1,000 Issues, 20 Years of Philadelphia History in the Public Record

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BY TONY WEST

COUNCILMAN Jimmy Tayoun, the Philadelphia Public Record’s founder and publisher for many years.

The Philadelphia Public Record was founded in 1999 by James “Jimmy” Tayoun. In an age when newspapers of long standing have been disappearing, dwindling or merging, this newspaper has thrived on its unique fine-grained coverage of political and governmental life within the city – a world often closely interpenetrated by its active and influential community of organized labor.

A legendary politician himself, Tayoun knew everybody and helped anybody he could. The thousands of people he knew, both great and small, opened doors to inside information and windows on all the major stories that unfolded in this ever-exciting town.

CITY COUNCIL President John Street succeeded Ed Rendell as mayor. He welcomed incoming President George W. Bush to the city.

The newspaper began in the midst of a political big bang: the end of Mayor Ed Rendell’s dynamic tenure on the second floor of City Hall. City Council President John Street, who had worked in tandem with Rendell for eight years, was elected mayor in a thriller, beating Republican Sam Katz by only 7,000 votes. It was the last time a Republican would come that close to victory in a citywide general election.

In 2001, an experimental real-estate tax abatement was vastly expanded to its modern dimensions. Mayor Street launched his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. During its course, almost $300 million in bonds were issued to finance wholesale demolition of derelict buildings and consolidation of land parcels.

ED RENDELL moved from Philadelphia district attorney, to mayor, to governor of Pennsylvania.

Critics were many. But the net results have indeed transformed the city, attracting new investments on a scale not seen for 40 years. Since then, the average home in Philadelphia has appreciated by approximately 30% while Center City’s skyline today would be unrecognizable by Richardson Dilworth.

Meanwhile, the crime rate continued to decline from its terrifying peak in 1990. That brought education rather than public safety to the fore of public concerns.

The School District of Philadelphia had been floundering for decades with inadequate funding, crumbling plants and shabby scores. Rendell and Street developed a novel scheme: handing the district over to the Commonwealth, which would manage the public schools through the School Reform Commission. It was seen as a way to tap State resources to beef up our educational system.

Team Philly Heads to Harrisburg

Rendell was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 2002, the first Philadelphian to seize the reins in Harrisburg since Milton Shapp in 1976. The city enjoyed friends in high places in that era.

2003 saw another win in Harrisburg for Philadelphia when State Rep. John Perzel (R-Northeast) was elected speaker of the State House of Representatives. Immensely influential among his statewide colleagues, Perzel had a keen nose for bringing home the bacon.

SPEAKER of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives John Perzel

But the biggest story of that year was Street’s re-election, again over Katz. Highlight of the campaign was the FBI’s wiretapping of Street’s office. A couple of administration officials ran into legal trouble as a result, with City Treasurer Corey Kemp going to prison. But nothing was found on Street himself; and public opinion moved in Street’s favor overall, regarding the investigation as politically motivated.

2006 marked a quiet turning point: for the first time: Since the 1950s, Philadelphia’s population stopped declining! Amid all the scandals and doomsaying, something was working.

BUSINESS LEADER Sam Katz ran twice for mayor against John Street. He was shown here with wife Connie and Gov. Tom Wolf

But for political players, 2007 was a watershed year.

The year started with an intense primary season featuring five top-tier candidates for mayor among the Democrats. By quitting his day job and concentrating on fundraising, Councilman Michael Nutter (4th District) pulled ahead of more-senior elective and administrative officials with 37% of the vote.

Simultaneously, momentous events were rocking Philadelphia’s foothold in Harrisburg as well. After a decade or more of trying, State Sen. Vincent Fumo (D-S. Phila.) was indicted after a long-brewing FBI investigation. Fumo had survived a conviction earlier in his career that was overturned by a federal judge. This time, it would not work out that way.

MICHAEL NUTTER moved up from 4th District Councilman to become mayor in a heated race.

At the same time, a weird pas de deux erupted between two Northeast Republican state reps.

Republicans lost the majority in the 2006 elections by one seat. Perzel sought to convince a Democrat to change parties or abstain so that he could remain in office. Democrat Tom Caltagirone (D-Berks) announced that he would support Perzel rather than Bill DeWeese (D-Greene), to give Perzel speakership over a Democratic majority. At the last minute, however, DeWeese nominated another Philadelphia Republican colleague, Dennis O’Brien. The tactic was successful, electing O’Brien 105-97.

In 2008, the second shoe dropped. Perzel was busted by another criminal investigation. He dropped out of the House and served time.

In that year, Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett was elected governor over Democrat Dan Onorato. Although Corbett is actually a Philadelphia native son, both contestants had based their careers in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County.

All victories and defeats that year were overshadowed by the Great Recession. It clobbered the revenues of both City and State while piling huge new costs on them.

CEO ROSEMARY DOUGHERTY celebrated the anniversary of Christopher Columbus Charter School with two of its esteemed founders, State Sen. Emeritus Vincent Fumo, L, and Ray Pescatore, who are proud of the legacy this school represents.

As a result, all elected officials who walked into 2019 were faced with the infamous Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

End of the Fumo Era

Fumo, in one sense, was relieved from this curse. In that year, he was convicted and quit the State Senate.

Fumo was the State Senate’s Perzel. He knew everybody and was skilled at crafting intricate webs of policies and alliances – all of them designed to favor his hometown in the process. Lost to Philadelphia, there wasn’t much our city’s advocates could get out of a State government all three of whose branches were run by upstate Republicans.

A struggle broke out in 2008 between Fumo and prominent labor leader IBEW Local 98 Business Manager John Dougherty (“Johnny Doc”). Fumo’s candidate was Larry Farnese, a figure in Italian South Philly’s upper class, while Dougherty spoke for the Irish-dominated trade unionists of Pennsport and Whitman. Farnese had lost a previous challenge against Center City’s veteran State Rep. Babette Josephs. But he won this time handsomely. Henceforth, Doc would work politically only behind the scenes.

STATE SEN. Larry Farnese succeeded Vincent Fumo.

In 2009, Nutter grappled as best he could with the calamitous collapse in revenues. Gone were all his visionary proposals from the 2007 campaign; he spent the year dismally crafting budget cuts. The most-spectacular was his proposed slashing of Free Library staff and hours. Surprise! Philadelphians rose as one to protest, forcing the mayor to backtrack.

But Nutter failed to negotiate new contracts with six different public labor unions, leaving them seething with frustration and resentment for the duration of his administration. These issues were only resolved when his successor assumed office.

In that spring, former Inspector General and Assistant DA Seth Williams unseated his former boss Lynne Abraham in the Democratic primary for DA. He had tried before, in 2005, without making much of a dent. But Abraham was the creature of the late 20th-century crime wave so her time may have passed. Williams became the city’s first Black DA.

2010 delivered the coup de grâce to Philadelphia’s influence in State government when State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-N. Phila.) was ousted as Appropriations Committee majority chair by his own party. Evans, who had been one contender with Nutter in the 2007 mayoral race, was Philly’s last top power-broker in the ’Burg. At that moment, our city’s clout on Capitol Hill reached a historic low.

D.A. LYNNE ABRAHAM shared a moment with School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green, a former City councilman.

It was not a good year for Greenery either. Philadelphia Housing Authority Executive Director Carl Greene was forced to step down after allegations of both fiscal and sexual misdeeds emerged. Republican Kelvin Jeremiah was appointed to replace him, a task he has carried out without blemish since. At the same time, Sheriff John Green, who had been credited with opening up the closed real-estate club of sheriff’s sales to the general public, ran into charges of corruption. Deputy Sheriff Barbara Deeley picked up the sheriff’s reins until the next municipal election.

In the 2011 election, State Rep. Jewell Williams (D-N. Phila.) was elected sheriff. He cleaned his office’s financial books and has boosted its contributions of revenue to the City.

That year, Perzel was convicted and “went away,” as we say in Philadelphia political circles. Like most of our public servants who have been active in “the 70th Ward,” he came home and his voice is still respected in many circles behind the scenes. Philadelphia is traditionally tolerant of leaders who are competent but flawed, flawed but competent.

D.A. SETH WILLIAMS, L, in happier days with State Sen. Mike Stack and wife Tonya Stack.

Another quiet milestone was reached in 2013, when the city’s murder rate hit more than a 30-year low. While it has risen since, in part due to the New Wave opioid epidemic, its decline has sweetened political discourse and focused on talk of growth rather than talk of protection.

But Philadelphia political life was being secretly rocked that year by an investigation started by Corbett while he was still AG. In 2014, it was enlivened by the “Ali-gate” sting. Corbett had engaged a seedy operative, Tyron Ali, to sweep across low-grade Philadelphia Democrats and see how many he could corrupt with low-grade gifts.

SEEN at the peak of his power, Executive Director Carl Greene, R, was thanked by Eastwick Bike Patrol Captain Vincent Grant for the agency’s donation of bikes and protective vests.

The Aftermath of Ali-gate

Many bit, to their shame and misfortune – state reps and judges. Most were forced to resign on the spot; the last holdout protesting her innocence was State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-W. Phila.), who was finally convicted last year. An entire department of the State’s 1st Judicial District that serves Philadelphia – Traffic Court – was wiped out of existence (eliminating a ladder for party political activists).

Newly elected Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane supported Philly Dems by refusing to prosecute based on this investigation, charging racial discrimination (most elected officials charged were Black). But DA Williams shocked Philly’s political world by picking up the charges Kane had dropped – and winning all of them.

In overwhelming irony, both Kane and Williams later ran into legal problems that wrecked their careers.

2014 saw a bit of a turnaround for Philadelphia Dems at the State level. That’s when York County businessman Tom Wolf was elected governor – with heavy reliance on Philadelphia votes. Philadelphians began to win back voices in the administration, if not the General Assembly.

Councilman Jim Kenney (at Large) dared a last-minute campaign to succeed term-limited Nutter in 2015, again in a five-way race. This time, he won with a healthy majority, thanks to support from the powerful Northwest Coalition faction within the Democratic Party as well as the city’s labor unions.

JIM KENNEY moved up from a City Council at-large seat to the Mayor’s Office.

The criminal docket saw former Sheriff Green indicted along with another longtime fixture of the Philadelphia political scene, Congressman Chaka Fattah. The heir to a 1970s civil-rights dynasty in West Philadelphia, Fattah was an ardent negotiator for federal eds-and-meds funding – industries that dominate Philadelphia today. The Fattahs built an extensive network that knows where the dollars lie; the congressman, alas, did not, in the end, know where the limits lie. He was convicted in 2016 and resigned.

2016 saw the launch of incoming Mayor Kenney’s signature initiative, which eventually emerged as the Sweetened Drinks Tax, commonly known as the “soda tax.” This trailblazing measure, which has drawn international attention, proposed to raise more than $400 million to “Rebuild” the city’s schools, libraries, parks and recreation centers in addition to funding quality pre-K.

The jury’s still out on this. In fact, the jury will probably cast its vote in the 2019 mayoral primary. There are winners and losers – the latter being low-income soda shoppers who can’t cross city lines to buy cheaply, merchants whose sales have dived and Teamsters whose runs have been cut back.

CONGRESSMAN Chaka Fattah

New Faces in High Places

Our congressional delegation was dramatically shaken up in 2016. Evans took over Fattah’s seat as State Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Northeast) captured the seat previously held by Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz (D-Montgomery). So Philadelphia actually went up one member of Congress.

In another explosive development, GOP Ward Leader Vince Fenerty was ousted from his position as executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority over charges of sexual misconduct.

The beat goes on…. In 2017, DA Williams, who busted a fistful of fellow Democrats, was himself busted and quit for a stay in the 70th Ward. An unprecedented seven-way race for this office ensued. Against four candidates with standard prosecutorial qualifications, a pro-defendant outsider, Larry Krasner, broke through the pack and won with 38% of the vote.

CONGRESSMAN Dwight Evans

What followed was a policy earthquake that has drawn international attention, as Krasner has pursued a dogged campaign to reverse prosecutorial policies that have reigned across the nation since the 1970s. But he is not without critics at home.

In that same primary, City Controller Alan Butkovitz was unseated by upstart Rebecca Rhynhart, who swept away a well-established incumbent who was also a ward leader and who had faced sparse criticism in an office that few voters consider. Rhynhart had worked as chief auditor for the Kenney administration, so her victory was seen as a consolidation of Team Kenney’s power. But controllers are independent by nature and Rhynhart has shown few signs of breaking that mold.

CONGRESSMAN Brendan Boyle

Was this election a sign of an emerging progressive power base in Philadelphia politics? There were signs this may be so in the little-discussed but extremely-important elections for committee persons in that year. Many wards acceded to a younger generation then; this may have been a Daylight-Savings-Time moment, pushing the hour hand ahead in local politics.

2017 finally saw the passing of Jimmy Tayoun. He had sold his newspaper to City & State, a New York-based company that is simpatico to the Public Record’s mission, a couple of years earlier but remained at the helm until a year before the end.

In 2018, the Public Record reported the end of an important agency whose inception it had reported: the School Reform Commission. Once Democrats lost the helm in Harrisburg, it became clear SRC, as a tool, had no goods to deliver to Philadelphia – just another lack of authority to fix our problems on our own.

As with the libraries in 2009, the city’s political classes caved to public pressure to repatriate local control of public schools. Upstate Republicans, who never cared for Philly children in the first place, made no objection. Thus was reborn the School District of Philadelphia.

The last Ali-Gate official was removed from office after a trial, Lowery Brown. On the other hand, former Sheriff Green was found not guilty after a lengthy trial.

CONGRESSMAN-EMERITUS Bob Brady, still running Democratic City Committee.

Rise of the Millennials

An epic retirement took place: that of Congressman Bob Brady, who ended a 20-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives. Using his leverage as chair of the Committee on House Administration, he deftly steered many a federal appropriation to his home city, playing a major role in the decades-long struggle to deepen the channel for the Delaware River ports – a project that is coming to fruition in 2019, in time for the post-Panamax shipping boom.

At the same time, Brady negotiated consistent peace and effective streetwork among the often-fractious members of Democratic City Committee, a post he continues to hold.

Brady, a longstanding member of the Carpenters’ Union, also held sway with organized labor. He has played an important backstage role in negotiating an end to several public employee strikes.

2019 witnessed another political earthquake: the federal indictment of Johnny Doc and several associates, including Local 98 stalwart Councilman Bobby Henon (6th District). This 162-count indictment shapes what follows: the municipal primary.

STATE SEN. Anthony Williams is making his second run for the Mayor’s Office.

In addition to the mayor’s race, which has three major entries – incumbent Kenney, Butkovitz and second-time challenger State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-W. Phila.) – row offices are swarming with candidates in unprecedented numbers. Thirty-odd seekers are up for City Council and 30-odd for seven judicial openings. Many district Council members are saddled with serious contests. Politics is in the air.

In the past couple of years, observers have watched with keen interest the growing impact of politically active young progressives in city life. Many represent the demographic wave that began to move into the city in the 2000s, revitalizing many inner-core neighborhoods.

But new life brings new concerns with it as well. Development and gentrification challenge leaders and grassroots activists alike as they grapple with how to incorporate this growth into a city still dominated by a bluecollar culture, with a high poverty rate

That’s our summary report on our first 1,000 issues. We’ll keep you posted on further developments in our 2,000th.

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