AT AN EVENING meet-the-candidates session for State Senate, Bill Green proves he is his father’s son. The first-term City Councilman has come to the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square for a function thrown by the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, and is using the opportunity to pepper one of State Senator Vince Fumo’s aides with questions. “Is Senator Fumo committed to serving four years?” he asks, standing in the crowd.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Fumo’s aide, Ed Hanlon, replies.
“What about the indictment?” Green shoots back.
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate thing to talk about,” responds Hanlon. “We want to talk about the issues.”
Just hours from now, Fumo will withdraw from the race to focus on the 139-count federal indictment he faces. This entire conversation will be rendered moot. What’s memorable about it is the way Bill Green stands up in an open forum and tries to commandeer the floor, the way he turns a pizza-and-beer political event into his own personal grandstand. “Is Senator Fumo committed to serving four years?” he asks again. The crowd seems a little uncomfortable.
Between his refusal to accept any pat answers and his sheer size, the new City Councilman is hard to ignore. He is six-foot-three and 220 pounds, yet appears even larger. The great, thick shelf of hair on his head adds a couple of inches to his height. In less antagonistic conversations he laughs frequently, in guffaws that cannon from his mouth and charge the air. His nose is large and toboggan-shaped, as if to part the air before him. And his eyes are wide and familiar — tinted windows to the city’s past.
His father, Bill Green III, served as both a U.S. Congressman and one of Philadelphia’s most colorful, combative mayors. His grandfather, Bill Green Jr., served in Congress and as this city’s legendary Democratic party boss. There was a long period during which Councilman Bill Green needed to escape from all this history. But since winning elected office last fall, the now-43-year-old has claimed his place in the family line.
This is a story about fathers and sons. This is a story about a great many Bill Greens. This is a story about what is arguably the First Family of Philadelphia politics, and the manner in which this newest Bill Green has burst on the scene, proposing a handful of incendiary ideas that earn him comparisons to his reform-minded father, and staunch opposition — also just like his dad.
Look at what he did at Liberty City, suggested a pair of Green’s opponents a week after the event. He wouldn’t sit down. Someone had to take his beer away. The insinuations are clear, but also complete B.S. Two of the people in the room that night, Liberty City co-chair Ray Murphy and State Senate candidate Anne Dicker, say Green may have been a tad “obnoxious.” But he was also “stone-cold sober,” and his questions were “clear and cutting.”
Of course, what matters isn’t what Bill Green’s enemies are saying. What matters is that just two months into his public-service career, Bill Green has enemies.
Maybe it isn’t fair to foist the weight of history on a man, to pass great expectations from father to son. And maybe it’s naive to welcome the return of a political dynasty. But Bill Greens have tended to leave this city a better place than they found it, and their story is a reminder that more than money is passed from generation to generation. This latest Green only chose to raise the family crest in middle age, far later in life than his father, but he found it still waiting for him, a shared legacy.
Philadelphia seems preternaturally disposed toward recycling famous names, as if an instinct toward honoring royalty somehow found its way into the blood even of a city made famous by revolutionaries. When Green won an at-large Council seat in November 2007, he joined two other sons and namesakes of former mayors — Frank Rizzo Jr. and Wilson Goode Jr.
In the case of Mayor Bill Green and his son, this sets up a perhaps unrealistic expectation that such electoral nepotism might actually work to our benefit. Green served just one term as mayor, from 1980 through ’83, but from the vantage that 25 years affords, his performance was sensational — at least, compared to some of the other people who’ve held the office. He turned a big budget deficit into a surplus by standing up to the city’s all-powerful unions. He faced down strikes from teachers and transportation workers. He laid off police and firefighters, going about the people’s business while cops circled City Hall in protest. Better still, while City Council got stung, literally, by an FBI investigation known as ABSCAM, federal agents didn’t even attempt to bribe the “Boy Scout.”
Green also demonstrated a remarkable penchant for pugilism. He called City Council, memorably, the “worst legislative body in the free world”; perhaps less admirably, he turned toward a bank of television cameras and left the impression he was addressing the city’s unions as if they were children, telling them, “Santa Claus has left City Hall.”
All this sets up a minefield of expectations for his son, and thus far he’s fulfilling them. Right out of the gate, Green proposed legislation that would render elected officials ineligible for the city’s lucrative early-retirement program, which enables participants to retire and keep their jobs. He co-authored a resolution to put every quasi-governmental agency through strict budget reviews, targeting patronage and waste. He plans to sponsor “paperless government,” an eco-friendly policy that could also add more than $200 million a year back into the city budget.
But the at-large Councilman’s most telling move was the attack he launched on “Councilmanic prerogative” — the unwritten rule granting each Council member absolute authority on legislation that impacts his or her district. Green promised in his campaign to blow up this long-established practice, and he made good on his promise in just his second Council session, when he introduced a bill that would prevent the city’s two proposed casinos from applying for tax abatements. This infringed on the territory of fourth-term veteran Councilman Frank DiCicco.
DiCicco and Councilman James Kenney both read long-winded speeches lecturing the newbie for his temerity. In response, Green demonstrated a tendency, like his father, to bloviate. “I do represent the public-school children of Philadelphia, who would have $60 million more over the next 10 years if casinos did not have the abatement,” he said. “I represent the people who live on trash-strewn streets because we have 1,200 fewer sanitation workers than we did 10 or 15 years ago. I represent the people in Northeast Philadelphia and Southwest that die because ambulances don’t arrive on time.”
He seemed to love each word coming out of his mouth. But whether Green was naively alienating the colleagues whose votes he needs to pass any legislation at all, or kick-starting a bold and brilliant political career, notice had been served: This new Bill Green looks a lot like his dad.
That’s especially surprising because for many years, the newly minted Councilman was convinced he’d never take part in politics — precisely because his father was Bill Green.
The man standing in front of me is nearing 70 years old. His great mop of hair is gray. His face is stern, softened only by his wedge-shaped nose. He lingers near a window at the Famous 4th Street Deli, and he refuses to sit down.
“We can’t stay here!” he says. “How am I supposed to give an interview with a tribute to a fallen fireman going on outside?”
On Bainbridge Street, visible through the window, a fire engine blocks traffic. Police and firefighters mill around, the by-product of City Hall pomp. Mayor Bill Green is now a quarter-century removed from his time in office, but says he still has certain responsibilities. “There is no way I can sit here and give an interview and not be outside with them,” he says. “It would be disrespectful. We have to leave. Now.”
In his eyes is a fierceness that comes with the experience of authority. Bill Green III, like his son, grew up with power. His father — the second Bill Green — is no longer all that well-known. But political analyst G. Terry Madonna calls him “one of the great political party bosses in the history of the United States.”
The son of an Irish immigrant and tavern owner, Bill Green Jr. was a Kensington boy who grew up to serve in the U.S. Congress. As party boss, he flipped this town on its political axis. In the 1950s, Boss Green used his post as Democratic party chief to dole out patronage jobs and replace a corrupt Republican majority with today’s ethically challenged Democratic machine. He developed a close friendship with the Kennedy clan. And he is widely credited with delivering enough Philadelphia voters in the 1960 presidential election to tilt Pennsylvania to JFK.
Today, Mayor Green fondly remembers an October 1963 elevator ride he took in the Bellevue Hotel, accompanied by his father and President Kennedy. He was just 25 at the time, but to the son of a Congressman, even light banter can suggest great expectations.
“What,” Kennedy said, gesturing toward the younger Green, “are you gonna do with him, Billy?”
“I don’t know, Mr. President,” said the elder Green. “What would you suggest?”
“Do what my father did,” Kennedy replied. “Run him for Congress.”
In a little more than three weeks, Kennedy was assassinated. Within a month of that, Boss Green was dead, too, the victim of a sudden fatal illness related to a previous intestinal infection. And a month after that, Bill Green III had indeed decided to run for his father’s Congressional seat. The eldest of his father’s children, he proved to be one of the most reform-minded politicians in Philadelphia history.
Before his run as mayor, Bill Green III served more than 12 years as a Congressman. But at the end, his career seemed somehow truncated — as if the promise of being Bill Green never culminated in the power and prestige people expected of him. He lost to Frank Rizzo in his initial 1971 run for mayor. He lost a heated battle for a U.S. Senate seat against John Heinz, in 1976. And after serving just one term as mayor, he never drank the champagne of a reelection victory — walking instead into the relative workaday obscurity of two decades in governmental law.
Theories abounded when he opted not to run for a second term. Pundits opined that the man just hated being mayor. And who could blame him? Pretty much every day of his term featured a battle. And he had already been serving in public office for more than 20 years. Others said he expected a stern primary challenge from his own managing director, Wilson Goode Sr. But Goode himself rebuts that. “I went to Mayor Green in his office and told him, ‘I have heard the rumors, and I want you to know I will not run against you. I would be honored to serve another four years as your managing director.’ I would not have been so ungracious as to have run against the man who gave me such an opportunity.”
Some intimates thought he declined to seek reelection because he had finally laid his own father to rest. “I think now that he had done something his father had never done — served as mayor — the decision was easier,” says a longtime friend. “I think he was able to leave after one term because he finally escaped his father’s shadow.”
Mayor Green denies any such motivation, and says the midlife career change worked for him: “I enjoyed the chance to spend more time with my family. There was no comparison with the number of hours I worked as mayor.”
But he admits the reason he didn’t seek a second term had everything to do with being a Bill Green. It was summer, 1982. He and his wife were expecting another child, their fourth. And they were walking in Chestnut Hill when she asked him if he intended to run again. The question surprised him. Of course he wanted a second term. But what she said next changed everything. “Do you,” she asked, “want another political orphan?”
"THERE WAS A long time when I thought I’d never get involved in politics,” Bill Green the Councilman says. “I was familiar with the sacrifices my father made and that our family had to make, the hours he spent working, the lack of patience he had sometimes when things weren’t going right. And I just didn’t want that.”
Like his father, Councilman Green was an eldest child who knew no life outside of being the son of a very public father. Unlike his father, he didn’t immediately embark on the same career path as his dad. In fact, at age 19, he told his parents he was quitting college at St. Joe’s and moving overseas. “I wasn’t happy,” remembers Mayor Green. “I said to him, ‘Bill, you don’t just move overseas. You need working papers, a place to live and a J-O-B.’”
“Dad,” his son replied, “I’ve just been to the British embassy. I got working papers. I have an apartment lined up, and I’ve got five job interviews scheduled.”
“I think,” the elder Green says today, “he left because he needed to get away from me.”
Once outside Philadelphia, the younger Green realized why he’d departed. “I left to figure out who I was,” he says. “Being the mayor’s son has its advantages. People know who you are. When you’re a kid, people are nicer to you than they are to other kids. But the corollary of that is, if they don’t like your father, they don’t like you. You’re never defined as your own person.”
Green set out to create his own identity — a journey that’s lasted much of his adult life. And while it may seem that the Greens parted company, it was actually an experience they shared. Each was the eldest child of a powerful father, and each shook off the family calling at some point.
Mayor Green left politics at 45 years old, spending the next 20-odd years in relative privacy. Councilman Green spent 20 years in the obscurity of the working world, only to become a Councilman at the age of 42.
Along the way he traded stocks, worked for financial services companies, earned a law degree, and worked for a corporate securities firm. He lived in London, Amsterdam, New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia, where he finally settled down in 2004. In London he met his wife, Margie, with whom he has two kids, including a fifth Bill Green. (“Why do we keep naming kids Bill Green?” he asks. “Because we’re still trying to get it right.”)
He demonstrated some interest in politics over the years, helping to write policy papers during Ed Rendell’s 1991 mayoral run. But even he confesses to some surprise that he ever decided to run for office. “There was no single, revelatory moment,” he says. “I guess I just decided — if you believe you can help, as I believe I can, don’t you also have a responsibility to?”
Of course, he turned to his father, and to his dad’s old advisers, like David Glancey and consultant Neil Oxman. The consensus at a meeting they held in the fall of 2006 in the basement of Philadelphia’s Racquet Club wasn’t optimistic. Oxman set the younger Green’s chances of winning at 30 or 40 percent. The Bill Green name was famous mostly among Philadelphians 55 and older, too narrow a slice of the electorate to guarantee victory. Both father and son left that day figuring it was over — the Green name snuffed out by time and inactivity. But a few months later, in January 2007, Green heard something on the radio. He says he doesn’t remember what — just that it involved city politics. And it pissed him off. He had a talk with his wife. He called his dad. And suddenly, he was in.
It seems unlikely that a life-altering radio broadcast would be forgotten so easily. But Green maintains that whatever it was paled in importance next to what he felt inside. “I guess I was just looking for an excuse,” he says. “I really just thought I could make a difference. I wanted to run.”
More importantly, the timing was right. His daughter, Avery, 17, and son William, 15, wouldn’t be “political orphans.” “They’re old enough,” says Councilman Green, “that they are their own people. They’ve established their identities apart from me.”
He also felt a sudden urgency when he realized that his father’s name was disappearing from the public mind. “He actually called it the ‘Bill Green brand,’” says Oxman, “and he understood that if he was going to gain any kind of advantage from name recognition, he needed to run now. I thought that was very pragmatic.”
Green does demonstrate a native understanding of politics — a practical streak that also led him to enlist the help of Johnny Dougherty, the electricians union boss, on his subsequent campaign. Dougherty, associated more with hard-knock politics than good and gracious government, would seem an unlikely ally for a reformer. The Inquirer has claimed that Dougherty is under investigation by the FBI and IRS. But his union’s help is powerful at the polls — and partly responsible for Green’s first-place finish among the at-large candidates in the general election. “You have to win,” says Green, “in order to make a difference.”
In return, Green has been loyal, perhaps too loyal, to his most powerful political patron. His mini dust-up at that Liberty City event could easily be interpreted as an effort to support his benefactor, who is now running for Fumo’s seat. And he stuck his own credibility on the line when he told the Inquirer that Dougherty is “more honest than Lincoln.”
“Let’s just say there was a little hyperbole in that statement,” the Councilman says now, laughing momentarily and then mounting some defense. “All I’ve ever experienced in my dealings with Johnny is straightforward and honest talk.”
Green’s father wholeheartedly supports his son. “Johnny Dougherty helped him win,” says the elder Green. “My son should be loyal to him.”
Unseemly? Maybe a little. But these are politicians. This is a political family — Boss Green begat Mayor Green begat Councilman Green — and politics brought them closer together.
“Probably for the first time in my adult life,” says Councilman Green, “since I’ve gone through the experience of running for Council and starting to serve, my father and I have an adult relationship. He listens to me as much as I listen to him. It’s been a great experience.”
WHEN MAYOR BILL Green’s father died, the news reverberated throughout the nation, and a still-grieving Jackie Kennedy penned the following note:
Dec. 23, 1963
Dear Mrs. Green,
Please know how heartbroken I am for you — what a way for this year to end. There isn’t anything I can say to console you. I don’t think Jack would have been President without Billy Green. Maybe they will find each other — I hope so — though it isn’t exactly the way I picture heaven. But we who are so deprived want all the best for them. It was each to their credit that they loved and admired each other. And they can be proud at how their wives will miss them. I send you all my love and sympathy,
Today, that note is in the possession of Mayor Bill Green, who gets a little choked up poring over it, and who clearly counts his relationship with Boss Green among his most cherished accomplishments. “There was a time,” he remembers, his voice rising with excitement, “when my father realized he could count on me.”
Green was attending St. Joseph’s University when his father asked him for a favor. Perennial Republican presidential candidate Harold Stassen had been attacking the Congressman, accusing him of nepotism. “He said my father had put 17 Greens on the public payroll,” Green says today, “which simply wasn’t true. I had a couple of uncles, I think, with jobs they were qualified for.”
Green was president of St. Joe’s Politics Club. Boss Green knew his son had invited Stassen to speak, and called the younger man into his bedroom for a talk. “I want you,” his father said, “to attack him.”
Green balked. “I can’t,” he said. “I invited him. I’m the president of the club.”
“I’m your father,” Boss Green retorted. “And this man’s been coming after me.”
The younger Green refused and went to his bedroom, where the truth about being Boss Green’s son settled over him. Loyalty demanded he return to his father’s room. “All right,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
He resigned his club presidency. And after Stassen took the stage, he stood up with a check for $1,000 and called out: “I’m Bill Green’s son. You’ve been accusing my father of putting 17 relatives on the public payroll. That’s a lie. If you can name them, I have a check for a thousand dollars for you to give to the charity of your choice.”
Most fathers and sons bond over a game of catch in the backyard. Bill Greens find each other in the political mud pits. Stassen was caught flat-footed, unable to back up his allegations. Green’s father was thrilled.
In the wake of the Stassen ambush, Green started driving his father to various appointments. He wasn’t supposed to speak during any of his father’s meetings. But one day, he drove the party boss to Atlantic City, where a man his dad was meeting with made racist comments. “I found that very offensive,” says Green. “And I just couldn’t help myself, so I lit into him.”
Afterward, as he drove his father back home, Green apologized. “I know, Dad. I broke the rule. I’m sorry — ”
“Did you say what you believed?” his father interrupted.
“Yes,” he replied.
Boss Green rested one hand on the dashboard and the other on his son’s shoulder, and said: “Do it all your life.”
TODAY, COUNCILMAN GREEN’S desk in City Hall is the same one his father sat behind as mayor, the same desk his grandfather used as Democratic party boss.
Some wonder if he has ambitions similar to his father’s. He is quickly becoming a fixture on the political circuit, turning up at events all over the city. And many of Green’s new colleagues, seemingly shell-shocked by his initial assault on Council chambers, quickly came around.
“As a freshman Councilman,” says Wilson Goode Jr., “Bill Green is already one of the smartest members on Council.”
“My advice for him would be to save the name tag his father had on his desk,” says Frank Rizzo Jr., “the one that said ‘Bill Green, Mayor.’ He might need it.”
Initially, Rizzo plays the comment off as a joke, then admits: “I probably shouldn’t be saying this. And I haven’t spoken to him about it. But Bill Green doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy to sit still. So in two and a half years, if the city budget is in bad shape, if the homicide rate is sky-high — none of which I expect to happen — I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill Green was Michael Nutter’s primary challenger.”
For his part, Green insists he wants to “support Mayor Nutter’s agenda.” He also says it’s far too early to start plotting his political future. But when pressed, during a long interview at McGillin’s Irish pub, just blocks from City Hall, Councilman Green charts a potential course that would take him straight to the political stratosphere. “If you look at the history of my family,” he says, “there’s only one office we ran for that we didn’t get, one box we never checked off. That’s the U.S. Senate.”
It’s an audacious thing for a first-term City Councilman to say. But Bill Greens tend to be ambitious. And the newest Bill Green nods and smiles when the narrative he’s living is laid out in front of him: A historic name in Philadelphia politics, long thought dead and buried, is reborn in the form of a prodigal son, with the legacy of two previous generations now his to further, or to cast back into darkness. “Wow,” he says, smiling and lifting a beer to his lips. “When it’s put that way, I guess I have no choice but to continue the dynasty.”