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Race is not Street’s big problem

In a recent Inquirer column, Acel Moore proclaimed that a major factor in the closeness of this year’s race for mayor is race. He finds that it defies "political logic" that incumbent Street is no better than 50-50 to beat challenger Sam Katz.

For good measure, Moore tosses in a quote from U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah that if Street were a white mayor with the same personality flaws but the same record of accomplishment, no Republican opponent would be close to beating him.

I’m not here to tell you there aren’t white voters in Philadelphia who won’t vote for an African-American for mayor. But surely seasoned observers of the local political scene such as Moore and Fattah know that race cuts two ways in these parts. It is fact that in both elections involving Wilson Goode and the election four years ago that elected Street as mayor, there were more white people voting for the African-American candidate than African Americans voting for the white candidate.

And please, not all of these votes portray some kind of bigotry. Many black voters reacted with pride at the opportunity to elect an African American as mayor of one of the largest cities in America. And there were white voters, myself included, who voted for Goode the first time around, who could not forgive his bungling of the MOVE incident, and who did not then and don’t think now that John Street’s first term gives him a right to a second term in office.

Have Moore and Fattah forgotten just who it was that injected race into this campaign? It wasn’t Sam Katz who made the now-infamous remark about the brothers and sisters running this city. That was not a slip of the tongue by Street, a canny politician. It was an effort to remind African Americans in this city that he has put blacks in positions of authority to govern Philadelphia during his first term. The only problem is that Street did not tell the truth.

Shortly after his remark, Acel Moore’s Inquirer ran an article showing that the Rendell administration did a better job of rewarding qualified African Americans than did John Street. And Street knew it when he made the remark. His was a blatant appeal to race, a cynical ploy to keep his base of support from eroding.

Let me turn around Chaka Fattah’s remark. If John Street were a white mayor, would his record make him a shoo-in to win reelection? Let’s look at history. James Tate was a white mayor running for a second term against then-District Attorney Arlen Specter. Tate was a lousy mayor, a second-rate political hack. The only way he beat Specter was to guarantee that Frank Rizzo would continue as his police commissioner, a guarantee that Specter was unwilling to make. Specter lost by 10,000 votes.

Street is not a political hack, but he surrounds himself with political cronies. His feuds with Council, both white and black members, are legendary. His autocratic style has hurt the ability of his administration to work with Council to solve the post-Rendell challenges that face Philadelphia. What John Street has going for him is race. He needs to maintain his solid base, overwhelmingly African American, in order to survive Katz’s latest challenge.

But that solid base may be cracking. His one-time buddy, Carl Singley, has broken with him and is supporting Katz. His supporters are more politically sophisticated than Street gives them credit for. They are matching Street’s promises against his record of accomplishments in their neighborhoods.

Street knows that in order to win, he must not only keep the white liberal votes in Center City, but keep his base from hemorrhaging. And that erosion is why the early polls show that John Street is in danger of making local history as an incumbent who lost reelection.

Moore makes the problem look as if the upcoming election is all about race, and he’s not focusing on the issues. But the issues are complex, and they are not so clear-cut in favor of Street, hence the close election. The Katz challenge is healthy for a city that has strictly been a one-party town for all of our lives. We need a viable challenge to the Democratic incumbents on the entire ticket, who too often take us for granted. Street too often operates as if he rules by the divine right of kings instead of at the behest of our citizens.

The first campaign between Street and Katz was remarkably free of racial politics, and there is no reason to believe that won’t be true this time around, Acel Moore and Chaka Fattah notwithstanding.

Tom Cardella is a former campaign worker for Sam Katz.

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