February 2- 8, 2006
cover storyQuack Attack
John Street's time as mayor is running out. But tell him he's a lame duck at your own risk.
About 20 minutes have passed since Mayor John Street left the podium over which he long presided as Council President. He's wiping sweat from his brow in the middle of a pack of reporters when right-hand man George Burrell calls an end to the spur-of-the-moment hallway press conference.
His answers were as robotic as the annual budget speech he'd just given last Tuesday. But when he reaches City Hall's northeast stairwell en route back down to his office, a question stops the mayor dead in his tracks: Are your best days as mayor behind you?
"Not really," he blurts.
Letting the implication settle, he decides he can't leave it at that. He's not one to let people think he's going to head downstairs, kick his feet up on his desk and start thinking about his memoirs, or his U.S. Congress campaign-kickoff speech.
"I still have two years left of an eight-year term. Twenty-five percent of my term is still in front of me," he blurts. "I'm not going to throw my hands up and say, 'That's it.' When's the last time you saw a football team get into the fourth quarter and do that?"
Finding his vocal stride, he misses a reference to the last Super Bowl.
"I'm going to get done what I can get done while I'm here. The legacy issues will take care of themselves. Look, I just announced new programs today. New programs. Today!" Street continues, his voice rising like a preacher approaching the peak of a sermon. "I'll always be looking for things that can still be done for the citizens of this city, right up until my last day. If I see something, I will bring it here!"
Just outside the back door to his second-floor office, Street continues hammering his point home. The man seems offended. And that's a good thing.
"I have a leadership responsibility not to lay down and just let things happen. I couldn't, wouldn't, go around thinking, 'OK, everything's wonderful, now it's off to the shore!'" Street declares. "You're not going to see that out of me."
The mere suggestion that he should feel a time crunch offends him which, voters, should be expected of elected officials, local or national. But while his passion is commendable, the fact of the matter is this: John Street is running out of time, whether he's admitted it to himself or not. And the budget proposal he just finished presenting was the last big one of his mayoral career.
That's not to say he should throw the monster truck in neutral, tuck the successes he's had into the glove compartment and coast home up Broad Street.
If he wants to have a lasting impacta legacy better than he'd currently leave withhe'd better get a move on. And to do so, he'll need to both finish up the goals he's already set forth and listen to the suggestions of others who view his tenure's fourth quarter as an opportunity to win a close game, rather than hand the big trophy over to the next mayoral team.
Otherwise, he won't have made a big enough difference in the lives of the people of this almost-world-class city.
"While we celebrate the progress," Street said early in last week's address, "we also understand there is much more work to do."
And therein lies the dichotomy of Street's world in these lame-duck years. The corruption investigations may, and potentially should, be a major black spot when history is written, but those who begrudge him of any accomplishments are misguided. (Yes, haters, he has done a lot of good).
On the biggest day of his already long and winding political career, Street took to the Academy of Music stage and gazed into the past. He recalled the moment, some two decades earlier, when he stood outside a cafe at 29th Street and Ridge Avenue and announced his intentions to run for City Council.
"I had no money and no visible political support. I did, however, have a fundamental determination to make a difference in the lives of the people in this city," recounted the farm boy who never let the big-city lights intimidate him. "Even in my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined that I would be standing here today as your mayor."
But there he was, on Jan. 3, 2000, the mayor of Philadelphia. At the coronation, the Ebenezer Seventh Day Adventist Choir feted Street. They sang "We Shall Behold Him." And beholding him that morning was a packed house that included the city's three previous mayors and the widow of the fourth. They listened, and applauded, as Street declared his plans for a city he said he was determined to continue saving.
By supporting businesses both big and small, whether they were already here or had yet to set up shop.
By scrubbing the city's decaying neighborhoods clean of the blight and hopelessness that stained them, without ignoring the progress being made in Center City.
By deeming 2000 the "Year of the Child" to improve the quality of education and decrepit conditions of Philadelphia's public schools.
By pushing for more diversity in both the political and business worlds because it gives the city a "cultural and economic advantage."
And by bolstering the city's Police Department because, as he put it, "we cannot stop our fight against crime and violence until we are the safest city in America."
His overarching goal for Philadelphia? "To fulfill its destiny as a world-class city, a place of hope and opportunity for all our people."
Six years, three weeks and one successful re-election campaign later, his purpose remained consistent. With no choir or former mayors in sight, he was teleprompted through a 34-minute budget address in City Council chambers. There, he asked the city, one that sometimes doubted his ability to effectively lead, to behold his victories to date.
Like small- and large-business growth in, and around, Center City.
A Neighborhood Transformation Initiative that, thanks to dangerous-building demolitions and vacant-lot greening, has brought a "new spirit and better quality of life" to the city's neighborhoods.
A third consecutive year of improved test scores at city schools.
Increased minority participation in city contracts, which serves as "a barometer of our progress in achieving the dream so eloquently articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
And a highly successful program that's cut down youth violence everywhere it's been implemented.
"There is a buzz about Philadelphia around the country," declared Street during a speech that leaned a bit too heavily on a National Geographic Traveler article that dubbed Philly the nation's next great city. "Philadelphia is flourishing. We are proud of our accomplishments and rightfully celebrate the progress of the last six years."
Yes, he has a right to celebrateto a point.
Realists, however, might say that while those victories are worth noticing, much must still be done before "world-class" is affixed to the city. Our businesses, neighborhoods, students, minorities and people who don't want to become crime victims still need help.
Street knows this; he said as much from the podium.
Which is why, just like he did with the brightest of eyes in 2000, Street also laid out a vision for the future of Philadelphia, reciting a litany of worthy objectives that only a $145 million budget surplus can enable.
The difference? Both history and common wisdom hold that he'll soon be relegated to afterthought status, both publicly and politically, as the gates spring open on what promises to be yet another nasty race to take over City Hall's second floor.
And while Street's intentions may be noblemore money for the arts, riverfront development, police overtime, children and the NTIcan he realistically be expected to accomplish much of anything when everybody's attention shifts away from him? Especially when City Council doesn't have to worry about trading favors anymore?
No elected official stays in office forever. (Read the accompanying stories to see how Philadelphia's last three two-term mayors grappled with their waning power.) So it remains to be seen whether Street will have the political juice to bring his visions to fruition, or if it's time to worry that the history books won't look too far beyond the words "City Hall Bug."
But amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear: John Street ain't ready to talk legacy.
Even if people say his better days are behind him, and that he ought to start thinking about transitions, he says there's too much work left to worry about it.
So, call him a lame duck if you must.
But do it at your own risk.
Despite the inevitability that he'll soon be out of office, Street has a lot of opportunities to make Philadelphia a better place. In fact, he's already doing so on some levels.
While his predecessor Ed Rendell, with whom he worked closely during some of the city's roughest hours, focused on resuscitating Center City, Street stayed true to his vows of also building up Philadelphia's neighborhoods. As a result, some of the roughest patches of the city do look better today. To that end, Street's not lying when he says his administration is "dramatically changing the face of housing in this city for poor, middle-income and upper-income families."
His ability to build on thatwith a plan to use $150 million for cultural institutions and business corridors in the neighborhoodsmay be the luck of a mayor whose city economy has driven past the days of deciding how many people to lay off, and which rec center to close next.
But it also speaks to a dedication to staying the course, as does the $14.6 million for the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, $10 million for anti-homelessness initiatives, $250,000 for families that can't afford cribs for their babies and the $3.5 million to launch Operation Smooth Streets, which would tackle the city's deep pothole problem much like he effectively tackled the abandoned-cars plague.
When it comes to crime, and the homicide-rate spike that has garnered headlines both accurate and sensationalistic, Street wants to dump $10 million into the police overtime kitty. Sure, a battle is already raging over whether he should use the money to hire more cops instead. (It started minutes before his address, when District Attorney Lynne Abraham announced, "I wish we had 1,000 more police officers to help protect this city.") But the right issue is on the mayor's radar, and will likely remain there through May, as Council holds what will likely be contentious budget hearings.
Besides his proposals, political observers see numerous opportunities for Street to cement a grander legacy. And some note that major problems may be lurking beneath his best intentions. The ideas might be great, but how to pay for them is a major issue.
In many ways, Street's lame-duck years will highlight a philosophical divide over the best direction for Philadelphia's future: Borrow $150 million to address neighborhood problems now, or stash the growing surplus to attract businesses and taxpayers who will fill the city coffers so problems can be addressed more effectively later.
Brett Mandel of Philadelphia Forward, a tax-reform advocacy group, subscribes to the latter camp. By borrowing more, Mandel says, Street is deferring the bill so people will have to foot it long after he's left City Hall.
"Given the city's fiscal condition, the mayor has the ability to focus on tackling some of the city's long-term problems instead of scrambling to make ends meet today," Mandel says. "If the city would invest more of its surplus into reducing our onerous tax burden, we could attract and retain jobs and neighbors.
"By plunging the city further into long-term debt and forgoing investments in growing our tax base and unburdening future Philadelphia budgets, the mayor misses a tremendous opportunity to leave behind a true legacy of success when he leaves office."
Hillel Levinson, who served as Mayor Frank Rizzo's managing director and ran for City Controller last year, says one of the worst side effects of the city's fiscal condition is the amount of money being doled out to municipal employees.
"I'd love to see him trim down the budget," says Levinson. "We have too many people on the city payroll making too much money."
To be sure, these number-crunching issues will surface during Council's budget hearings. One issue that probably won't, however, is the white elephant in any conversation about Street's administration: corruption. But according to Zack Stalberg, the former Daily News editor who now heads the Committee of Seventy watchdog group, the indictments, allegations and pay-to-play whispers that have sullied Street's tenure also present an opportunity for Street to leave a positive mark.
"John Street can still save his second term by deciding to set the table for the next mayor," Stalberg says. "If I were the mayor's best friendan unlikely thoughtI'd tell him to fight like hell against crime and fight like hell for any reform that will prevent the next corruption scandal. It might not be fair, but perceptions often aren't. The reality is that he'll be remembered as the mayor who was engulfed by a corruption scandal unless he now chooses to become the corruption-fighting mayor."
In other words, Street's done some good and some bad, but still has an opportunity to leave the mark he so chooses.
Back at City Hall, Burrell waits patiently as Street continues the discussion about his record. He's made his point that he's not yet accomplished everything he wants to, but allows himself to ponder that word he tried to avoid earlier.
No, the man doesn't have tunnel vision. Street knows people are already angling for his job, for this office that Burrell can't wait to get him back into. And he knows that the rough-and-tumble elections will distract both the press and the populace. But he also knows that if he's going to be cast aside so easily, people better realize that he's had a major hand in the issues that the Doughertys, Evanses, Fattahs and Saidels of the world will be fighting over.
"You know, next year, when everybody's running for mayor, not a single one of themnot one!will be able to say they're not going to plow all the city's streets," he says, now on a campaign-stump roll. "One's going to say they'll do it and then the rest of them will be like, 'Me too!' You know why? Because we did it. We plowed the streets. That's just the way it is.
"They're all going to say that they're for the successful things that we did while we were here. The things we accomplished while we were here will become the floor, what people in this city expect to be done. They're going to have to build on that, and do more than we did. That's how a legacy gets established."
With a wave and a smile, Street strides past Burrell and a guard posted by the side door to his office.
There was work left to do.
And with the fourth quarter officially under way, there was no better time than now to get it done.