Sam Katz, Bill Green and Milton Street Walk Into a Bar…

Philadelphia's General Election—usually a sleepwalk—is looking more interesting by the day.

Bill Green Sam Katz Milton Street

Not boring.

Let’s stipulate up front that whoever wins the Democratic nomination for mayor this May is the heavy favorite to be elected in November’s general election. That’s just the way it works in a city where 80 percent of registered voters are Democrats and a lot of the deep-pocketed donors are (excruciatingly) wary of bucking the likely winner.

Nonetheless, recent developments in the mayoral campaign are making it far more likely that Philadelphia will see a legitimate contest this Fall. The farce of 2007, when genial GOP mayoral nominee Al Taubenberger more or less spent his campaign talking about what a great guy Michael Nutter was, is not likely to be repeated.

Consider the following:

  • Bill Green, a lifelong Democrat, changed his voter registration to independent this week to “leave all the doors open” this Fall. That could mean a run at his old at-large seat on City Council, but it could also mean an independent bid for the mayor’s office (it could also ultimately lead to nothing at all). Green would take a chance on the mayoral race only if his old enemy Jim Kenney were to win the Democratic primary.
  • Milton Street, it seems, isn’t a registered Democrat either, though that was news to him. Now I’m no election lawyer, but that would seem to suggest Street can’t run for mayor as a Democrat. This is a big development. If Street is out of the primary, that helps Anthony Williams lot. Street was never going to win this thing, of course, but it was entirely plausible that he’d get seven or even 10 percent of the vote. Street’s base—low-income, black voters who are concerned about street violence—are much more likely to cast their ballot for Williams than, for, say, Lynne Abraham. Williams was already a top tier candidate. Now he’s that much more likely to emerge as the Democratic nominee.
  • And if Williams wins the primary, there is a very real chance that Sam Katz will run for mayor as an Independent in the general election this fall. Katz likely wouldn’t run if Kenney or Abraham emerges from the primary: racial voting patterns would make it harder for him to defeat a white candidate than a black one. But if Williams wins, and he emerges from the primary battered and bruised, I think it’s increasingly likely that Katz will be waiting for him. And, given the news about Milton Street’s registration issues, it’s possible that Street will be in the mix in the fall as an Independent as well, which would work to Katz’s advantage, and work against Williams.
  • The lone Republican candidate for mayor—Melissa Murray Bailey—is a political unknown. She’s young, 36, new to the city and brand new to Republican politics (she was a registered Democrat until late January). Perhaps she’s an enormous natural talent who will be a real factor in the fall, but it seems more likely that she’ll be a bit player if Katz or Green were to run. The fact that the Republicans were unable to land a candidate with a higher profile works to the advantage of Green, Katz and any other Independent who might be quietly mulling a mayoral bid, as it makes it that much more likely registered Republicans (there are 120,000 of them) would support an Independent as opposed to their own party’s nominee.

To be sure, all of this is highly speculative. It’s entirely possible that the Democratic nominee emerges from the primary strong, the party united, and the would-be Independent challengers melt away. But I actually think it’s more likely at this point that a credible Independent candidate forces the Democratic nominee into a real race this fall. Now, can that candidate can actually win? That’s a question for another day.