Jerome Whyatt Mondesire's latest crusade began one day last winter. Mondesire, head of the local NAACP, was smoking an afternoon cigar as he read John Baer's column in the Daily News. The item stopped him like a burning poker in the eye:
Are Mayor Street and Chaka Fattah trading places?
“Might be,” says Street. “I'm interested,” says Fattah.
And Street's take on Fattah for mayor?
“I think it's a job he can have,” says Street.
Street in Congress? Fattah as mayor? Mondesire's eyes stared into the roaring fireplace. The cigar continued to puff, mechanically. So his two old enemies were conspiring to run the city without him. He sputtered and cursed and stomped his feet. He called City Council member Marian Tasco and consultant Bill Miller and State Representative Dwight Evans, a trio he calls his “brain trust.” Had they read the article? Did they share his outrage? He considered possible strategies of retaliation—should he strike back, or simply allow Fattah to implode on his own? His mind swam with possibilities, and his heart filled with wrath.
Nine months later, on the roof deck at T.G.I.Friday's on the Parkway, Mondesire took his case before the public, or at least the dozen journalists and 50 politicos willing to pay $60 for roast beef sandwiches and a red-meat Mondesire speech on the Fattah menace. Tasco was there, as were Councilman Michael Nutter and outgoing City Controller Jonathan Saidel, Mondesire's second- and third-string picks for mayor, respectively. His favorite, Evans, had a previous commitment and couldn't make it.
A minister gave a brief invocation, and Mondesire began to speak. It sounded a bit like Headline News as read by Al Sharpton. Every sixth word was “Chaka” or “Fattah.”
“This is a case of royal succession,” he said in his orator's voice, a modulated baritone with rolling Louis Armstrong trills. “An unholy alliance. A rotten deal. Let us not have someone come in from the outside and superimpose himself on what we hold dear. The Fattah virus has infected Philadelphia's political process. Why are we fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan when we don't have a democracy here in our own country? What's Chaka had to say about Social Security? Nineteen hundred are dead in Iraq. What's Chaka had to say about that? New Orleans is 30 feet under water. Where's Chaka? We are only one rainstorm away from being in our own Baghdad, underwater in our own New Orleans. The same cleavages between black and white, rich and poor, are here. I fear for my 16-year-old son.”
And then came the threat. If Fattah didn't renounce his 2007 designs on City Hall, Mondesire would either step down from his post as president of the NAACP to run against him for Congress in 2006, or would find a surrogate to run in his stead, thereby forcing Fattah to divert money, time and energy from a mayoral bid. There would be a website, fattahxray.com, devoted to exposing Fattah's high golf handicap and low high-school GPA, along with other “explosive” shockers to be unearthed by a team of private investigators Mondesire would hire with nearly $10,000 in T.G.I.F. proceeds. The “opposition researchers” would include Fattah's own ex-brother-in-law, a former lawyer who lost his license after he got hooked on cocaine and was convicted of bribing a witness and who, says Mondesire, “has an unbridled hatred for you-know-who.” A former reporter who now publishes the weekly Sunday Sun, Mondesire will break the Fattah story when he's good and ready.
“If I told you exactly what we've found,” he says, “that would be the headline, and I never give away my headline. Let's just say that we're looking for everything and anything that could put this race into play. Whatever they find, it'll be my decision what to make public. Now, I'm not looking to use any information to hurt his family or wife, but anything useful in the campaign against him will become part of the public domain.”
As of this writing, Mondesire's contribution to the public domain consists of one new allegation: that as a novice politician in his 20s, Chaka Fattah would convene groups of his political allies at a West Philadelphia rowhouse. They would always watch the same movie, The Godfather. Fattah sometimes would stop the tape and act out scenes from the film, but only he, the so-called Fearless Leader of the nascent Fattah Organization, was allowed to play the part of Michael Corleone. A Fattah operative who attended these Godfather screenings says they were innocuous entertainments. There were folding chairs, she says. Pizza was served. But to Mondesire, they suggest something more sinister, a rite intended to reinforce blind submission to the Fattah machine. “Is this the sort of man you want as your mayor?” he asks.
Fattah, 49, has spent the past 20 years building his machine, an interlocking system of loyal block captains, committee persons, ward leaders and political appointees that he says registered 100,000 new voters in the last mayoral election and 200,000 more in the presidential. Should Mondesire choose to run and fail to come up with anything better than this Godfather story to hurl at Fattah, the machine will trounce him at the polls this May. Unfortunately for Mondesire, Fattah has thus far failed to play his scripted role in the “feud,” instead taking an Olympian attitude that Mondesire poses a threat so small, he needn't even acknowledge it.
“Jerry's my permanent critic,” Fattah laughs, on his way to hand out low-income housing checks at Project H.O.M.E. in North Philadelphia. “Every time we have a difference, Jerry tries to turn it into a nuclear war. His basic position is that I should go stand in a corner somewhere. That's fine. I wish him well.”
Still, when pressed, Fattah suggests that envy is what keeps Mondesire's side of the feud going. “You're really talking about a tale of two careers here. The reason that it's been difficult for Jerry to reconcile himself with where I am and the political organization I built is that he's not where he once was.”
So far, Mondesire's efforts have done little to ward off Fattah's interest in the mayor's office, which seems to be intensifying by the day. Once coy, Fattah now says a run is “highly likely,” that he's “very serious about the 2007 race,” and that he'll have an exploratory committee in place by the beginning of 2006. And by the way, he adds, there is one item on the Fattah X-ray website that could use correcting.
“My golf game. He says my handicap's 95. That's just inaccurate on its face. It's 16. Go look it up.”
Nevertheless, this is Philadelphia. Throw a party, launch a website, say the word “feud,” and people will start to pay attention, whether or not the object of the feud is returning your attentions, whether or not you actually have anything new to say. Following the event at Friday's, Jimmy Tayoun's Public Record printed a cartoon showing Mondesire in the cowboy regalia for which he's known, roping up a helpless Fattah. The Daily News traced the epic Fattah/Mondesire beef back to its supposed origins at a breakfast more than 20 years ago. Without having declared his candidacy for any office, Mondesire's name was suddenly back in the headlines and on the lips of his fellow power brokers, which is where he likes it. One could say this is a battle between one man's political future and another man's reputation, but that wouldn't quite be correct, for even if Mondesire's investigation comes up empty-handed, it would hardly be his first or his oddest unsuccessful foray. Most of the old guard has learned to humor, or at least tolerate, him. Among Fattah's supporters, the response has been “Bring it on.”
“The problem with Jerry Mondesire is that while he's against something, he's not for anything,” says top Street aide and former Mondesire ally George Burrell. “Jerry's a street fighter, and he's always been a street fighter. He's at his best doing negative politics. Well, this is a contact sport, and Jerry Mondesire should take his best shot. I hope he acts with integrity, but if he wants to get in the gutter, I think he'll be down there by himself.”
In Philadelphia, where wardrobe ranks right up there with a Rolodex as the most critical weapon in any political arsenal, Mondesire brings the big guns. He favors shiny cuff links, bright handkerchiefs, and silk suits tailored to fit his broad, swaggering shoulders. Born in Harlem a block away from the Apollo Theater, he never learned to ride a horse but somehow manages to pull off an intimidating Old West persona with his trademark cowboy hats (two dozen, including one hand-blocked Montecristi) and pairs of cowboy boots (10 leather, one lizard, one kangaroo).
One late November evening, the Mondesire baritone could be heard working its way across the Palm at this magazine's power issue party. Radio host Mary Mason sipped a merlot and watched him. She's had her share of brawls with Mondesire over the years.
“You know what we used to call guys like that? Woofers.” What's a woofer? “A windbag. He's out there selling woof tickets. Sure, he might run against Chaka. For his life.”
Jerry Mondesire has always loved a good feud. He is 56 years old and suffers from acute hypertension, and feuds are like his thrice-weekly racquetball regimen—they keep his heart strong and his wits sharp. “I like to stay in shape for whatever fight we gotta have” is how he puts it, and he's always picking new ones. The latest target is Donovan McNabb, whom Mondesire all but called an Uncle Tom for his aversion to running the ball. Over the past 30 years, the fighting has been more or less constant: good fights, bad fights, fights fought for the sake of fighting. When those fights involve the black community, you can count on Mondesire to be at or near the center of all three.
First, the good fights, of which there's been no shortage since Mondesire became president of the local NAACP in 1996. These are the fights you've heard of—the marches against sinking houses, high gas prices and police brutality; the humiliation of District Attorney Lynne Abraham for opposing the appointment of Frederica Massiah-Jackson to the federal bench; the hard racial peace Mondesire helped broker in Grays Ferry in 1997. Every week it's something new, most recently the case of Jacob Gray, a 13-year-old Liberian immigrant who was beaten into a near-coma by classmates who thought he had “snitched” on them for smoking marijuana. Wearing his NAACP hat, Jerry helped Gray's family find a doctor and showed up at the suspects' hearing to lobby for swift and severe punishment. He has never been bashful about condemning the black community's shortcomings, which is one reason he's a favorite source for the city's press corps.
“Jerry's not afraid to call elements in the African-American community to account,” says retired longtime Daily News reporter Ron Goldwyn. “He provides a voice that the mainstream media is often trying to find. He can play us like a fiddle in terms of what gets quoted.”
He's also really smart. He's been around, he knows everybody, and he was once a reporter himself, so his words seem to wind up outside of quotes as often as inside.
The good fights are all over his résumé: At the age of 21, the son of a housekeeper wound up reporting on Washington for the New York Times. Ace reporter at the Baltimore Sun. First black editor at the Inquirer. And then the peak of his career, as Congressman Bill Gray's strong right hand in Philadelphia. He flew around the world on Air Force jets, shook hands with Nelson Mandela, and was for a time thought to be the most powerful unelected official in Philadelphia.
“He has an incandescent intellect,” says attorney Rotan Lee, who worked in Gray's D.C. office, “a remarkable ability to conceive, plan and execute in the same mind. He is brilliantly piratical, like a James Carville or Karl Rove. He was Gray's consigliere, like Robert Duvall in The Godfather, but he was also his Luca Brasi, the guy they sent out to take care of things and people, the enforcer, the big meaty guy who at the Godfather's request would do anything. I mean anything.”
Oh yes, the bad fights: the times Gray had him do opposition research on John Street and his brother Milton, on Mondesire's former colleague Chuck Stone. The times he had to manipulate would-be candidates to keep them out of certain races. The down-and-dirty ad hominem attacks, like the notorious flyer printed on behalf of George Burrell, claiming that former Congressman Lucien Blackwell was related to a numbers runner, or the issue of the Sun that revealed how a Jannie Blackwell aide had once dealt drugs. When an aide to Milton Street was accused of collecting welfare on top of her state paycheck, Street complained that Mondesire was behind the leak. Then there's the call Mondesire placed to Thomas Massaro, housing director under Mayor Bill Green, demanding the dismissal of a young aide named Chaka Fattah. “He volunteered to perform a surgical procedure on me without anesthesia that would make it impossible for me ever to contract testicular cancer,” remembers Massaro, who says he nonetheless respects what Mondesire has done for the city.
The worst fight of all came in 1991, when, with a federal investigation into his finances rumored to be hanging over his head, Bill Gray abruptly resigned from Congress to take the helm of the United Negro College Fund. Gray, who didn't return several calls for comment on this story, failed to let Mondesire know ahead of time, and Mondesire has never forgiven him. It didn't help matters when Gray learned he had a starring role in a tell-all book Mondesire was writing about his years in Washington, a book he still hasn't published. “The reality of Gray is gray, mixed. He betrayed us, and now everyone has forgotten about him,” Mondesire says today. “And you know what? That's the best revenge.”
He is still, however, willing to mention Bill Gray as a convenient part of his anti-Fattah campaign. He will say that Bill Gray paid for a lawyer to help Fattah win his first race for state representative, or tell the story of a confidential breakfast meeting where Bill Gray said some mean things about Wilson Goode, which were dutifully reported by a deceitful Chaka Fattah. The fact that Gray regularly advises Fattah on how to maneuver through Congress while hardly speaking a word to Mondesire since 1991 is beside the point, an irrelevant inconsistency. While Fattah's political migrations infuriate him, Mondesire is not so troubled by the inconsistencies in his own record that have emerged over time. In 1999 he called for a “black primary” among the NAACP membership to narrow the field of black candidates, arguing that black voters needed to concentrate their electoral push behind a single black candidate. But when the candidates wouldn't play along, and John Street, an old adversary, wound up winning the primary, Mondesire backed a white Republican, Sam Katz, in the general election. In 2001, Mondesire wrote a letter to the president of the board of education arguing that Dwight Evans, the man Mondesire is backing for mayor in 2007, was too “incompetent” to be the district's CEO.
These are the sorts of things one has to overlook to stay in fighting shape. Blacks, Mondesire is quick to point out, don't hold a monopoly on political backbiting.
“There are internecine warfares within the Jewish community, within the Irish community, within the Italian community. We African-Americans just have a way of always rushing to the TV cameras and the microphones to expose it all.”
It's three in the afternoon, and Mondesire is working on his third Knob Creek and Lipton tea in the dim haven of the Happy Rooster's bar. Forgive him this early happy hour; it's Thursday, and he's been up since well before dawn.
A week ago, Mondesire was fretting that his desire to serve in Congress may not be a sincere one.
“I'd have to go up on the pulpits of churches and tell people I want to represent them, when really I don't,” he said over lunch.
But today, the specter of a Fattah mayoralty, and the threat it poses to us all, is fresh in his mind.
“Chaka Fattah is dangerous,” he says. “He's a sole player. Sole as in S-O-L-E. His background is replete with failure. To allow an incompetent, gratuitous, self-effacing individual like Fattah to run without serious opposition … well, sometimes it takes crazy people like me to shout what others are afraid to whisper. This is the Battle of Jericho. We're the watchmen on the wall. I have stood up, and I am sounding the trumpet.”
Why, Jerry? The question seems to delight him.
“I've been watching this show Rome, on HBO. What made Brutus turn against Caesar? What made him do that? It was a mistress. Or take Bill and Monica. Why did she keep the dress? Was it a just a trophy? Some of history's most seminal moments are a mystery.”
The Rome analogy is a good one, and not just because it suggests the epic scale on which Mondesire views his latest feud. Like the Romans, black Philadelphia spent hundreds of years rising from dust to empire—a process that's favored leaders who know how to make war. Some have kept on fighting long after there's anything left to be won.