Unexpected twist in Philly mayoral race

City tilts Democratic, but the GOP candidate looks strong - mirroring a

Philadelphia could be poised for its biggest political shakeup in half a century.

Term limits have forced Mayor Ed Rendell, the boisterous, backslapping Democrat who pulled the city back from the brink of bankruptcy, to step aside.

His apparent heir is Democrat John Street, the former City Council president who's worked closely with the mayor for most of his two terms. After winning a bitter Democratic primary last spring, Mr. Street was expected to coast to the mayor's office. Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1 here.

Instead, Street ran straight into Sam Katz. The former liberal-Democrat-turned-Republican-businessman helped Mr. Rendell write the financial plan that brought Philadelphia back to life. An advocate of abortion rights and gun control, Mr. Katz spent the summer building momentum.

With the election less than three weeks away, the race is a dead heat with more than 20 percent of voters undecided. And that's got some political pundits predicting the City of Brotherly Love could soon follow other urban Democratic strongholds like New York and Los Angeles and elect its first GOP mayor in 53 years.

"I've voted Democratic all my life, but I'm voting for you!" shouts Sol Sorin, waving as he sees Katz walk into a fair for senior citizens last week.

At the heart of the campaign is the direction Philadelphia will take as it enters the next millennium. Rendell, whose charisma and drive won him the nickname "America's Mayor," succeeded in reviving downtown and putting the home of the Liberty Bell back on the map as a tourist and convention center. But Philly's neighborhoods still look a bit down at the heels compared with the burnished city center - and that's fueling resentment against Street as Rendell's successor.

"At least they are cleaning the streets now, which they weren't doing before," says Josephine Frigo, who lives in the Port Richmond neighborhood.

Philadelphia's troubled school system, high tax rate, and steadily declining population are the top issues bandied between the two candidates. But Street has also made an issue of the fact that Katz has never held elective office.

"My Republican opponent never did a city budget, has no experience in managing ... a big city," says Street. "I've been doing this for two decades."

Katz smiles and shrugs off the criticism, claiming that it's the kind of thing only a politician could say. Indeed, Katz earned a national reputation by helping cities around the country finance everything from Little League fields to multimillion-dollar sports stadiums. He's not shy about touting his successes as an investment banker or chiding his opponent for his negative attitude.

"John Street's running a desperate campaign and he has been all fall because he took Philadelphians for granted after the primary," says Katz. "The job of being mayor is going to be one of the most exciting and challenging things I've ever done - it's something I've been preparing my whole life to do."

But underlying the talk of issues and experience, both race and personality are playing pivotal roles in this campaign. Street is an African-American lawyer who made a name for himself as a fiery advocate for street vendors and the poor. He's also had some personal financial problems, including two bankruptcies.

During the past 20 years, supporters say he's matured and become an effective city manager. Yet his style, which critics call brusque and dictatorial, has put off many people.

Even the head of Philadelphia's NAACP criticized Street for his inability to reach out to people, saying he "turns people off." He then praised Katz as a man "who cares about Philadelphia," although he didn't endorse either.

Two of Street's opponents in the Democratic primary have crossed party lines to throw their support behind the Republican Katz, including John White, a popular African-American.

"This shows that, especially in Philadelphia, politics is personal," says Will Bunch a political reporter covering the race for the Philadelphia Daily News.

According to a recent poll by the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, race is playing a role with the voters. While both candidates have pledged to keep it out of the race, it's very much a part of Philadelphia's character. The city is about 40 percent black and 45 percent white. About two-thirds of the blacks say they're supporting Street, while two-thirds of the whites say they're behind Katz.

One political analyst says the real force driving this election is "fear of Street."

But Street backers say he's getting undeserved bad press. "He's a people-oriented person," says retired Temple University professor Ernestyne Adams. "Despite some of the bad press, he has the capability of being a darn good mayor."

Katz, meanwhile, is riding a wave of good will. "I'm determined to enjoy this campaign."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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