John Baer: Harrisburg chamber's gag video mocks mayor, triggers outcry

"The people voted for real change, and not just for change's sake," said Linda D. Thompson, teary-eyed after victory.
"The people voted for real change, and not just for change's sake," said Linda D. Thompson, teary-eyed after victory.
Posted: December 13, 2012

IMAGINE PHILLY heading toward its own fiscal cliff, awash in debt, under state control, facing bankruptcy and getting global notice for its woes.

Now imagine the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce using an awards dinner to unveil a video mocking Mayor Nutter as, let's say, a nasally speaking Steve Urkel overlooking urban ruin asking, "Did I do that?"

That's pretty close to what recently happened in Harrisburg.

But in the capital city of the state I call "The Land of Low Expectations," it was worse.

The Harrisburg Regional Chamber last week used an awards dinner to premiere a video skit mocking Harrisburg's African-American mayor, Linda Thompson, who was not present.

The video's been labeled tasteless, stupid and racist.

A woman dressed as the mayor, her costume complete with a string of pearls, glasses and a large hair weave, imitated Thompson's voice, her occasional stutter and her habit of pronouncing the word "city" as "cit-ee."

An estimated 300 local-business types roared with laughter as the video offered a stinging version of "We Are the World" as "We Are the Cit-ee."

Lyrics included "we are the ones who can't see the light of day" and "our problems are unsolved, [so] it's true we're asking for your cash."

The head of the Harrisburg chamber, David Black (who isn't), who's Gov. Corbett's representative on an advisory board to help the city, later apologized - but in the not-really-apologetic style of saying he's sorry "if" the skit "offended anyone."

Apparently it offended lots of folks.

Harrisburg City Councilwoman Sandra Reid called for Black's resignation.

Council President Wanda Williams said she won't attend future advisory board meetings if Black is there. (There's one scheduled Wednesday morning.)

And a Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial Monday called the video "foolish on many levels," another example of "how absurd the city's leadership landscape has become," adding, "We can only hope we have hit rock-bottom."

Black did not respond to a request for comment.

Mayor Thompson said she's "disappointed" in Black.

I wonder what positive good, locally and beyond, the region's business leaders expect to generate by making fun of the mayor and the city's current crisis.

Harrisburg is mired in $340 million worth of debt, is in state receivership and is headed into a year in which Thompson faces re-election and a primary likely to include multiple challengers.

She has said it's not the first time Black has "used his pulpit" to degrade the city.

City sources say animosity between Black and Thompson isn't new and stems in part from the fact that the city used to make membership and other payments to the chamber in the $60,000-a-year range that ended when Thompson became mayor.

Yet Thompson isn't without her own challenges.

Her first term has been marked by substantial staff turnover, unending money woes and a penchant for, well, "Thompsonisms."

At a recent budget event, for example, she said, "In 2013, we will have our city at the cliff of recovery."

But attention to the mocking video could improve her electoral chances by solidifying African-American voters.

"There's no question it raises empathy for her among certain voters, whether they support her actions in office or not," says one observer of city politics.

Thompson is Harrisburg's first black and first female mayor.

Harrisburg is a majority minority city surrounded by mostly white suburbs. "The West Shore," a collection of communities across the Susquehanna River, has long been called "The White Shore."

And like many cities, Harrisburg has image issues, dire fiscal problems, lots of finger-pointing and an underbelly of race-related tensions.

As such, its business leaders would better serve the city, region and themselves by focusing on and promoting civic partnership instead of offering uncivil parody.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer

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