Philadelphia's 'Marion Barry factor'

Mayor's reelection bid is, if anything, enhanced by the controversy over the bugging of his office.

In front of a crowd of cheering teachers in red union T-shirts, Philadelphia Mayor John Street put both hands on the podium in front of him and leaned forward waiting for the enthusiastic throng to get quiet and sit down.

"I'm so happy to be here today speaking to you into a microphone....," the mayor began, then paused. "A microphone that I can see...!" The teachers roared with approval.

That was the embattled black mayor's only reference to the bugging device found almost two weeks ago in the ceiling of his office. It had been planted by the FBI and swiftly transformed an already divisive rematch for the mayor's office into a racially charged contest that has left both candidates' reputations sullied and many people in Philadelphia angry and confused.

The FBI refuses to say what it's looking for, except that it has nothing to do with the campaign. Last week, it staged several very public raids on city agencies as well as the law offices of a close Street ally and fundraiser. That prompted one seasoned political operative in Washington to call this "the weirdest" political contest he'd ever been involved in.

"Certainly it's one of the most bitter mayoral campaigns in recent history," says Randall Miller, a political analyst at St. Joseph's University. "It's been no holds barred since then."

This is a city that's predominantly Democratic and minority. And almost one hundred years ago, when it was predominantly white and Republican, it was famously dubbed "corrupted and contented" for its tight, back-slapping culture where it was necessary to "pay to play" for patronage and contract spoils. To some Philadelphians, including white Republican challenger businessman Sam Katz, the wide-ranging corruption probe is proof that the culture remains resistant to change, and that, they believe, is the key to this November's election.

Since the revelations about the corruption probe, Mr. Katz has stepped up charges of cronyism and corruption in the Street administration.

Mr. Katz's claims to the moral high ground, however, have been undermined by charges from former business partners that Katz embezzled funds and provided misleading financial statements.

But to many other Philadelphia voters, the federal investigation is a racist fishing expedition timed to undermine the Democratic incumbent - part of the FBI's history of investigating black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and setting others up in sting operations, like Washington Mayor Marion Barry. As with Barry, who was overwhelmingly re-elected in the face of what was seen as harassment, Street has pulled ahead of his GOP rival in the first post-bug poll.

"The whole thing sounds a bit counterintuitive. One would expect that if a political figure is under a cloud, their support wouldn't go up," says William Rosenberg of Drexel University. "But ... it seems to be energizing some voters.... It's the Marion Barry factor."

The corruption probe has raised questions about Street in Darryl Way's mind. As the youth worker was walking through tree-lined Society Hill last week, he made it clear that he doesn't want anyone "crooked" in City Hall.

At the same time, he remains firmly in Street's corner. "They put this out there [right before the election] like it's something vicious and it implies there's all kinds of things going on that we don't know about," he says. "It's not fair."

That anger about the probe's timing is echoed among Katz supporters, who say it's shifted the focus from campaign issues to the probe. It's also prompted new questions about Katz's ethics, by raising the profile of his embezzlement suit.

IN an unusually bitter radio debate last week, Street called on Katz to come clean and open all of the files. Katz indicated that he might. But on Friday, his lawyers filed a motion to keep the court documents sealed. They argue that Katz, who maintains his innocence and was cleared by a Montgomery County district attorney of any wrongdoing, has a right to have his case heard in court, rather than in the press in a heated campaign.

The probe has also given Katz another challenge to overcome - suspicion of Republicans in general. This is a city that's four to one Democratic, and President George Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft are not beloved here.

Like many others in Philadelphia, English teacher Jim Vance just doesn't trust them - and by extension, Katz. "I'm suspicious enough of the Republican Party to think they might be connected to all of this," he says. "I'm voting for Street just because he's a Democrat."

Call that the "Richard Nixon, dirty tricks factor," which Dr. Miller says is an urban myth particularly strong in minority communities. He sums it up as "the notion that Republicans, by their very nature, are disposed to engage in dirty tricks if they can't win by fair means."

At a candidates' forum in the City Center neighborhood, Katz made a particular point of noting that a vote for him in the mayoral election will not translate into support for the President in 2004. "I would urge you to separate these two elections," he said.

Indeed, when President Bush came recently, Katz did not attend, sending his wife instead. Both candidates admit this has been a tough campaign, but both are remaining upbeat. "The amazing thing is that I'm enjoying the race," says Katz. "Obviously, the last week has been tough but it's behind us now."

Street is just as positive. "I'm not bitter, I know the work we've done in the past 3-1/2 years and he can't admit that; he's got to say bad things," he says.

Dr. Rosenberg says the election will probably hinge on two things: turnout, which will be affected by whether voters are energized or offended by the unusual nature of the campaign; and how Street is viewed as a result of the federal probe.

"The question continues to be whether Street is viewed as a victim or a villain," he says. "That's the crux of it."

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