Politics & Government

Amen Brown’s mistake wasn’t about the numbers, it was about his attempt to save face

todayDecember 21, 2022

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By Nick Taliaferro | WURD Radio

Who knew?

I have worked for this city as a mayoral assistant, and a commissioner executive director. I regularly follow municipal matters as a part of being a talk show host at WURD. I’d consider myself pretty well informed, but I admit that I don’t know exactly how large the city’s annual budget is. 

So if Fox29’s Jeff Cole had asked me, as he asked state representative and Philadelphia mayoral candidate Amen Brown, what the City’s budget was, I too would have guessed wrong.

That Rep. Brown didn’t know the answer to a “gotcha” question by a well-practiced political reporter is no big deal to me. A lot of leaders are big-picture people, and they may not readily master the details and minutiae involved in running the operations of the systems that they oversee. Some leaders tend to be more attuned to a visionary approach; they are more inclined towards ideas and concepts, and may be disposed to leaving the numbers and details to accountants and lawyers who thrive on such things.

I know, because I’m one of those types of leaders.

Truth be told, if Cole had asked me what the budget number was, the little squirrel running on the treadmill in my brain would have had a mini-stroke. I would have drawn a big ol’ blank, while mustering up as much dignity as possible so as not to look as ignorant as I may have felt at the moment.

But one thing I would not have done is guessed. At least, not on camera.

Instead, I would have admitted that I didn’t know the amount of the budget, and quickly followed up with a reasonable and truthful explanation. 

I would have said, “Jeff, I must admit that I don’t know the amount of the Philadelphia city budget, because I have been too busy investigating the budget of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and finding ways to make it work better for my constituents.”

That answer is neither evasive, nor is it an admission of failure, and it’s exactly what I would have said. And I would have continued my response by emphasizing that it’s not knowing the amount of the budget that’s primary, instead it’s about understanding the needs and priorities of the citizens of this City, so that no matter what the amount of the budget may be, you have a sense of how to prioritize the use of those resources!

But Brown didn’t say that. Instead he guessed, and he guessed wrong. And he’ll have to live with that. Come to think of it, I could live with it too, because I don’t have to have a leader who comes across as the Great Oz – all-knowing and all-seeing. 

But it’s what he did next that I find difficult to live with. After realizing that his confidently delivered response was wrong (“…around $15 billion,” he averred) by almost 300%, instead of accepting the correction as a lesson learned, he attempted to co-opt his interlocutor for the purpose of image maintenance.

“Okay, so can you ask that over?” he asked Cole.

That’s sort of like asking your teacher if you can take the test again after you have been given the answers. And apparently Cole wasn’t willing to sign-off on the candidate’s attempt at damage control; instead, he released the video for the world to see.

What that video suggested to me is that we were looking at a public servant for whom image was more important than essence; that for this candidate looking right was a greater priority than learning how to become right. We all make mistakes and find ourselves needing to use the eraser end of the pencil. But I have found that most people will accept honest imperfections if they feel that you are well intended, and that you are learning from errors. (even if they may rag on you a bit about it). But what people find difficult to digest is when leaders want to rewrite the script so that they can mask their imperfections. (See “Trump, Donald J.” for further reference.)

Representative Amen Brown wasn’t simply asking for a mulligan – he didn’t just want a do-over for the purpose of learning to get it right; instead he wanted a cosmetic cover job on what he perceived to be an image fail. His desire to answer the question the right way was not designed to help him be better. It was a request to help him look better.

After the sturm und drang in social media that followed this miscue, Brown’s campaign team released a document explaining why the candidate thought that the city’s $5 billion budget was actually $15 billion. Some may see this as a facile attempt at damage control, and even more proof that candidate Brown has a difficult time acknowledging when he is wrong. Others may accept his reasoning as a basis for how his answer of $15 billion may actually be representative of a more comprehensive view of how the City spends money.

But as I alluded to earlier, who knows.


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Written by: Nick Taliaferro

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