Pennsylvania State Senate stripped the thirty-three lines from the bill and discreetly added a 146-page amendment. In three whirlwind days, the reengineered bill circumvented legal requirements for public readings because—so it was argued with merciless bureaucratic technicality—the bill had already been publicly read three times. At 3:30 A.M., the bill blasted past shocked opponents in the Senate and House and was passed.
	As Philadelphians headed toward the riverfront to watch fireworks and celebrate another year of U.S. independence, the bill reached Governor Ed Rendell’s desk. Even for him, the passage was masterful orchestration. To gain support, the bill dripped with a medley of pork-barrel giveaways, backed generously by well-connected political donors. With colleague and co-conspirator State Senator Vince Fumo at his side, the Governor signed the bill into law the same day. 
	The bill was Act 71, the single largest introduction of casino gambling in American history: 61,000 slot machines at fourteen casinos and racetracks across Pennsylvania, including two slated for Philadelphia with up to 5,000 slots each. It had moved through the legislative process without a single public debate, no public scrutiny, and a nearly complete media blackout.
	This book has a lot to do with that bill.
	That bill had sufficient support from powerful politicians and businesses to earn the designation of “done deal.” In the well-worn rut of Philadelphia’s top-down politics, the assumed bill’s storyline was to end with local communities begrudgingly accepting the imposition of two massive casinos. Respected civic-association leaders know that the rulebook for “good” community organizations is to rock the boat just enough to tip a few kickbacks into their community. 
	But that was not to be. Instead a movement rose above the safe waters of grumbling acquiescence and broke the rules of polite negotiation. 
	This book has everything to do with that movement.
	Like most Philadelphians back in 2004, I didn’t notice when the bill passed. Our media coverage was lax and hardly made an issue out of it. So I continued living my life, running activist training courses on how to facilitate workshops and meetings with Training for Change. For more than two years, I remained oblivious to the state setting up the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB); five casino applicants applying for two casino licenses in Philadelphia; the PGCB creating shockingly complex applications to speak at public hearings, with strict, three-minute-per-person limits; and the PGCB’s flat refusal to put impact studies online. I missed all of that—until a friend called me on October 11, 2006.

Jethro Heiko’s voice was absent of doom and despondency. That surprised me, because if someone were putting a casino across the street from me, I’d feel desperate. He was self-possessed as he laid out how a group he founded, Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront (NABR), had at first merely opposed the four casino proposals along the Delaware River. But that left them competing with the fifth neighborhood in East Falls/Nicetown—who didn’t want a casino either. NABR refused to sink into a politics of division and established a loose formation to oppose all five casino proposals: Casino-Free Philadelphia (CFP).
	I tried to imagine a casino’s glaring signs, five-story parking garages, twenty-four-hour foot traffic, and congested parking across from Jethro’s tiny, one-way street. It didn’t make sense, it didn’t seem right, and I didn’t see what could be done about it.
	He spoke with a slow rhythm, like the chanting of a monk. “My neighbors feel angry, discouraged, and hopeless. Some people are talking about moving if SugarHouse casino does get selected and built on the December 20 licensing. I moved here to try to get away from community organizing, to get a sabbatical, and look what they do! My wife and I are not going to move. I know we can stop these, but I don’t know what we can do in three months to stop the licensing.”
	I wondered if I was overly detached from my friend’s emotions. All I could think was, Good luck… You’re gonna need it. But he was an experienced organizer and wasn’t telling me all this just so I could buck him up. He was gearing up for an ask.
	“Everyone says this is over, just because every city and state elected official is backing these projects. But you have to get a sense of these things. They’re not just any big-box development. They offer free, unlimited drinks. There are 5,000 slot machines, more than in any casino in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. They’re gigantic—and all proposed in residential neighborhoods.”
	Wait for it. It’s coming… 
	“And I could really use your help.”
	My mind jump-started a list of reasons not to help: I had a job that kept me busy. I didn’t see any way a handful of citizens could win against seemingly every politician across the spectrum. It was not an issue I cared about. I was not opposed to gambling or casinos. I knew nothing about development issues.
	Before I could begin, he continued, “I know you’re good at helping groups plan strategy and direct action. You’re creative, and we need that. We need a strategy not just for my neighborhood fighting SugarHouse, but for all five neighborhoods. Everyone’s worried their casino will get selected at the licensing. It makes people fearful and easily divided. Can you help me think through strategy?”
	To my own wonder and mild horror, “No, thanks” or “I’m too busy” did not escape my lips. His request wasn’t just for him or his own community, but for neighborhoods across the city. My refusal was held back by something about responsibility or guilt. 
	I have been moved by duty ever since I was little. I still feel an echo of responsibility for a stranger’s broken coffee cup from when I was five years old. My family had encountered the man in the wheelchair on a sidewalk—carrying books, a backpack, a coffee mug—and trying to wheel himself up a steep incline. My mom asked if he needed a hand. He gratefully handed my mom his books and my sister the backpack and let my dad push him up. I thought about taking the coffee cup but didn’t, out of shyness or fear I’d offend him.
	When we got to the top, he thanked us. My mom and sister handed his belongings back to him. But in the transition, the coffee cup shattered on the ground, spilling coffee that seeped back down the hill. My only thought was: I could have done something, and I didn’t. It was a major recurring nightmare from my childhood.
	Jethro asked again, “I don’t know how you can best help. We need new ideas. Me and my neighbors are so worried that we’re not thinking well.”
	I broke my silence. “Okay, let’s meet and see if I can help somehow.”

Days later, Jethro ambled into my house in West Philadelphia, sat across from me, and politely accepted some tea. In the few years I had known him, he always had short stubble on his wide face, with jeans and a loose button-down shirt. He often wore a serious expression that barely covered his grinning, laughing personality. He had come down from Boston after leaving his job as a community organizer. This was our longest uninterrupted conversation to date.
	Quickly I saw that Jethro had a very special way about him. If I were to divide the world of community organizers into two types, one would be the type schooled in rigorous, technical approaches to building organizations. They use written, scripted “raps” to recruit people, employing regimens of proven track records with ruthless discipline. 
	Jethro was the other kind. He was in the present moment, more attentive to people than scripts, like an organizer mixed with yoda. “Thanks, the mint tea smells wonderful,” he said as he inhaled it and let it sit on his tongue. Yes, he would like to have a seat. Yes, he understands that I don’t have the time to commit long-term. Yes, he’d love to give me background.
	He was moved by instinct, schooled in a belief that if you dig at what other people want and their role in making it happen, then you’ll build a movement. Throughout his explanation, he peppered me with questions: What did I think of the process of Act 71 passing? How does someone convince others to be roused and angry enough to do something about it? What would a better process have looked like? What values were being violated?
	He was as unlike the first type of organizer as the rough agitation of a spinning dryer is unlike the breezy act of dropping clothes onto a line and letting the sun do the work. His presence shone, helping my ideas air out.
	I quickly agreed that building massive casinos in neighborhoods without consultation is wrong. “It’s wrong that you got thousands of pages dumped on you with only a few days to read them. And there should have been more than two days of public hearings. And it’s wrong that now the PA Gaming Control Board is letting the casinos make major changes that you can’t see. But the problem is structural. By design, you’ve been excluded from the very process. The PGCB is a politically appointed body with no community representation. It’s all an insider process.”
	“Yes, exactly!” exclaimed Jethro, like a child learning a delightful new word. It couldn’t be his first time making this connection, but he reveled in the specific way I framed it. “Act 71 was deliberately crafted so that unlike in other states, citizens have no say in where casinos will be located. There’s no public referendum, no public debate. Giving us two minutes to speak in public hearings held during work hours isn’t meaningful input. The whole bill was purposely written by the governor, State Senator Fumo, and the casino lobby—all to limit public resistance so they could railroad this through.”
	Even as I nodded, I held internal reservations. The impact may have been excluding public opinion, but I wasn’t certain of the purpose. I grew up in a small town where even when I disagreed with the mayor on one thing, I might agree on another. It meant there are always at least two sides, and it’s important to me to understand and be empathetic to all of them. 
	I asked Jethro to describe the tactics they have used and how they thought they could win.
	“I was part of forming Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront with a vision for the best riverfront, without empty lots and residents cut off by fences,” he said. “We want a lush, green waterfront that’s accessible and pedestrian-friendly, with attractive local and small businesses. Casinos completely contradict that vision. They violate nearly every core planning principle. Instead of an accessible riverfront, their business model puts people inside big boxes as long as possible. They want to create a strip joint filled with hotels and big-box development.”
	“That’s all fine,” I said. He wove a tapestry of values and background into his speech—but I wanted to cut to the chase. “What have you done? Is there a plan of action?” 
	Jethro breathed heavily into what was a sore point. “You have to understand that at first we just paid attention to the four proposed casinos on the riverfront. But that’s the not-in-my-backyard, NIMBY, way of thinking. Why should we argue for a casino to be put anywhere? That’s their job. Ours is to oppose it wherever neighbors don’t want it. That’s why we birthed Casino-Free Philadelphia.” 
	Jethro described CFP’s first action, a rally on the first of June, almost two years after Act 71 was passed. It featured street theater with a giant slot machine, drawing a crowd of diverse ages and races from all five neighborhoods. 
	“So not much,” I sighed. 
	In response to Jethro’s questioning look, I added, “The political significance of one-time rallies is overestimated, because pro-casino folks are happy to just ignore it and move on. Unless it’s coupled with ongoing pressure, it does little to effect change, even if it feels good.”
	“You’re right,” he said without a trace of defensiveness. “You have to remember that Councilman Frank DiCicco, my councilman, is the protégé of the same guy who co-wrote the casino bill, Senator Fumo. Small wonder then that DiCicco says he’s just being realistic when he tells civic groups there’s no hope and they should make deals with the casinos before the licensing happens. What else? We have almost zero press allies. The few who did cover us, I wish they didn’t. The City Paper reinforced the storyline that it’s inevitable, while the Philadelphia Inquirer…” Anger flashed on his face. “They wrote a scathing editorial, chiding us and saying it was all a done deal and we should give up now.” He steamed.
	“Fine to be mad at them,” I said. “But what alternative story have you given them to tell? Rallies are boring, ritualistic.” Jethro’s request for me to help weighed on me, making me want to be insightful or challenging. “You’ve got to get on the offensive and pick some tactics that are creative.”
	“We tried one other thing,” said Jethro, and launched into a story of their singular confrontation with the PGCB—the only other public action of Casino-Free Philadelphia to date.
	At the end of June, Jethro had gone to a hearing of the PGCB in Harrisburg. The NABR activists arrived in the swank judicial chambers, with deep wood veneer and a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
	The PGCB officials—all political appointees by the legislature or governor—moved through their agenda, interspersed with relaxed banter with the casino applicants. The public was absent—except the ten-person Casino-Free Philadelphia crew. As the chairwoman moved to the next item on the agenda, Jethro stood up.
	“I was really nervous,” he admitted with ease. “I swear, I was shaking all over, my knees almost buckled. I said as loudly as I could, ‘Madam Chairwoman, sorry to interrupt.’ That got everyone’s attention. People’s heads turned toward me and the chairwoman quickly gaveled, ‘Do not interrupt me.’
	“I cited Pennsylvania law, trying to get them to register our objection. Our larger hope was to convince them to extend their licensing dates, or at least give us some time for public testifying, so our communities could digest the complex plans they had given us.” Jethro’s voice rose. “In any other public hearing in the state of Pennsylvania, the public would be offered at least a cursory opportunity to have its say at every hearing. But not this board. It has what’s called ‘quasi-judicial status,’ which means they interpret, sign, seal, and rewrite their own rules. They are virtually above state law.”
	The chairwoman gaveled Jethro down. Then Matt Ruben got up. He was likewise gaveled down. Then Anne Dicker stood up and got the same treatment. The chairwoman called a recess.
	“The police then swarmed us!” Jethro grinned widely. “Matt Pappajohn was amazing. He’s a big Fishtown guy and not scared of anything. He held the police back, barking questions about what law we had broken—but the police ordered us out, even though they admitted we hadn’t broken any laws.
	“That was their biggest mistake, ’cause then, reporters created a second perimeter surrounding them, trying to get the story of what was happening. We got some decent coverage. I mean… the articles were not very good, since everyone keeps saying it’s a done deal. But it was something.” Jethro slouched back in his chair, stretching his jeans out and sipping some more tea. “But it didn’t get us an extension of time, and everyone’s now nervous about the December 20 licensing, when they’ll select the two licenses.”
	“Anything else?” I asked.
	He shook his head. “Casino-Free Philadelphia is basically a shell organization with no plans or clear leadership, but we’re all open to whatever good ideas emerge. So what advice can you give us?”
	“Well,” I paused and sat quietly for a moment, unsure where to begin. “First off… you’re stuck on their timeline. It’s gripping you, as if you’re going to win or lose on the day of licensing. As long as you’re on their timeline, you are going to lose.” 
	“Uh-huh,” encouraged Jethro, as uncertain about where I was going as I was.
	Warming to the strategic considerations, I continued, “You don’t have a plan, and that’s a problem. Your opposition clearly does. Though direct action can help, it’s not a cure-all without a better strategy. Right now, a good eighty percent of Philadelphians want casinos—of course, all they’ve heard is jobs and revenues, no debate on neighborhood development.” I paused. “To win, you need more people on your side—and that means you need to find a value bigger than one that’s just about casinos. You need to tap core values. Unfortunately, your actions have all been routine and don’t do that. Rather than rallying or marching, could we organize bold, courageous actions, like a big anti-casino carnival or something?”
	The conversation flowed into possible ideas, but Jethro knew he had found my values and hooked into them, even if we still had no plan. He smiled broadly. “You’re using ‘we’ language. Welcome to Casino-Free Philadelphia.”

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