Philadelphia's Electoral Surprises

June 01, 1991

Elections in Philadelphia, Baltimore's northern neighbor, often produce a cast of characters which make other cities' elections seem lackluster. Look at the sampling in the May 21 mayoral primary:

* Republican Frank L. Rizzo, a police chief who served two mayoral terms in the 1970s and made "spacco il capo" -- knock their heads -- a household phrase. Mr. Rizzo, 70, failed to change a two-term mayoral limit in 1978, then sat out a term before losing twice to W. Wilson Goode. He is a Democrat-turned-Republican and barely squeezed ahead of former District Attorney Ron Castille, who had the GOP endorsement, by 968 votes.

* Edward Rendell, 47, another former district attorney, who outran two black candidates in a Democratic Party which counts 51,000 more black voters than whites. Mr. Rendell, who beat former City Councilman Lucien Blackwell nearly 2-1 and former Deputy Mayor George Burrell 3-1, ran surprisingly well in black wards and has promised to clean up the city's finances.

Mr. Blackwell, 59, a longshoreman who was able to humiliate Mayor Goode in city budget debates, had run for mayor before. He blamed Rep. William Gray, D-Pa., who backed Mr. Burrell, for splitting the black vote. But Mr. Burrell, a former pro football player and councilman, suffered embarrassing disclosures about bad debts and unusual tax deductions. Another Democratic candidate, attorney Peter Hearn, spent $400,000 on TV ads early, then faded after having established himself.

In the Republican contest, Mr. Castille has yet to concede defeat, pending a recount of 50 disputed precincts. Mr. Castille, a Vietnam veteran, once worked in prosecutor Rendell's office and won the top job himself as a Republican alternative to Mayor Goode's candidate after the MOVE firebombing. But Mr. Castille had embarrassing incidents with alcohol and firearms that Mr. Rizzo exploited effectively. The deciding factor, though, might have been the third GOP candidate, Sam Katz, who cut into Mr. Castille's base as Frank Rizzo was clobbering him among blue-collar ethnics.

In Philadelphia, as in Baltimore, a Democratic primary can be the ball game. Democrats outnumber the GOP 5-2 among the city's 900,000 voters, and it should be noted that Mr. Rizzo has an uncanny ability to bring out black voters who loathe his long-remembered tough-cop stance. But expect surprises. It's part of the Philly tradition.

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