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Philadelphia’s Buggy Election

 

It’s been a crazy election season, between the massively overcrowded and interminable Democratic presidential primary, and the California recall, so maybe it’s no surprise that another crazy campaign has been underway in Philadelphia.

Here, incumbant black mayor John Street, a protege of Pennsylvania Governor and former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell has been in a tight re-election fight against Republican candidate Sam Katz, who narrowly lost to Street four years ago.

Until a few weeks ago, it was looking as though Street, a singlularly uncharismatic character who worked his way up in the city’s Democratic political machine as councilman and then City Council president before becoming mayor, might well lose to Katz. It’s not that Street ignored his base of black voters, a majority in Philadelphia. He took steps to attack the city’s creeping blight, clearing away thousands of abandoned autos and plowing under derelict the buildings that have been vacant and crumbling from neglect, while serving as drug dens and hangouts. He brought back some business to the city’s struggling convention center.

But he showed a tawdry penchant for advancing his own family, giving a cushy job to his wife and an even cushier construction contract to his brother Milton. In fact, when attacked for giving a string of smallish no-bid contracts to campaign contributors by opponent Katz, Street actually defended what’s known locally as the “pay to play” practice, which was also big during Rendell’s two terms as mayor, as the way the game is played.

It might be true, but it’s an ugly truth, and not the kind of thing that wins you votes.

Things were looking bad for Street when what appeared to be disaster struck. In a “routine” sweep of his mayoral office, looking for listening devices, a Philadelphia police officer discovered a sophisticated bug, which the mayor promptly decried to the media.

For a couple of days, the Katz campaign was suspected of a local “Watergate,” but then the FBI and local U.S. Attorney’s office admitted that the bug was their doing. In a series of statements and leaks to the media, they said they had had an ongoing investigation underway into the handing out of no-bid contracts to contributors by the Street adminstration.

Immediately, the Street campaign began accusing the FBI and Justice Department of yet another attempt to undermine a Democratic elected official, while Katz began running ads suggesting that if the FBI had gotten a federal judge to issue a warrant to allow it to bug the mayor, there must be a good reason.

Street’s claim, based on the nearness of the bug’s discovery to the Nov. 4 election date, rings a little hollow. If the mayor hadn’t been worried about and sweeping for bugs in his office (a curious action, one must concede), it wouldn’t have been an election issue in the first place, and even after it was found, if he had kept quiet about it, it also wouldn’t have become an issue.

Moreover, there is a certain ironic sense of payback in the scandal. As a new mayor, Street sat back and allowed his police department to do extensive bugging and spying and planting of provocateurs among groups planning to protest the 2000 Republican National Convention. His protestations over the fishing expedition being conducted now by the FBI into his administration’s actions ring kind of hollow in light of the mayor’s acquiescence in such civil liberties outrages by the city’s law enforcement establishment.

Katz, meanwhile has failed to make his case that the government is guilty until proven innocent.

Indeed, in a surprising twist that should give heart to Democrats across the country, Street’s poll numbers have jumped in the wake of the bugging. Blacks and liberals in the city have bought into the argument that even if the discovery of the bug was serendipity, the investigation of the mayor and his friends itself by the U.S. Justice Department smacks of Ashcroftian, Rovian political warfare. (And of course, there is good reason to suspect that Ashcroft and Rove could well be behind an effort to put a Republican in charge in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, whose voters clinched the swing state of Pennsylvania for Gore in 2000, but who, if they stayed home in 2004, could hand it to Bush next time.)

Indeed, “pay to play” has been a way of life in Philadelphia for decades, and there is no evidence that Street has been a more egregious grafter than his predecessors, yet nobody took issue until it was a black mayor who was the target.

Comfortably 13 points ahead of Katz in the last poll released going into the pre-election weekend, Street has pretty much made his campaign a national one, telling voters that they need to stop the Republicans from claiming the city for the national GOP.

It’s kind of sad that what could have been a real battle of issues over how best to run a city–for the people or for the real estate interests–has turned into this. At the same time, it is heartening to see that, even for a candidate as lackluster and personally unappealing as Street, the mere suggestion that the national GOP might be trying to unseat an elected Democrat through dirty tricks is rousing the Democratic electoral base.

State and national Democratic candidates for office should take note.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html

 

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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