PHILADELPHIA — WHEN word leaked out that the nation's highest-ranking black politician would leave the House of Representatives, it sent a tremor through national political circles. Here in Philadelphia, it created an earthquake.
The departure of William Gray III, the majority whip in the House, will leave a huge political vacuum. The Democrats will lose a skilled coalition builder, blacks a respected national leader. The biggest loser is Philadelphia, which will be deprived of an important political prop at a crucial time in its history.
"It's a blow to the city," says Jack Nagel, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
"This is absolutely shocking news," says Sandra Featherman, director of the Center for Public Policy at Temple University. "He did a lot for this community."
Although Representative Gray had not declared his intention to step down at this writing, Democratic colleagues confirmed that he would leave, perhaps in September, to become president of the United Negro College Fund.
As the third-ranking House Democrat and member of the Appropriations Committee, Representative Gray was able to steer federal funds to his state and the region. He also backed several local city council members. This year, he backed a Philadelphia mayoral candidate but suffered a political setback when the candidate ran an embarrassing third out of four in last month's Democratic primary.
Colleagues have speculated that Gray wants to earn more money and spend more time with his family. His departure comes at a time of potentially sweeping change for the city. In last month's primary, Philadelphians swept out or barely kept in several old-line city council members in an effort to clean up the city's huge budget mess. This fall, they will elect a new mayor.
Gray's departure will be felt in this process. For example, several local politicians wasted no time in pushing forward their names as possible replacements for Gray, among them Mayor Wilson Goode and former City Councilman Lucien Blackwell. Mr. Goode, barred by law from running for a third term as mayor, has been largely discredited because the city's budget crisis exploded during his watch as mayor. The budget mess has also tainted Mr. Blackwell, who served on a city council that helped precipitate la s
t year's crisis by passing an unrealistic budget.
Should Goode resign the mayor's post to run for the House seat, it would set off an unprecedented chain of events. The city council would pick an interim mayor. If it deadlocked, the retiring council president, Joseph Coleman, would become interim mayor; the head of the council's finance committee, Anna Verna, would become council president.
While temporary, this reshuffling could be an important boost to various factions when November comes around.
At the moment, the outcome of the November mayoral race looks fairly certain. Democratic nominee Edward Rendell is a clear front-runner in the race to succeed Goode. Mr. Rendell, a former district attorney, won impressively with just under half the votes in a four-way primary last month.
His Republican opponent, former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, barely squeaked by with a plurality of votes in a three-way primary race.
"The numbers aren't there" for a Rizzo win, says Ted Hershberg, director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. He would need 65 percent of the white vote and 35 percent of the black vote to win the race, Mr. Hershberg says.
Many political and other observers agree. But Rizzo has so consistently confounded observers in the past that few are willing to write him off.
"I will never underestimate the capability of Rizzo to pull a surprise," says one Philadelphia banker.
On balance, Gray's departure will probably help Mr. Rendell, says Ms. Featherman.
Blacks will concentrate on finding a suitable replacement for Gray rather than running an independent black mayoral candidate in November.