Power: Manage This

What’s it really like to run Philadelphia? From snowstorms and stadium implosions to an FBI bug, Mayor Street’s former managing director tells all

Mayor Street and I enjoyed a good, professional working relationship. We weren’t social buddies. I never called him John, and can’t imagine doing so now. But I often e-mailed him satirical messages and jokes, and he would sometimes ask where his copy was when he learned he hadn’t been included on my e-mail joke list. While others said he micro-managed, I rarely experienced it. He was a student of the City Charter. He understood that the commissioners in charge of each department reported to the managing director, and he almost always followed the chain of command. If he wanted something from a department, he called me, not a commissioner. Frankly, he could have called anyone anytime he wanted. After all, he was the mayor.

I was with Street on the morning of October 7, 2003, shortly after the FBI bug was found. I had received a phone call about 8 a.m. that a firefighter had been taken to the hospital after a one-alarm fire on Aramingo Avenue. I e-mailed the Mayor and said I was headed to the hospital; he replied he would be going, too. I asked if I could catch a ride with him. When I met him on the apron at the northeast corner of City Hall, he had just learned that a listening device had been found in his office ceiling.

We rode to the hospital while gospel music, as usual, poured from the speakers of his van. When we arrived, we learned that the firefighter, James Allen, had died of a heart attack. On our way back, Street started talking about Abscam. I remembered the scandal very well because Bill Green, whom I had been working for at the time, had just become mayor when three city councilmen, including powerful Council president George X. Schwartz, were caught taking bribes from FBI agents dressed as Arab sheiks.

From the ruins of the old City Council power base rose a newly elected councilman by the name of John Street. He agitated for Schwartz to resign, which Schwartz did. Street stepped into the power vacuum. The rest, as they say, is history. He eventually became City Council president. As Street and I, inside the van, exchanged memories of those days, I didn’t yet recognize the enormity and implications of what had just been discovered in his office, weeks prior to the election.