The Local Lens
• Wed, Feb 18, 2015
By Thom Nickels
The race for mayor has forced me to look over the field of candidates, as well as to ponder which person would be good for Philadelphia.
I wrote about Terry Gillen in this column before she dropped out of the race because of fundraising problems. It was unfortunate that this had to happen, as I genuinely liked Gillen despite the fact that many found her style to be formalistic and tight. At a small fundraiser I attended for her in Society Hill, I did notice that her campaign aides had a tight-lipped, robotic manner as if they were afraid to be too natural or animated.
Recently, I was found myself at another ‘meet the candidate’ night when I received an invite to attend Ken Trujillo’s State of the Union party in Center City. Trujillo, a former city solicitor, used President Obama’s speech as his campaign kick-off.
The Trujillo crowd was composed of mostly twenty-something people; this surprised me because I expected greater diversity in terms of age. Attendees nibbled on delicious thin crust pizza, soft pretzels and craft beer. Everyone seemed pretty excited to be there.
President Obama lorded over the party crowd on a big screen TV. As the president drove home certain points during the State of the Union– and the television cameras focused on John Boehner’s crestfallen face– the crowd went wild. Obama, obviously, was their hero. Meanwhile, I rank myself as a lukewarm Obama supporter, my opinion growing colder after the President’s disastrous Crusades comment.
When Trujillo addressed the crowd, he surprised me when he said he was happy there weren’t any old people present. Obviously he didn’t see me in the crowd, unless I was the notable exception. Trujillo explained that political campaigns mean nothing and never get very far without the support of young people.
I’ve heard this sentiment before. When Eugene McCarthy ran for President in 1968, almost every smart young person in the country was pro-Eugene. McCarthy, however, lost in a landslide. The so called young vote had proven to be a liability.
At Trujillo headquarters, the heavily partisan crowd applauded much of what Obama said. It was much like all partisan crowds, Republican or Democrat, when the applause is as predicable as canned laughter.
While observing the crowd, I was reminded of the ideological loyalty I witnessed at the start of the Iraq War when I listened to a George W. Bush speech calling for an invasion of that country. I recalled attending a party at my sister’s house when I let a mild objection slip and the guests slowly turned and looked at me in a censorious way. Likewise, during the State of the Union speech, when a man in the back seemed to take issue with something Obama said he was subject to a collective stare.
The day after his party, Ken Trujillo withdrew from the mayor’s race, citing family issues but not going into specifics. What happened in the twelve hours between the end of the party and the fateful email from his campaign the next morning is any one’s guess.
Whatever happened, there were no "young people" to save him.
Continuing with the mayoral theme, a friend of mine, Riv, who happens to be black, told me that he thinks the city needs a white mayor this time around.
"The racial pendulum has to swing back," he said, "It will be good for the city. It’s a healthy thing to do."
My other black friend (we were three friends having lunch) agreed with Riv’s sentiment. Both friends discounted Anthony Williams, mostly because of Williams’ controversial and allegedly corrupt father, Hardy Williams, whose city legacy is anything but good.
"Is there an elected position Mr. Williams won’t run for?" one comment on Philly.com asked. "Other than former [retired] city employees, he doesn’t have to risk his other job to run for Mayor. And if he loses, he’s just raised his recognition factor. Only Jim Kenney has the most to lose by putting his money where his mouth is, resigning a cushy City Council job to run for Mayor. I just wonder what Williams thinks he can accomplish as Mayor, working ‘with’ city council is something he couldn’t do when he was part of the same City Council."
The three of us agreed that Jim Kenney is probably the best candidate and certainly a safer bet than the venerable Lynne Abraham who, as District Attorney, almost gave the police too much power and neglected to pursue police misconduct cases when they surfaced.
Riv pointed out that if Abraham were elected she would be Mayor Rizzo in drag. He was referring to the hard time that minorities had on the streets of the city when Rizzo was mayor. While it’s true that Rizzo’s obsession with law and order had its good points– and while it’s also true that he was very charming if you found yourself in his company; he once put his arm around me and invited me to lunch despite my writing not so flattering things about him in a Center City newspaper— he did overstep his bounds when it came to allowing the police to do pretty much what they wanted to do.
During the Rizzo administration, black and gay friends of mine were routinely rounded up on the streets and put in the back of police wagons for no other reason than they were walking in "suspect" sections of the city or that they looked "suspicious."
The level of police harassment that people dealt with back then cannot be comprehended today, as the police generally do not ride through the streets "collecting" people they don’t like and then making them spend a night in the Roundhouse before releasing them in the morning.
I don’t know what Rizzo was thinking when he allowed these things to happen but I don’t think that this sort of harassment ever helped fight real crime. It was a trying time. People were picked off stoops in Center City for tying their shoe laces at 2AM or for talking with their friends (post-midnight) in a city park. This was a time when Center City was like East Berlin; when people had a real fear of the police. On the other hand, this was also pre-September 11th, so one could enter City Hall and go to any floor on a whim, walk past the Mayor’s Office and say "hello," to His Honor, or even take unorthodox sightseeing trips into City Hall’s basement, which I did on many occasions with a City Hall worker as my unofficial guide.
Today, of course, there’s this perception that there’s far too much crime in the city and that a tough cookie like Abraham will fix that problem fast. But this isn’t what most of us who have lived through Philly’s East Berlin stage in the 1970’s want to see happen.
The other mayoral candidates didn’t register much interest with us. Nelson Diaz, for instance, failed to stir any passion, but Jim Kenney did, despite the fact that, sadly, Anthony Williams has been cited by "journalists" (not this journalist) as the front runner.
We concluded our discussion with a mention of Michael Nutter’s mayoral style. The three of us agreed that that style can be broken down this way: Because black people, traditionally and historically, are still relatively new to the reigns of American political power, black elected officials generally exhibit a more formal style when they govern; formal meaning slightly more rigid and by the book.
Riv put it this way:
"When Ed Rendell was mayor, he’d swagger into a news conference or an event with his constituents with Midge, his wife, and a small jazz band in tow, always clowning, always casual and informal and yet always serious underneath. This doesn’t happen with Mayor Nutter and it didn’t happen with Mayor Street. What we have here is formality, or the mayor’s entourage– all those suited men and women traveling with the mayor in line processions where acts of spontaneity are alien."
I knew what Riv was talking about, as I’ve often noticed Mayor Nutter’s entourage, that procession of second lieutenants who surround him like a Philly version of the Swiss Guards.
With the Democratic National Convention coming to Philadelphia in 2016, this would seem to be the time for a substantial change. Ignore Bob Brady’s endorsement of Anthony Williams, and think of Jim Kenney.
Vote for a new city and a new attitude.