Philly's IOU mayor

With so many political favors to return after his anemic victory in Philadelphia, will John F. Street turn City Hall into a house of cards?

By Howard Altman

Published November 3, 1999 11:00AM (EST)

Four out of five voters are registered Democrats in Philadelphia. But it still took more than $5 million, a steady parade of national party bigwigs from President Clinton on down, and what may prove to be an unholy alliance of big-money, long-time insiders, patronage hacks, unions and clergy to push Democratic mayoral candidate John F. Street to a very narrow victory over an underdog Republican Tuesday night.

Despite their victory, Democrats woke up with a hangover Wednesday morning. Street's anemic 8,000-vote margin over GOP entrepreneur Sam Katz raised a serious question for the Dems: How will the party be able to govern effectively in Philadelphia considering how many political favors it took to get Street elected in a city so overwhelmingly Democratic that he should have been a shoo-in?

The answer lies in understanding why this was Philadelphia's closest mayoral contest since Keystone-Democrat Rudolph Blankenburg beat Republican George Earle by a mere 4,000 votes in 1911. Simply put, John Street being John Street allowed the Republicans their best chance to rule City Hall.

It still took a great campaign for a Republican in Philadelphia to come within 8,000 votes of City Hall. First, Katz was smart enough to entice his only GOP opponent, state boxing commissioner George Bochetto, to step aside without a nasty fight and put himself in a strong position to take on Street.

Then, Katz immediately took the initiative, campaigning all through the summer while Street played rope-a-dope. He raised millions and spent it on TV while Street was recovering. By Labor Day, when Street finally reentered the picture, Katz had captured the momentum, which was only overcome by a frantic, all-out effort by Street's massive coalition. Katz also out-manuevered Street in the seemingly endless array of debates the two engaged in. He also helped make it not only the most expensive mayoral race in the city's history, but also one of its best.

Street, meanwhile, had only himself to blame for his razor-thin victory margin.

The 56-year-old veteran politician, who transformed himself from a brawling youthful radical into the savvy leader who helped the city recover from the brink of bankruptcy, is both his own best asset and worst nightmare.

Street is a tireless worker with an amazing grasp of Philadelphia's $2 billion budget and what makes the city tick. His deft behind-the-scenes maneuvering helped Philly avert a race war when tensions flared in 1997 in the city's Grays Ferry neighborhood. And his leadership of the Philadelphia City Council, where he presided from 1992 until he stepped down in January, helped transform what once resembled a World Wrestling Federation farm team into an efficient legislative body.

But in person, Street is aloof. Worse, he's been known to be petty and vindictive to those who won't go along with his program, which is the main reason that few Democratic council members offered any more than lukewarm support.

As a result, Street was almost unable to overcome his image as a bomb-tosser who once engaged in fisticuffs in City Hall and another time physically shoved a reporter out of his office -- an image captured on tape 19 years ago and used in commercials to great effect this spring by primary opponent Marty Weinberg.

In that five-way primary, held in May, Street garnered only 36 percent of the vote, winning in large measure only because Weinberg, his chief rival, was so unpalatable.

Despite capturing little more than a third of the electorate, the primary showed a new side of Street. He maintained the high road, refusing to trash his opponents and running on his record as outgoing mayor Ed Rendell's key partner in the city's recovery.

However, any positive impressions Street made on those who have traditionally mistrusted him were squandered by his general election campaign, which from the onset was so poorly run that phone calls often went unreturned and campaign dates were routinely ignored.

It was Street at his worst. Dismal polling results -- that showed him neck-in-neck with Katz -- forced Street to rely more heavily than ever on a conglomerate of labor and patronage hacks like Weinberg, who was a part-time city resident and makes millions as a legal advisor to the Philadelphia Gas Works.

And therein lies the concerns about Street's ability to govern. As mayor, he will have to renegotiate four major union contracts, an already difficult task made even more so by news that HMO rates will jump by nearly 10 percent and, according to Rendell in an impassioned stump speech days before the election, wipe out the city's multi-million dollar budget surplus.

But how can Street be tough on unions when he owes them his election? After all, most union members in this heavily union town were given election day off, and many were virtually ordered to vote for Street.

And how can Street say no to folks like Weinberg who feed off the public trough when, if it weren't for Weinberg's considerable muscle among conservative Democrats, Sam Katz would likely have won?

The confusion that set in at the victory celebration early Wednesday morning was the perfect metaphor for the worst-case scenario of a Street mayoralty.

An hour before the official results were released, dozens of fat cats and bigwigs -- all expecting favors for their support -- were jousting for space on the dais, leaving several white labor union members squeezed out of the festivities, muttering that despite all their hard work getting Street elected, they were quickly dissed when it came time to divvy up the spoils.

And what does an embarrassingly slight victory in a race like this say about the ability of Rendell, who was recently appointed chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to deliver for his party?


Rendell, a fund-raising machine who explained in Buzz Bissinger's book "A Prayer For The City," the importance of "getting down on his knees and sucking people off" for the benefit of the city, was able to help raise a total of more than $10 million in the primary and general election. For a candidate, who, while immensely talented, was a tough sell thanks to his prickly personality.

Wheedling, cajoling and, at the end, twisting arms when he had to, Rendell engineered Street's victory, which, while slim, was still a victory.

After Street, Gore or Bradley will be a piece of cake for Rendell.

Howard Altman

Howard Altman is news editor at Philadelphia City Paper.

MORE FROM Howard Altman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Democratic Party Pennsylvania Republican Party