The Magazine

The (Real) Philadelphia Story

What the Chamber of Commerce won't tell you about the site of the Republican Convention

Aug 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 44 • By MATTHEW REES
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With the Republican party holding its national convention in Philadelphia this week, civic boosters have been serving up endless testimonials to the city's glorious past and glimmering future. But conveniently absent from these testimonials has been any recognition of Philadelphia's rich political tradition. "Enriching" might be the better word. Few cities in America can claim a political class more consistently crooked, and colorful, than Philadelphia's.


A century ago, journalist Lincoln Steffens went to Philadelphia for a book he was writing on major American cities. He found that while "all our municipal governments are more or less bad . . . Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented." Steffens based his conclusion on Philadelphia's 19th-century politics, and the city's 20th-century shenanigans more than validated it. Consider:


P So many local politicians have been sentenced to Allenwood Federal Prison that it's known as Philadelphia's "70th ward."


P In 1926, the leader of Philadelphia's Republican machine, William Vare, was elected to the U.S. Senate, but one of his opponents challenged the outcome. The Senate found Vare guilty of "appalling" vote fraud and, in 1929, denied him the seat.


P In 1985, Philadelphia's Democratic mayor, Wilson Goode, ordered city police to bomb a group of black radicals who were holed up in a West Philadelphia row house, killing 11 people -- five of them children -- and destroying 61 homes.


P In 1985, the FBI began surveillance of a roofers' union in Philadelphia, and picked up conversations indicating union officials were paying off local judges. By the time the investigation ended, 15 judges had resigned or been convicted.


P In 1994, Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, during an interview with a local journalist, described how he thought she'd perform in bed and said she should find his appraisal "flattering." He eventually apologized for his bawdy talk, but later would concede only one mistake: "I should have said right at the beginning, everything is off the record."


P For many years, fistfights were such a regular feature of city council meetings that Fodor's guide to Philadelphia listed the meetings under "Local Entertainment." In one incident, a young black councilman marched around the chamber complaining of racism while brandishing a large metal object, threw ice water on his colleagues, and then exchanged punches with one of them until security guards intervened.


That councilman, John Street, is now the mayor of Philadelphia. As the following vignettes show, Street will need more than an occasional scrum if he's going to become a first-tier member of Philadelphia's political Hall of Shame.


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"The Quaker city of Philadelphia has suffered from the virus of virtuous materialism for about three centuries, and its best men on the whole have seldom sought public office."

 

E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979)


In 1973, Philadelphia's Democratic chairman, Peter Camiel, accused first-term mayor Frank Rizzo, a Democrat, of offering him a bribe in a hotel bathroom. Rizzo vehemently denied the charge, and the Philadelphia Daily News suggested both men take a lie-detector test. Camiel went first, and passed. Rizzo followed, declaring that "if this machine says a man lied, he lied." He, of course, failed, and later fessed up: "What's the big deal about lying in a bathroom?"


Such candor explains why Rizzo remains Philadelphia's most celebrated politician of the 20th century. He was the voice of the city's white ethnics, a culturally conservative bloc bearing racial resentments straight out of the Deep South. Before being elected mayor, he gained fame as a tough-as-nails police chief from central casting (six-feet two, 250 pounds, with a 20-inch collar and, as one reporter put it, "fingers the size of frankfurters"). In August 1970, his men raided a local office of the Black Panthers, paraded 14 of them outside to the street, and stripped them naked.