Almost everyone agrees that single-party Democratic rule, like the Republican rule that preceded it, is bad for democracy, is bad for Philadelphia, and is bad for the party itself. 

Britain’s Lord Acton said it best: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

Long decades of Philadelphia Republican excesses starting in 1884 were followed by decades of Democratic excesses. The brilliance of Joe Clark, elected as a Democratic reformer in 1952, followed by the patrician noblesse oblige of Richardson Dilworth, then yielded to party lug nut Jim Tate and the divisive Frank Rizzo. 

With Democratic hegemony approaching 70 years, this is an appropriate moment to examine the flash of starlight when the city which is known as the cradle of democracy seemed poised to move out from the penumbra of the Democratic Party machine. 

Long decades of Philadelphia Republican excesses starting in 1884 were followed by decades of Democratic excesses.

This is the context that documentarian Tigre Hill covers in his superb film, The Shame of a City, available to stream online at Broad + Liberty

The Shame of a City

It was the Year of Our Lord 2003. It was a new century. The city had survived Y2K (remember that?) and still was floating on giddy optimism lofted by Mayor Ed Rendell. 

After losing by half a whisker — 49.52% to 49.12% — to Democratic Councilman John F. Street four years earlier, Republican businessman Sam Katz saw a path to victory against Street, immortally tagged as “prickly” by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick. Street understood city government and just what the hell is hidden in the budget like nobody else, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly. 

“The Shame of City,” the 2006 documentary by Tigre Hill, available to stream now.

He was unpopular. Even though Katz was a Republican, he was popular (because he was a Democrat at heart). 

Adopting a false flag is not unknown in Philadelphia politics. One-time Republican Tom Foglietta became a Democratic congressman and eventually U.S. ambassador to Italy. Democrat Frank Rizzo turned Republican to run for mayor (after having been a two-term mayor as a Democrat). U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter switched from Democrat to Republican early in his career, and then turned from the GOP to run unsuccessfully as a Democrat. State legislator Joe Rocks was a weathervane, switching from Republican to Democrat and back again while serving in the Pennsylvania House and Senate. 

As the 2003 campaign developed, polls showed Katz nursing a small lead over Street, both of whom were centrists (Street was the last victorious Democrat to occupy the middle lane in Philadelphia politics). Katz promised clean government and an end to “pay to play.” Many observers talked about the campaign being played against the backdrop of race, which always figures into Philadelphia politics. It had been a truism that if two blacks ran against a white, the white would win; and if two whites ran again a black, the black would win. Simple vote-splitting racial mathematics. 

With Democratic hegemony approaching 70 years, this is an appropriate moment to examine the flash of starlight when the city which is known as the cradle of democracy seemed poised to move out from the penumbra of the Democratic Party machine. 

The mayoral race plodded along until a month before Election Day. That’s when an FBI listening device was discovered, or perhaps revealed, in the ceiling of the mayor’s office above his desk. It had been there for a year and a half, planted by the feds first probing drugs, then expanding into corruption. “Oh my God! The Feds! Memories of Abscam! Street is doomed!” So said the knee-jerk pundits. City Democratic chief Bob Brady believed this could be “positively damaging” to Street, I reported at the time. I thought the opposite. 

I saw it as a rally ‘round the flag moment: The black community and liberals would close ranks to protect “their mayor” from “The Man.” Democrats rushed in the big guns, from Al Gore to Jesse Jackson to James Carville, to say that it was the George W. Bush administration “going after” Philadelphia’s black mayor. They lied, demagogued, and race-baited. 

And it worked. Street won by a larger margin than in 1999. All this is reporting from the outside, the skin of the banana. The remarkable achievement of documentarian Tigre Hill’s “The Shame of a City” was getting inside the banana. It is all cinematography, with no narrator other than interviews with the people involved. It is an engrossing tragi-comedy, and is well worth a read as we approach even more chaotic politics in the run-up to 2020. 


Epilogue 

After that election, 27 Philadelphians went to jail for corruption and other charges — but not Street, even though the federal prosecutor said he enabled the “pay to play” culture around him. 

In 2007, then-City Councilman Michael Nutter ran for mayor as a reformer using “The Shame of a City” as a fund-raising tool, beating two white and two black candidates with less than 40% of the primary vote. In the general election, he crucified Republican doormat Al Taubenberger. Katz was the last competitive Republican to run city-wide, and the party has been relegated to a sectional one, occupying district seats in the far Northeast exclusively.

In the 2015, Councilman Jim Kenney broke the mayoral racial math. Running as a progressive against three black candidates, a white woman and an Hispanic male, Kenney collected 55% of the vote, more than his competitors combined. His victory yanked Philly further left, opening the door to the 2017 election of anti-cop criminal defense attorney (branded as “civil rights lawyer) Larry Krasner as District Attorney

In 2016, chief Street defender Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah went to federal prison on corruption charges. He was followed into the slammer by Democratic D. A. Seth Williams for extortion. They joined a host of others convicted in earlier years. 

In 2019, Republicans lost one of the two At-Large City Council seats they had held.

In the era Tigre Hill is covering, Philadelphia had a 4-1 Democratic registration advantage in 2003. It is 7-1 today. Philadelphia is arguably the bluest major city in the nation and not even “The Shame of a City” slowed that.


Stu Bykofsky was a columnist for decades at the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2019.

2 thoughts on “Stu Bykofsky: A veteran Daily News columnist remembers an election that almost upset Philly’s political order”

  1. I don’t understand why Sam Katz just couldn’t stay away from saying “Where there’s smoke there’s fire?” He came off too republican after that & Brian Tierney basically was psychotic in thinking turnout was going to win this election. The fear that George W. Bush was gaining too much power & Phila was a buttress against Republicans being able to deliver Pa in Presidential election. Mayor Kenney is the first mayor to fail getting the vote out.

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