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

Attorney Carl Singley is hardly an unbiased source on all matters John Street since his public falling-out with his old friend in 2000, but he is an authority on this issue — in the early ’80s, Singley worked in the city law department that established the set-aside program, paving the way for MBEC, and for Knight’s abuses of it. “That this program got hijacked is a disrespect for those folks back in the day,” Singley says. “This goddamn thing has set the movement back decades. The program hasn’t been corrupted by racist white people. It’s been corrupted by us.”

Stopping the bleeding is no easy task, and Mayor Street hasn’t helped matters much. Former city councilman Angel Ortiz sponsored a plan that would mimic Baltimore’s success in increasing minority participation, but despite support from councilman Wilson Goode Jr. and others, it will never be fully realized under this mayor — who, incidentally, made Time’s list of the worst American mayors, while Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley was named among the best. As our own politerati begin to size up candidates for the next election, perhaps this is an opportunity to set in motion something truly radical, harking back to the late ’70s and early ’80s, when minorities united en masse, from Chicago to Atlanta to the nation’s capital, and voted black mayors into office. Consider this blueprint for a modern-day political revolution, a symbol as powerful as Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists from the 1968 Olympic medal stand: lines stretching for blocks in urban polling stations, and every finger pulling the same lever — for a white candidate.

This might sound preposterous, since Ed Rendell’s minority participation numbers weren’t much better than Street’s. But consider O’Malley, who has nearly doubled Baltimore’s participation figures in his four years there, including work on vital regional projects, not patronage cesspools like our airport. Here at home, look at what Paul Vallas has done for the public school system—$65 million, or about 25 percent of the district’s budget, went to minority businesses last year, up from nine percent the year before. Vallas knows he’s under close watch by the underprivileged, for whom an education has mortal consequences far beyond whether Johnny will get into an Ivy League college. More than four of every five city students are minorities, and Vallas not only serves them well, but employs people like them to work for their future.

The same logic applies to City Hall, if the minority vote stands in overwhelming support of a white mayor. Consider what local NAACP chief Jerry Mondesire says about the lack of black criticism of Street on this issue. “African-Americans are fairly desperate to have people in control, so John Street doesn’t get criticized like a white mayor would,” he says. “They’re not fooled. But they hesitate to speak out in favor of giving momentum to his white opponents.” In just one primary in the last 20 years has a white candidate reached more than eight percent of the vote when a black candidate is running. While a black mayor counts on support from a community too weary to eviscerate him for failing them, and too suspicious of the white alternative, a white mayor won’t have that luxury, especially if he wins thanks to minority voters who make issues like this one a focal point in the next election. Then perhaps the windfall that Knight enjoyed will end up in the hands of folks who deserve it. Folks like Tracy Hardy. Now imagine the ambitiousness of that.