The Editors of This Magazine Are Wrong
I don't know many people who were as depressed as I was the morning after John Street won the mayoralty. Now, four years later, I'll be even more depressed if Sam Katz — endorsed by the editors of this magazine last month — beats him in the rematch.
What's changed since 1999? Not Street. I've changed. Over these past four years, Street has won my begrudging respect. More than any recent mayor, Street has taken huge risks with his popularity to fulfill the job's essential duties: to ensure public safety, improve the schools, manage city services and protect property values. He's simply done better than Ed Rendell, under more difficult circumstances, and there's every sign that Katz — who has already tied himself down with a pandering campaign promise to every swing constituency in the city — will do much worse.
Back in 1999, Ed Rendell was the only proof I had that Philadelphia even knew how to pick a good mayor, and to me, Rendell's style was his substance. His sheer likability and obsessive concern with not making enemies had brought the city together. Like a lot of people, I was afraid that John Street, so lacking in these qualities, would break it apart.
It wasn't until Street took office, however, that Rendell's gross sins of omission and weakness started to surface. All the heavy lifting Rendell left to his successor pointed out the real key to his success as a politician: Rendell's desire to do good has never eclipsed his need to look good.
Rendell couldn't summon the nerve to share control of the school district in a deal for more state money, so the schools remained rudderless and underfunded until Street came in and pulled the trigger. Rendell avoided towing away cars that were abandoned or owned by illegal drivers, kowtowing to the poverty pimps who cried that towing would be unfair to poor people. It was the same with shutting down open-air drug markets, tearing down abandoned houses, and staring down the carpenters who were holding the Convention Center hostage. Street rode herd wherever Ed had demurred.
Tackling these troubles head-on is chief among a mayor's duties. But it's also a guarantee you'll make enemies and put your political future in peril — not exactly Ed's bag. Once you consider that taxes, schools, crime and blight are the Four Horsemen of this city's Apocalypse, and that Street's record, despite a down economy, is as strong as or stronger than Rendell's on all four, you have to conclude Street is the better mayor.
This is hardly a popular perception, because what's missing in Street is Rendell's personal magnetism, his salesmanship, his scrupulous attention to his image and compulsive manipulation of the media. Street doesn't care about this stuff — which is precisely why he's been so effective. But it's also why he's got an even chance of losing this election.
Not that it has ever been an option for Street to play the role of affable salesman for the city. Let's get this much straight: Philadelphia would be the wrong room for that particular act. It's no coincidence that every successful African-American politician in this city is tightly wound and buttoned-down. A black man who talks like Rendell, eats like Rendell, and talks while he eats like Rendell would not be embraced as a lovable oaf. He'd be dismissed as an uncouth hustler.
So now Mayor Street faces a Katz campaign whose ranks are filled with losers whom Street told to get lost. Among them is Street's ex-friend Carl Singley, along with the firefighters' and carpenters' unions. All split with Street after the Mayor stood between their snouts and the public trough. With such paragons of probity at his side, Katz claims with a straight face that he will stamp out patronage.
The Katz campaign looks a lot like a run for mayor of Fantasy Island. Katz assures us he can cut the city budget by one percent every year, but won't say how. He wants to slash the wage tax and put a lid on property taxes, but to fill the hole in the budget, he promises only that thousands of new jobs will be drawn here by his irresistible mayoralty. He blames Street for the wage tax (which Street has cut), for budget deficits (bond agencies praise Street's “excellent fiscal management”), and for crime (which is lower than when Street took office).
Katz can twist Street's record because he has no public record of his own to defend. In between three tries at mayor in 12 years, he's been busy with investment deals, such as getting an Indian tribe to front for a new casino in California. Katz holds Street responsible when some low-level hack gets caught fixing tickets in the city's parking bureau. But where was Sam when his partner in that skating-rink venture siphoned off the investors' money? He denounces Street for “pinstripe patronage” while dashing off $10,000 in checks to Senator Rick Santorum, just to get his tribal-casino deal through Congress. When Sam Katz decries “pay-to-play” politics, the complaint is coming straight from a playa.
In the Katz for Mayor TV spots, the catchphrase has been “We can do better.” Well, we can also do worse. We can do worse than reelect a mayor who keeps his promises and refuses to make outlandish new ones. And we would indeed do worse if we traded in that mayor for a grab bag of empty promises spouting from an empty blue suit.