Who Saved John Street’s Career?

Frank Keel and David Axelrod battle over credit for surviving the 2003 FBI bugging scandal.

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Philadelphia political fixer Frank Keel has filed suit against strategist David Axelrod claiming it was he, not Axelrod, who came up with the strategy that saved John Street’s political career from an FBI probe during the 2003 mayor’s race.

Axelrod claimed credit for the strategy — which suggested that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was probing Street as a political power play — in his recently released memoirs, quoted last month in a Michael Smerconish column for the Inquirer.

“In an overwhelmingly Democratic town, a probe launched by the Republican Justice Department in Washington would surely be greeted with skepticism, perhaps even outrage. I called Burrell back. ‘We need to hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall and accuse John Ashcroft of trying to steal this election.’ When Street confronted reporters, frantic over the news, he came armed with a line I had written for him: ‘I’m happy to speak into a microphone I can see.’ ”

“Liberal whites, traditionally resistant to Street, decided any enemy of John Ashcroft’s was a friend of theirs,” writes Axelrod. “Sensing a looming injustice, an outraged African American community came out in large numbers to support Street, who defeated the Republican by 17 points.”

But Keel, in the lawsuit, says credit for the strategy — and Street’s legendary comeback — belongs to him:

Contrary to Axelrod’s account, it was Frank Keel’s crisis management services that game changed the 2003 Philadelphia mayoral election. It was unquestionably Keel, and not Axelrod, who was centrally responsible for implementing the strategy. Indeed, Axelrod, who was in Chicago during the critical time period, initially opposed Keel’s strategy — until events quickly demonstrated Keel’s strategy was working.

Keel is also suing Axelrod’s publisher, Penguin, and asking for damages in excess of $150,000. The full suit is below.