In Philly, gaffes close the gap

Campaign: After a series of bizarre political blunders, the city's Democratic mayor finds himself in a tight race.

October 02, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Political operatives here seem out to prove that California does not have a lock on political nuttiness this election season.

In one of the tightest races under way in the country, longtime Democratic insider and incumbent Mayor John F. Street faces Republican Sam Katz, a financial adviser, in a rematch of a 1999 race that Street won by less than 2 percentage points.

Anyone merely glancing at the headlines might think the election is about a string of Street gaffes and dirty tricks allegedly perpetrated by his minions:

An unlighted Molotov cocktail was found at a Republican campaign office. A senior city employee was charged with threatening the landlord. Street posed for a photo with a T-shirt vendor who is also a convicted drug dealer and praised his entrepreneurial spirit. The wife of the mayor's top aide used her maiden name and a fake address to write letters to the editor denigrating Katz. And Street's top political consultant e-mailed a Katz supporter in the spring, calling Street a "bad manager" and suggesting ways Katz should attack his record.

"It's Philadelphia," says political analyst Larry Ceisler. "Things that are considered bizarre in the rest of the country are just normal occurrences here. We are immune to the bizarre."

"Halloween came early this year," agrees Ken Smukler, a Philadelphia-area political analyst.

The race is being watched across the country for its potential effect on the 2004 presidential election.

Pennsylvania, a swing state, is so crucial to presidential politics that Bush has visited 22 times since his inauguration, more than any other state. (He put in a plug for Katz during a recent stop at a fund-raiser in nearby Drexel Hill.)

Democrats worry that a Katz victory Nov. 4 would give Republicans a stronghold in the state and help Bush win the state's bounty of 21 electoral votes. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and other prominent Democrats are expected to make appearances here on behalf of Street in the near future.

"All you have to do is think back to the year 2000 ... to understand how important this race is in the national context," says David Axelrod, a consultant to Street and to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

"Gore won by a handful of votes, and he achieved that largely through the efforts of Mayor Street. I think [Bush adviser] Karl Rove and the Republicans would love to wrest City Hall away. In a state so closely divided, anything that gives you an edge can tip the balance."

Though Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said recently that a Katz victory would be the first step to a Bush victory, the message makes things tricky for Katz, a liberal Republican in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-1.

Katz is working hard to court traditionally Democratic voters and is avoiding ties to Bush; he was out of town when Bush attended the Drexel Hill fund-raiser and sent his wife, Connie, in his place.

As much as the Democrats want to broadcast that a vote for Katz is a vote for Bush, Ceisler says, people here aren't thinking about national politics in a mayoral race. It has been more than 50 years since the city elected a Republican mayor.

A recent poll has Katz ahead, 46 to 40, but it has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points. The results of the poll, by KYW radio and television and Temple University, show that Katz has gained far more backing among black voters - 14 percent - than in 1999, when he had 7 percent.

Street brushes aside the controversies surrounding his campaign, saying they won't affect voting choices.

"There's a whole lot of noise around the edges," Street says. "But people in this city are very smart. We always underestimate them. At the end of the day they're going to vote their self-interest."

Ceisler agrees that the campaign antics are just a distraction, but said, "What hurts the Street campaign is that every day that John Street has to talk about some problem in his campaign is a day lost because it's a day he can't talk about what he's doing for the city of Philadelphia ... and it's a day that Sam Katz doesn't have to talk about the issues. Sam Katz is having a field day with this."

Street grew up on a family farm near Philadelphia, worked as a laborer and street vendor and then, after talking his way into Temple law school, became an attorney in private practice. He was a 1960s radical and local gadfly who - with his brother, former state legislator Milton Street - tormented city officials by organizing raucous demonstrations on behalf of vendors who wanted to peddle their goods on city sidewalks with minimal restrictions.

He had a long tenure on the City Council, elected five times and named council president, but his most famous moment was his 1981 brawl with two fellow council members in which he wrestled one of them to the ground.

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