I assumed it was a mistake when I first read the George X. Schwartz obit in the Daily News two weeks ago. Not that he died. After all he was 95. What caught my eye was that only 90 people were at his service.
“Was that a misprint? “ I emailed Kitty Caparella, the Daily News reporter who wrote the story. “He was such a powerful man in his day.”
“I thought the same thing,” she replied. “It was a generous 90 people. I counted.”
Granted, many of his friends probably predeceased him. Granted, his political career ended in disgrace. As the news coverage of his death emphasized, he was convicted in the 1980 Abscam scandal, lost his appeals and served time in jail.
But for eight years, from 1972-1980, he presided over City Council as its president. The “Silver Fox” he was called. Nattily dressed, a cigar in his mouth, he emitted an aura of arrogance, an “I am smarter than you” attitude. He ruled Council with an iron fist.
Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, colorful and controversial, also ruled with an iron fist. And like every mayor his job could be made easier or more difficult by the City Council president. Schwartz was sometimes an ally, sometimes an enemy.
And when Rizzo perceived Schwartz — or anyone else for that matter — as an enemy, he didn’t spare the hot sauce.
In 1972, when Schwartz refused to go along with Rizzo’s choice to oppose Arlen Specter as district attorney, Rizzo ordered his police commissioner to form a special, hand-picked 34-member police squad to spy on Schwartz and dig up what ever dirt they could.
As it turned out Rizzo really didn’t need his own police squad to get the goods on Schwartz. The FBI and its Abscam sting eventually did the job for him.
The political casualty list was huge. One U.S. senator, five U.S. congressmen, including two from Philadelphia, and two City Councilmen, including Schwartz
When the Abscam scandal exploded, William J. Green had been mayor for less than a month. The man he thought he would have to deal with as president of City Council was now charged with corruption, throwing a major curve ball in his working relationship with City Council.
Enter John F. Street, a newly elected city councilman from North Philadelphia. Loud, aggressive, bright and hardworking, Street used the scandal to jumpstart his City Council career by getting in Schwartz’s face virtually every day, eventually cajoling him to resign.
City Council elected a new president, its first African American leader in Council’s history — Joe Coleman, an affable former engineer from Northwest Philadelphia.
While Schwartz was strong, Coleman was cautious. Schwartz controlled, Coleman facilitated. Before long, Green was relegated to working with a fragmented, undisciplined City Council.
Frustrated, Green proclaimed that City Council was “the worst legislative body in the free world.’’
John Street, who filled the leadership vacuum that Coleman could not, eventually became City Council president. Unlike Coleman, he was a strong Council president and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with then Mayor Ed Rendell, delivering City Council votes to approve his iniatives.
Street followed Rendell as mayor. Like Bill Green, he did not have the benefit of a strong partner in a City Council president. His City Council president, Anna Verna, was in the Joe Coleman mode — affable, a facilitator, not someone who bangs heads to garner a working majority of nine votes.
Street like Green had to scramble for every vote. And now Mayor Michael Nutter, faced with a $150 million deficit and two controversial tax proposals, must do the same thing as Verna continues as Council president.
Who knows what might have happened if Schwartz wasn’t swept away by Abscam?
Would Street have ever become Council president? Or mayor?
Would Rendell had been as successful as mayor without a strong Council president Street by his side?
Would Bob Brady, who succeeded Schwartz, his mentor, as head of the 34th ward risen to be head of the Democratic Party and a US. Congressman?
We’ll never know.
But it’s fair to say that while there may not have been many people at the Silver Fox’s funeral, his Abscam forced departure from City Council still casts a long shadow on Philadelphia politics.