The Firefighters Can’t Recall Mayor Michael Nutter Because Frank Rizzo Said So

A look at the battle to recall Philadelphia's mayor in the 1970s.

Philadelphia’s mayors are used to a bit of razzing, good-natured or otherwise, when they’re in public. But Michael Nutter got more than an earful last week from firefighters. About 200 descended on the opening of a new firehouse in Tacony to protest the mayor in the ongoing contract dispute between the two sides. But Local 22 spokesman Frank Keel said the protest was only a first step: The firefighters were going to start a drive to recall the mayor. “They’re serious about it,” Keel told KYW Newsradio 1060 last week, “and the effort is going to begin today.”

It was short-lived. Turns out Philadelphia’s mayor cannot be recalled, a result of a court decision when Philadelphians attempted to recall Frank Rizzo in the 1970s.

Rizzo was a polarizing figure in his day—and maybe even still, if the neutrality check on his Wikipedia page is any indication. Rizzo was the police chief who said he’d “make Attila the Hun look like a fag” and guy who was praised just last year as “the true-life Captain America.” Hmm.

Rizzo may be remembered positively for his regular-guy streak–say, picking up an elderly man in his limo and taking him to church—or negatively for his treatment of minority groups, but the heart of the Rizzo recall attempt was a campaign promise he made while running for re-election in 1975: “Taxes won’t be raised next year, and as long as I’m the mayor there’ll never be a city employee laid off.”

Whoops. Rizzo ended up proposing the layoffs of 900 employees and a tax increase of almost 30 percent. The Citizens Committee to Recall Rizzo formed, in part led by Charles Bowser, who lost to the mayor in the previous November’s election. Rizzo laughed it off—”voters like Mickey Mouse, Al Capone and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” were among the petitioners, the mayor joked—but the Recall Rizzo movement collected 211,970 signatures.

It was on.

And then it was off.

The City Commissioners, two of whom supported Rizzo, were strict on the signatures. If, say, Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt were to have signed the petition “Mike Schmidt” but was registered to vote under Michael J. Schmidt, his signature would be thrown out. This test reduced that number to just under 89,000, meaning the petition was well short of the 145,448 needed to force a recall.

So that’s it, right? Please. This is Philadelphia.

The petitioners challenged the ruling, and Judge David Savitt of the Common Pleas Court put the petition back on the ballot. Rizzo was furious. He blamed political enemies. “I knew that Judge Savitt was positive to rule against me regardless of what the facts of law were because he is one of my political enemies and has been… since day one,” Rizzo told the Associated Press (PDF). Rizzo was also scared: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Rizzo would turn the city’s Democratic machine against Jimmy Carter in November unless he had the then-presidential candidate’s backing.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to that point. Rizzo appealed to the Supreme Court, and they tossed out the ballot question. Though the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter subjects every elected official to a recall process, the court threw out 115,818 signatures because they were notarized by people associated with the recall movement. “As a matter of basic fairness, as well as proper performance of the judicial function, the court’s action deserves no better mark than a failing grade,” Jefferson B. Fordham wrote in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

It didn’t really even end there, though. Almost a decade later in 1987, former Rizzo Recallers gathered to “cast a critical eye” on Rizzo’s terms as mayor. Rizzo was running against Wilson Goode in that year’s election and, for his part, Rizzo couldn’t believe no one made an organized effort to recall Wilson Goode after the MOVE bombing. “The first question I would like ’em to ask… Why didn’t they recall Wilson Goode after he caused the death of 11 people?” Rizzo told the Daily News. “These are the so-called truth seekers, and 11 people died, and half the city got burned down. Why didn’t they recall Goode when they did that?”

Rizzo lost that election, of course, and died before he could face Ed Rendell in the 1991 mayoral election. But he lives on in tales of Philadelphia’s past and, of course, Jerky Boys prank calls.