Soapbox: Does Black Philadelphia Need a White Mayor?

The Mayor escaped the City Hall corruption probe, but its fallout revealed his greatest failure — selling out the minority community that put him in office

On February, on the first day of the trial of Janice Renee­ Knight — along with for-mer city treasurer Corey Kemp and three others implicated in the federal probe of City Hall — Knight was portrayed by her legal team as a hard worker who quickly learned the ropes of a new business, a role model for women and minorities. Knight’s attorney eyed the jury, speaking to their sense of justice, and deftly introduced the race card, with a nice feminist flair. “She had the audacity to start her own business,” he said. “Can you imagine the ambitiousness of that? An African-American minority and also a woman?”

The lawyer got one part right. Knight was a quick study, but what she learned, through the help of her boyfriend, Mayor John Street’s friend and powerhouse fund-raiser Ron White, was how to pervert the city’s minority set-aside program. According to FBI testimony, her printing company, RPC Unlimited, outsourced its work, then overcharged the city by more than $200,000. Another venture of hers, Renee Enterprises, made up to $400 a week on marked-up cans of Coca-Cola for the airport. (Entrepreneurial skills essential to the success of Renee Enterprises: answering phones, sending faxes, and sleeping with the Mayor’s buddy.) Knight’s role in the pay-to-play conspiracy is unclear. Just before press time, she was convicted of lying to the FBI, but the jury found her not guilty of one count of wire fraud and deadlocked on other charges. What is clear, however, is that Knight manipulated the contracting system that exists to help folks like those her lawyer claimed she really was — entrepreneurs who would prosper through city work, then reach back into the community to hire more minorities, thereby spreading their newfound wealth to the lower class.
Entrepreneurs like Tracy Hardy, a 32-year-old black father of three. As a teenager, Hardy grew up in Mount Airy and worked for a printer in Roxborough, who taught him how to silkscreen. The mentor died in the late ’90s, leaving Hardy all his machinery in his will. Before long, Hardy was working seven days a week, all sweat and ink-stained hands, building his business with little help other than from his dad, a retired state trooper. Hardy eventually moved beyond decorating t-shirts and hats to using muscular six-color presses and handling some of SEPTA’s business printing needs — not thanks to some mayoral crony in line to turn a quick buck, but through his own talent and hustle. And for all that, in a year Hardy makes less than half what Janice Knight hauled in with her printing deal—for work she didn’t even do herself, but outsourced to white-owned companies. “It pisses me off,” says Hardy, adding that city contracts for minorities are about connections, not who can do the job. “If I can get that work, I’d take it, but I’m not going to waste my time. I’m not going to play their game.”

The game is run by the Minority Enterprise Business Council, an agency responsible for ensuring that city contracts are awarded to qualified women, blacks, and certain ethnic groups. But MBEC is now part of the problem more than the solution — in a city audit of the office last year, 26 percent of the requested files on MBEC-designated minority companies were unavailable (including the Renee Enterprises dossier), and more than half of those that were on hand turned out to be “unsubstantiated or improperly certified as disadvantaged.” Under Mayor Street, the percentage of city contracts in the hands of minority-run companies hovers at just two percent. If that number were closer to 20, Knight’s printing scandal and Coca-Colagate would be almost frivolous. But when the slice of pie is so small, every little bit counts, and Knight’s nibble took food off the plate of someone who really needed it — someone like Hardy, and the extra hand or two he could have hired with that juicy deal of hers. This is worse than pay-to-play Philly politics as usual. Knight didn’t steal a few bucks from The Man. This was a black-on-black crime.  
What’s surprising is that the guy in charge while this went down is John Street. The guy grew up without electricity until age 11. Threw punches at a white councilman on the chamber floor in City Hall. Lived in a rowhome at 26th and Girard, and still lives in North Philadelphia. This Afroed political outsider-cum-unlikely mayor first slipped when his brother, Milton, stood to make $1.2 million in a dubious deal at the airport. Even after the contract was axed by the Mayor, it left Milton with a three-year consulting job that put more than $1 million in his pockets. Then Street let cronies like White and Knight rob the very people who elected him to office — the 98 percent of black voters who turned out for him last November, including Hardy. As MBEC has become just another rotten cog in the city’s patronage system, it cuts off the community it was created to serve. “MBEC hasn’t made itself available to the people,” says State Representative Jewell Williams. “There is no outreach.” When Williams talks to the people on his district’s streets north of Girard Avenue, the jaw-dropping revelation from the probe isn’t that corruption lives in City Hall. Their surprise comes when they hear there’s a city program that’s supposed to help black businesses.