Vision Revision

After he was reelected in November, John Street gave every appearance of being the lamest of ducks. He was under federal investigation, had alienated some voters by playing the race card, and had failed to give even supporters much to get excited about. But Street quickly made one thing clear: To get a good idea of what he would do in the next four years, all you had to do was disregard what he'd said during the campaign. He spent 2003 promising to stay the course, and then began 2004 by unveiling a where-did-that-come-from $500 million economic development fund. The small candidate wants to be a big mayor.

During the campaign, Street rarely talked about the future. He offered no new ideas, and only disdain for those who suggested a candidate ought to. He was most engaged when attacking Sam Katz's proposed tax cut, which Street said would require city employee layoffs. (He essentially criticized Katz for presenting an economic development plan for a city that couldn't afford it.) “Basic campaign strategy is, you do what you have to do to get elected, not [to] please editorial boards,” says former Street adviser Dan Fee.

In December, Street belatedly announced a transition team formally charged with developing policy initiatives. Then, in his inaugural address, he proclaimed, “I'm not finished!” and started defying expectations. He spoke like a true reformer launching an assault on the city's political culture, attacking pay-to-play and “destructive partisan bickering.” He said a significant amount of his time would go to an “Economic Development Capital Fund which will allow us to invest in our most precious physical assets, our waterfront and our newly created nti opportunities!” (Exclamation points are the abstemious Mayor's rare indulgence.) Street offered the idea as something of a lark: no numbers, no specifics, no clear idea of where the money would come from or where it would go. In short, he did just what he'd criticized Katz for doing.

Days later, Street floated some bombshell solutions to the where-does-the-money-come-from dilemma: cutting the city payroll, and selling off the airport and gas works. These were off the table during the campaign; powerful unions have made reconsidering government's scope the third rail of Philadelphia politics. (The threat of selling assets might be just a ploy to use in contract negotiations with city employees this spring.) That wasn't the only retreat from his campaign message: After running a fall race largely on the idea that all Republicans are evil, Street settled a turf war with fellow Democrats by giving Republican Brian O'Neill unprecedented power over City Council's operations.

It's not unreasonable to charge Street with hypocrisy, but the real surprise is such willingness to bend from a politician whose defining trait is stubbornness. Above all, he is showing a capacity for growth in his second term, where political enterprise usually goes to die. He is now doing all the things — putting together teams of high-profile policy advisers, appealing to lofty if unreachable ideals, deliriously dangling grand plans without talking about how to pay for them — that candidates do during campaigns, and then quickly forget about once they win. Street has inverted the typical election-season bait-and-switch. The city may have gotten a mayor more visionary than the one it elected.