Bob Brady: The Maybe Mayor

Congressman Bob Brady made all of us wait and wait and then wait some more. What was all the indecision really about? And what kind of mayor would the Democratic big shot really be?

IT WAS TWO days before Christmas, and we were sitting in a booth at the Greenleaf Restaurant, a diner a few blocks from Bob Brady’s house in Overbrook, within the same square mile where most of his life has played out. I was trying to pin down the U.S. Congressman and chairman of the city’s Democratic Party on the question that for at least a month had been hanging over city politics like, depending on how you might feel about him, blue-black storm clouds gathering or blue-black storm clouds parting: Was he — or wasn’t he — running for mayor?

For his part, Bob Brady didn’t seem to realize that his protracted fence-sitting said a great deal about him, both personally and politically. At that moment, sitting in the Greenleaf just before the holidays, he seemed to be having trouble deciding anything — including whether or not he should order the French toast.

"I’m telling you, they have the best French toast in the world here," he said. José Feliciano was wishing us "Feliz Navidad" overhead; dishes and silverware were clanging. For the first half of our 80-minute interview, Brady, who is six feet, one inch tall and massive, had been sipping just coffee and water, fighting his temptation for the toast. He told me he was on a diet, as well he should be. His stomach is rotund, though firm and wonderfully shaped. It begins just below his large chest and stretches out and down at an angle of significant obtuseness.

But now he was clearly about to break. The next time the middle-aged waitress passed by, he grabbed her. "Listen, honey, I want my French toast, you sold me on that, the way you make it. But I don’t want the lettuce and tomato — I had enough of them. Get the toast."

But back to the other question at hand: Was he — or wasn’t he — running for mayor? And why, for that matter, all the secrecy, all the reticence, all the equivocation, about it?

He offered another non-answer: "I’m gonna sit down with" — that’s wit’, of course — "my family and some people over the holiday, and if I feel that I can better serve the people of Philadelphia" — blah blah blah.

His waffling seemed difficult to believe, given the events of late: his reported forcing out (read: screwing over) of his best friend, Jon Saidel, from the Democratic mayoral primary race this May, presumably to clear the way for his sizable self; a highly publicized fund-raiser the night before that raked in over half a mil; a staff clearly coalescing.

A minute later, though, an attractive young Hispanic woman with two children in tow suddenly approached our table.

"Congressman? Bob?" she called out politely. "Congressman Bob? How are you?"

Brady’s eyes lit up, and he began not so much standing as pulling his body up from the vinyl seat he was sticking to. "Hey honey, how you doin’? Hey, how you been, babe?"

He put his huge arms around her, kissing her on the cheek. "I hope the rumors are true," said the woman (who Brady later told me is a missionary from the neighborhood, and whose check he naturally picked up). "We need you," she said, "we need you."

Brady merely laughed. The woman persisted. "Are they true? Are they true?"

Brady lowered his voice, apparently thinking — wrongly — that he was far enough from my ears and my tape recorder. "Yeah," he said, "we’re gonna do this."

And so there I had it, the first semi-public moment of Bob Brady’s Yes I’m In!, though as I continued interviewing him, he maintained the charade of To Run Or Not To Run. The problem was — and he seemed unaware of this — playing Hamlet for so long hadn’t just exposed his doubts and how he, at the least, had seriously complicated Saidel’s mayoral bid. It has ramped up more important questions: Just what kind of mayor would Bob Brady be? He has the gift of down-home appeal, of connections here, in Harrisburg, in Washington. But can such a reluctant candidate be a good mayor? And with all this indecision, does he have a plan?

Another friend of his, Ed Rendell, wonders the same thing.

It takes a lot of work, the Governor tells me, to both understand the issues in Philadelphia and figure out your own policy and direction. "And there’s a question about the extent that Bob would be willing or able to do those things," Rendell says. "And would he be able to articulate his vision of where he wants to take this city to the people of the city? That’s extraordinarily important."

As Bob Brady cut away big chunks of French toast — swollen like sponges with the egg-and-milk batter, browned and glistening with butter, sprinkled with powdered sugar and swimming in syrup — it became clear just what he thinks the answer to those questions is: him.

BOB BRADY DOES HAVE A charisma, an aura even, that is unusual and somewhat ineffable and typically very helpful in politics — "Rendellian," some call him — though his charm is uniquely and organically Philadelphian. A former union carpenter and onetime welfare recipient turned driver for a city councilman turned Philly Democratic Party godfather turned one of the most powerful men in the U.S. Capitol, Brady is already something of a Philly political fairy tale. Becoming mayor would serve as the penultimate chapter — the opening salvo of a grand finale — to his story.

For Brady, who at the diner would introduce me to the neighborhood undertaker with the personal pronoun "our," the few blocks around 75th and Haverford are the prism through which his entire life can be viewed. He recalls his working-class childhood in almost idyllic terms — playing stickball and boxball in the streets till the sky darkened and parents came to their stoops to call; sparring with his old buddy Joe Frazier (who attended Brady’s fund-raiser); shooting hoops with Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, whom Brady brags about having held to 65 points during one game. He is the oldest of three brothers, their father a DRPA cop on the Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin bridges who died at 53, his mom a homemaker who went to work at Penn Fruit supermarket and became checker of the year. After graduating from St. Thomas More High in 1963, Brady became a carpenter. (His younger brothers went a different route, via college, with which Brady would eventually help them financially, one earning a doctorate in finance, the other becoming a judge here.)

But city construction work dried up in the ’70s. Brady found himself unemployed, with a wife and two kids. He picked up odd jobs, but couldn’t make ends meet. More than once the PGW guy came to shut off the heat in their rowhome. Sometimes, after inviting the guy in to have a highball or two, Brady got a reprieve. Sometimes he didn’t.

Early married life on the edge gives Brady a mayoral vision that’s both large and vague: "If I can’t do anything, I gotta eliminate people feeling that way" — not knowing how they’re going to provide for their kids. "Black, white, pink or green, orange, big ones, small. Them little kids don’t have a right to feel that way. That’s gotta get fixed."

For Brady, fate intervened in the form of City Council president George Schwartz, for whom Brady did some odd carpentry work. Schwartz got him a job as Council sergeant of arms, meaning Brady essentially became Schwartz’s driver. Eventually he became Wilson Goode’s deputy mayor of labor. By that time, he’d become well-known — and maybe more important, well-liked — among diverse groups of city Democrats. In 1984, he ran for Democratic Party chairman, and won. In one fell swoop, Brady became one of the most powerful men in Philadelphia, king of the only real party in town. It’s a job he’s relished for the past 22 years.

In 1997, Brady easily won the First Congressional District seat, becoming the only white member of Congress to represent a majority minority district. He has used his position as party chairman back in Philly to leverage considerable influence beyond the city, given that any pol with presidential aspirations knows his support is vital to carrying Pennsylvania; it was Bob Brady whom Vice President Al Gore famously sought out during a rare visit to the House floor as he prepared to run for president in 2000. The Democratic leadership named Brady a senior whip in 2002, an important position that had him rallying the troops to vote with the caucus and enabled him to get to know — and endear himself to — nearly every other Democrat in Congress.

But making it so far doesn’t particularly impress Brady, who has made the 135-mile trip back home almost every night he’s been in Congress: "Somebody had said that they wrote their mother, ‘I’m in Congress. How did I get here?’ And then three weeks later they wrote her again and said, ‘Mom, I don’t know how they got here.’ That’s me. All right? I was told that I was going to get this major thrill and all that. I haven’t got it yet."

STILL, THE CONSENSUS OF OPINION until late November was that even though his name had come up among the potential mayoral candidates since the day John Street was re-elected, Bob Brady would not run for mayor. Even Governor Rendell weighed in, speculating in the press that the "lifestyle" issue would keep him out. This enraged Brady, who read the comment to mean Rendell thought he was lazy. Though Rendell says he won’t endorse any candidate, conventional wisdom has it he’s behind Congressman Chaka Fattah. Brady has taken notice: "It was okay when I sat out there and supported him under some duress times. It was okay when I sat out there and stood in front of the Convention Center, one of three people, when he was 29 points behind running against Bob Casey. … " Of the lifestyle comment, Brady said specifically: "When I worked with Ed Rendell, I put him to bed every night and woke him up in the morning. Ed Rendell don’t know what he’s talking about. Ed Rendell called me and apologized for that remark."

But it seems that Brady has misconstrued Rendell’s point. Rendell, like many others, meant the lifestyle issue as something broader, a means of expressing his difficulty reconciling why a man with so much political influence and success — Rendell calls him "one of the top three or four or five politicians in Pennsylvania, and one of the top 25 in Congress" — would want to risk it all, particularly given that Philadelphia mayoral races are hugely unpredictable and often bruising demonstrations of injustice. Put more plainly: He could lose. Lose not only the mayoralty, but along with it his power and influence — in short, everything. Which helps explain Brady’s bizarre conduct these past few weeks, his evasiveness and frequent flip-flopping about whether he really wants to run.

And his apparent steamrolling of "best friend" Jon Saidel, whose own commitment to running back in November seemed absolute. Saidel had quit his job after 16 years as City Controller to be eligible, had raised more than a million dollars, and, at the end of the month, opened a campaign headquarters near his home in Northeast Philly, an event at which he delivered impassioned remarks calling for a new day in this city.

Suddenly, a few days later, Saidel quit the race. His campaign floated the utterly unconvincing reason that he had realized running would zap his already dwindling personal finances. A source close to Saidel paints an ugly picture of what really happened:

Brady summoned Saidel to his office the Monday before Thanksgiving. There, Brady, who had for many months intimated to Saidel and most others that he wasn’t interested in running, asked Saidel to get out of the race. Saidel had been feeling some breath on his back for a while by then, with State Senator Vince Fumo — who is extremely close to Brady — and those close to Fumo doing everything they could to cut off Saidel’s fund-raising. Feeling betrayed and resigned, Saidel acquiesced.

The next day, Saidel was summoned to Fumo’s mansion in Fairmount. Accounts of that meeting vary wildly, but the point of it seems to have been to allow Saidel to bow out without looking stupid. It has been reported that an offer was discussed about Rendell naming Saidel to take over newly elected U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s job as state treasurer, but Rendell denies he was ever contacted about that.

According to the Saidel source, the next day, Brady, either pathologically indecisive or trying out for a role in Hamlet, called Saidel and said he’d suffered a sleepless night and had decided not to run. Saidel said, "Fine, I am." But over the next few days, Saidel kept hearing that Brady was running. Saidel donors began backing out of a major upcoming fund-raiser. "The Fumo people had been actively calling Jon’s donors," says the Saidel confidant. "People were saying not only would they make sure that he wouldn’t win the race, but that he’d have trouble finding work in Philadelphia, period."

Brady denied this categorically, and even being asked about it made him visibly angry. "Jon is home right now with a cold pack across his tummy," he said at the diner. "He had a hernia operation yesterday. And I talked to him yesterday and I talked to him in the hospital, and I’m going to see him late tonight. Jon Saidel’s my dearest friend in the world. He’s going to be my driver, my confidant, my David L. Cohen, my pillow to cry on, my crutch to crutch on, Jon’s my friend, I don’t have many." Judging by the fact that Saidel and Brady are again apparently speaking regularly, it would seem their relationship is on the mend. Still, Saidel has refused to discuss Brady in public, and would not comment for this story.

Regardless of particulars, Brady bungled the way he entered the race. The Saidel incident revealed something profound about Brady’s character: that his blood was capable of going cold. And his press got ugly on another front; Jerry Mondesire, the leader of Philly’s NAACP, a longtime Brady supporter and now behind black mayoral candidate Dwight Evans, said Saidel’s exit was an orchestrated attempt by Fumo and others to posit Brady as the "white candidate of choice," and marked "a betrayal of the legacy of racial harmony that [Brady] promised a decade ago when he went to Congress."

Bringing up the allegations by Mondesire and other black leaders back at the Greenleaf got Brady pointing at me with his fork as he rifled off the number of blacks working with him and bragged about the close relationship he’s always enjoyed with the black community. It’s surprising that Brady seems to have little perspective on this — that he can’t acknowledge that all’s fair in love, war and politics. And consider the way Brady himself played the race card during the Katz-Street campaign in 2003, when Brady consistently peddled the idea that the bugging of John Street’s office was a conspiracy on the part of white Republicans in Washington. Brady later told a writer for this magazine, "Nah, I was just spinning the shit. And it worked."

The handling of the "Saidel issue" may be a harbinger of rocky roads to come. Philly mayoral veterans Sam Katz and Rendell say Brady should be ready for a campaign of a rigor and magnitude he’s never experienced before. Which brings us back to Rendell’s crucial questions:

Will Bob Brady be able to formulate his own policy and direction? And will he be able "to articulate his vision of where he wants to take this city to the people of the city?"

IT’S A QUESTION, IN SHORT, of what kind of mayor Bob Brady would be.

When I pressed Brady about the major issues confronting the city, he was, once again, light on substance. Perhaps, given that I talked to him before he announced his candidacy, he hadn’t thought the problems through. On the issue of the slot parlors on the river: He’s for the casinos, but also for the people of the neighborhoods, who are largely in opposition. On the issue of more jobs: He’s for them, but offers no ideas about how more can be created. When we get to the most pressing issue of all — the gun violence in this city that is claiming, on average, more than one life a day — Brady at first offered nothing but more empty bubbles: More cops are needed, and there are too many guns on the streets.

But then he reminded me that late last fall, he organized two summits here on the murder epidemic, bringing together a large group of people from across the city to offer up reasons for why it’s happening and ways it might be stopped. Participants included Mayor Street, District Attorney Lynne Abraham, the U.S. Attorney, the police commissioner, several city judges, leaders of the black clergy, and leaders from the statehouse.

"And guess what?" Brady said. "At the end of the first meeting, they were extremely comfortable. And they kept dialoguing — who’s gonna do this, do that, the what, the where. And the second meeting, they responded back to what they already talked about. We’re waiting to find out where we’re at with the legislature to try to put some laws on the books to get some things done." And then Brady told me this: that for most of the participants — all important players in Philadelphia’s well-being — it was not only the first time they’d ever been in a room together, but the first time they’d met. I wondered how that was possible.

"What the hell do I know?" he said. "It’s stoopid. And I’m gonna make sure that never happens again."

Still, many political observers argue that to be effective, Brady must, like Richard Nixon when he went to China, repackage himself: "The central question," Sam Katz says, "is whether he’s going to be Bob Brady, the political boss, who’s going to be that kind of mayor. Or whether he’s going to try to be different."

But maybe Bob Brady’s actually right for the job just the way he is. Certainly he carries baggage from a long legacy as godfather of The Machine. But he also carries with him important connections from Philly to Harrisburg to D.C. and back again, and an unusual willingness to admit that he might not know the answers, but that he’ll bring people together who can find them. In a practical way, he could, for example, like the ultra-anti-communist Nixon visiting China, use his chops as a dyed-in-the-wool union guy to force unions to make some concessions and thereby make doing business with the city more palatable and less costly. Isn’t that, in its own way, a sort of policy?

Because position papers and laws alone won’t solve a lot of our problems. Like the murder epidemic, which Brady believes we have to see — and treat — at its roots: the desperation and emptiness many living in poverty assume are an intractable reality. "Hope, hope, hope," he said. "Gotta give people hope. Hey — maybe me running around being a guy who was unemployed at one time, maybe that says, It could happen to me. Maybe it could happen to you. To me, that’s what hope is."

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