Coming Soon …Senator Street?

Just about the most interesting question you can ask someone in Philadelphia politics these days is what John Street will do once he leaves City Hall. On the night John Kerry accepted the Democratic nomination, Street aide Shawn Fordham — by most accounts, the man the Mayor trusts most — stood on the convention floor and offered the most ambitious answer yet: U.S. Senator John Street. “If he were matched up against Rick Santorum, he could have a strong showing,” Fordham said.

Fordham spun a well-considered strategy to unseat the Republican incumbent in 2006 by assembling an old-fashioned Democratic coalition: Carry big margins in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, galvanize growing Latino populations in the smaller cities, and use Street's standing with labor to win over white union households. “Santorum's vote in his constituency is strong, so you'd have to have a candidate whose constituency would be equally strong,” Fordham said. He brushed over a number of hurdles, including other primary candidates (notably, state treasurer Barbara Hafer, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat from western Pennsylvania) and Street's own baggage (a federal investigation, dubious hometown popularity). But perhaps the most daunting challenge to a Street Senate run is a weighty precedent that has turned into an ominous rule in political circles: Black candidates can't win statewide. (Nationally, only three black senators and one governor have been elected in the past century.)

Just two days earlier, Street had watched as Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama charmed the convention with his keynote speech. It's easy to see how the example of the Chicago state senator — a big-city black politician about to overwhelmingly carry a large industrial-agricultural state — could impress Street and offer encouragement. The two men, after all, share a brain trust: strategist David Axelrod, who handled both of Street's mayoral campaigns and continues to informally advise City Hall. In reality, however, Street may learn all the wrong lessons from Obama, a conventional liberal who reaches out to white voters by presenting himself as a new-style pol, one who transcends race. Fordham's strategy for Street depends on an idiosyncratic fiscal conservative running as a consolidator of old-guard Democratic interest groups. “I think the Democrats would have a dozen stronger candidates than Street,” says media consultant Neil Oxman. For his part, Fordham brags about Street's high profile statewide — and pooh-poohs the idea that some attention may have been unfavorable. “People have heard it all: They've heard the negative, they've heard the positive,” Fordham says. “That's why the folks who are going to be for us are going to be for us.”