Drexel professor of politics Richardson Dilworth, himself the grandson of a legendary reformist mayor, has written the definitive history of political change in Philadelphia, Reforming Philadelphia, 1682–2022. Here is the history of big city machine politics — Republicans in the 1850s and 1860s, Democrats in the 1950s and beyond — and their inevitable backlashes and collapses. Dilworth chronicles the change agents and the keepers of the status quo, and charts just how many morph from being one to the other over time. Most of all, for all its political warts, Dilworth pens a love letter to the city once led by his grandfather, who famously asked, “Where would cities be without men like me to fight for them?”
Philadelphia, Dilworth writes, is a “130-square mile territory defined by arbitrary boundaries drawn in the 17th century and governed by a system that has evolved in fits and starts over the past 340 years — that is, in some sense, inherently corrupt, virtually always on the brink of some form of collapse, yet also perennially worthy of redemption.”
Here, the story of one such road to redemption, Ed Rendell’s ascension to mayor in the early 90s, when many thought that the City, embroiled in an existential fiscal crisis and dysfunctional politics, had become literally unmanageable.
With a municipal bond rating near junk level, the city attempted a $375 million tax anticipation note (a short-term bond) in 1990, and failed, bringing negative national publicity and underscoring the fact that the mayor elected in 1991 would face a massive municipal deficit. Federal assistance declined even as the city faced the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics and crime rates increased. Philadelphia lost 100,000 people in the 1980s and the number of jobs declined by 5 percent; in 1991, the Naval Shipyard closed, “eliminating over 5,000 well-paying, skilled trade jobs.” The poverty rate had remained at roughly 20 percent through the 1980s, well above the average for the country overall and concentrated in mostly Black neighborhoods.
As media scholar Phyllis Kaniss noted with regard to the 1991 mayoral election, it was one “in which the problems of the city had never been more complex but in which the themes of media coverage would never be simpler.”
Over the 1980s, the city’s media landscape had changed significantly. The Bulletin, founded in 1847 and once the city’s highest-circulation paper, closed in 1982, leaving just The Inquirer, Daily News, and Philadelphia Tribune. Newspapers competed with the local television news, but the city’s population loss and decline forced all media outlets to focus on stories that were more attractive to suburbanites, with limited city election coverage that focused on dramatic story lines and caricatures rather than policy issues.
The Republican primary featured [former Mayor Frank] Rizzo, who had maintained his public profile with a radio talk show, former DA and presumed front-runner Ron Castille, and municipal financial consultant Sam Katz, cast as the technocrat.
Castille faced an onslaught of unsubstantiated accusations from Rizzo about his drinking and mental health while Katz gained substantial positive media exposure but remained a second-tier candidate, occasionally suspected of allying with Rizzo to take votes from Castille. Katz won 28 percent of the primary vote while Rizzo beat Castille in an upset victory by 1,429 votes.
The main contenders in the Democratic primary were Ed Rendell, a former DA who had run unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries for governor, in 1986, and mayor, in 1987, and two Black candidates — Lucien Blackwell and George Burrell. Blackwell had served on the City Council for 20 years and as previously noted had run for mayor on a third-party ticket in 1979. Burrell was an attorney who had worked for elite law firms, was a deputy mayor in the Green administration, and then was elected to City Council where he “had taken the ‘good government’ positions against the powerful ruling clique of fellow Black councilmen,” namely Blackwell, John Street, and Council President Joe Coleman. Perhaps, most important, Burrell had the backing of William Gray III, one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House (to which he had been elected in 1978) and a founder of the coalition of Black Philadelphia politicians known as the Northwest Alliance, a successor to the Black Political Forum. Throughout the campaign Burrell battled rumors that he was simply running at the behest of Gray, who did not want Blackwell to be mayor.
Rendell won the primary with 49 percent of the vote while Blackwell and Burrell won 27 and 15 percent, respectively. Rizzo died shortly after the primaries and the Republican City Committee under the direction of “boss” Bill Meehan (son of former boss Austin Meehan) selected as its replacement candidate former PIDC director John Egan, who captured slightly more than 30 percent of the vote in the general election. As a reflection of the state of the city’s GOP, the choice of a relatively weak and unknown mayoral candidate was often presumed to be a desire on the part of the Republicans to lose the election so as to not jeopardize patronage jobs provided by the Democrats.
A reformer by association
The 1991 mayoral election could hardly be counted as a reform victory. In contrast to an election such as the one in 1947 when reformers excited voters and increased turnout, in 1991, turnout in both the primaries and the general election reached record lows (it would decrease even further in future elections). There were no third-party reform candidates, the Democratic primary indicated a continued split between white and Black voters and political coalitions, and the candidates in both primaries who seemed to best fit the mold of reformer (Burrell and Katz) both came in third place.
Finally, the winner, Rendell, gave “no indication that he plan[ned] to govern as a reformer and root out patronage, corruption, or abuse of power . . . although he heads a biracial coalition that continues to advance Black empowerment, it is not reformist like its predecessors.” As mayor, Rendell worked within the Democratic Party and with power brokers such as State Senator Vincent Fumo and Council President John Street, and he was dismissive of reform hobby horses such as city planning or campaign finance reform.
Yet, if Rendell was not interested in reform, he found himself mayor in a context that practically required it of him — in stark contrast to Goode, a reformer in the absence of the conditions necessary for reform, especially for a Black mayor. The early 1990s were marked by the first Democratic presidential administration since the 1970s, one that was inspired by the idea of “reinventing government” — the title of what has been credited as the most influential book on government reform in the past thirty years, published in 1992, which argued that “government managers and employees could and should . . . be as entrepreneurial as their private-sector counterparts. This meant embracing competition; measuring outcomes rather than inputs or processes; and insisting on accountability.”
Rendell was held out by the newly elected Clinton administration as a national model of this kind of reform — Vice President Al Gore famously called him “America’s Mayor” — praised for his successes in downtown development, attracting state and federal money, challenging the unions, eliminating the deficit and creating budget surpluses, raising the city’s bond rating, promoting privatization and performance management, and, along with DA Lynne Abraham, pushing a “law and order” policy regarding policing and sentencing that did not alienate progressive voters.
Though specific policy prescriptions differed, the general themes of efficiency and accountability in reinventing government were the same as those that inspired reformers in the early 20th century. And, faced with a $250 million deficit, Rendell laid out the equivalent of a reform-based plan, including the establishment of an Office of Management and Productivity. He sought to reconstruct some semblance of the GPM [Greater Philadelphia Movement] by establishing a “volunteer task force of 300 executives to introduce the types of efficiency standards that were the byline in the private sector.” Similar to Goode, he took a hard line with municipal unions, resulting in a reform-machine political fight in all but name. Similar to the exposés of government waste and corruption by reformers in the 1950s, the Rendell administration exposed union corruption such as overtime abuses among city workers and offered DC 33 a contract that included a wage freeze for more than two years and significant reductions in benefits. The contract prompted a short strike, but, with little political or public support, the unions agreed to the concessions in less than a day.
And, even as Rendell was dismissive of planning, he promoted and sold a new image of the city’s downtown, similar to what Ed Bacon had done with the Better Philadelphia Exhibition. Instead of the expressways and greenways that reflected progress in the 1940s and 1950s, in the 1990s, the focus was on arts and culture, entertainment, and a vibrant street life, marked by projects such as a new convention center, a new park and museum at Independence Hall, and rebranding South Broad Street as the “Avenue of the Arts” with a new music hall — many of which had begun well before Rendell, but his administration organized these projects into a cohesive plan that recognized the emergent importance of the tourism and downtown service industries.
There was a clear organizational connection between downtown revitalization projects in the 1950s and 1990s as well, as the original OPDC [Old Philadelphia Development Corporation] — the partnership between the city and the GPM that had been instrumental in such things as the Food Distribution Center — became the Center City District in 1990, a business improvement district that provided extra security services and street cleaning to promote downtown businesses and that has more recently spearheaded and managed such projects as the reconstruction of Dilworth Park next to City Hall and a new rail park immediately north of downtown.
Where Rendell-era reform fell short
In short, Rendell’s election and mayoral administration represent a reform cycle in the sense that it was inspired by new ideas regarding the city, and, in successfully implementing those ideas against a “machine” of ostensibly rent-seeking municipal unions, it in some respects fundamentally transformed how the city functioned. Yet, the 1990s differed from previous reform eras in Philadelphia possibly most notably in the failure of a new charter commission, established by the City Council in 1992.
Through the first half of the 20th century and culminating in 1951, charters were seen as fundamental to reforming the city, through such things as a stronger civil service and remaking the mayor as a corporate executive. Charter reform, in 1951, involved mass mobilization through a broad-based movement involving a dense network of groups, influential business organizations, and extensive promotion in the press. In 1992, by contrast, the longstanding director of the increasingly ineffectual Committee of Seventy, Fred Voight, was friends with Rendell and had suggested the idea of a charter commission.
The commission quickly became embroiled in a power struggle, with Council President Street appointing himself chair, leading City Controller Jonathan Saidel to actively campaign against the commission’s proposed charter revisions. Rather than the sweeping reforms proposed in previous charters, the 1992 commission came up with 60 recommendations that covered minutiae such as shifting the responsibility for numbering contracts from the director of finance to the Law Department. When included on the ballot in the 1994 primary elections, the commission’s recommendations were rejected by an overwhelming vote.
In a city with a weaker business community that was poorer, still shrinking, and more racially divided, with declining voter turnout and a contracting local press, reform was driven not by mass movements but in response to crises and by technocrats. Yet, at the same time, there were clear continuities between the 1990s and previous reform eras, such as that between the OPDCand the Center City District, and the persistence of groups such as the Committee of Seventy and Pennsylvania Economy League, even as they did not play major roles as they had in the past. The constant threat of Rizzo also lent continuity to reform efforts; after he won the 1991 Republican primary, a sizable constituency from the 1976 Citizens Committee to Recall Rizzo volunteered for Rendell, and former Americans for Democratic Action director Rich Chapman “took charge of field operations for the Rendell campaign.”
And, finally, though not particularly related to reform, the 1991 city council elections saw an unusually high level of turnover with the election of seven new members — two of which, Michael Nutter and James Kenney, would later become mayors.
Richardson Dilworth is a professor of politics and head of the Department of Politics at Drexel University. This excerpt is from his new book, Reforming Philadelphia, 1682–2022 (PLAC: Political Lessons from American Cities).
MORE PHILADELPHIA POLITICS, NOW AND THEN
Mayor Ed Rendell and Roswell Weidner at the 1993 Convention Center opening. Photo by ArtLover113, CC BY-SA 4.0