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Wiretap stirs black voters in Philly

Few politicians would welcome the news that a federal wiretap had been discovered in their offices — especially weeks before an election.
/ Source: Financial Times

Few politicians would welcome the news that a federal wiretap had been discovered in their offices — especially weeks before an election.

But John Street, Philadelphia’s Democrat mayor, turned the shocking discovery last month to his advantage. What had been a neck-and-neck rematch between Mr. Street and Sam Katz, his Republican opponent, has evolved into a victory for Mr. Street in Tuesday’s election contest.

There is no suggestion that Mr. Katz, who opposed Mr. Street for mayor four years ago, had anything to do with the wiretapping. Yet Democrats have been galvanized by the notion of a broader Republican conspiracy — one that began in Florida with the flawed 2000 election.

For the black population of America’s fifth-largest city, the bugging of a black mayor’s office has re-awakened memories of federal investigations of African-American leaders, from the eavesdrop-prone Martin Luther King Jr. to Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, caught smoking crack cocaine by Federal Bureau of Investigation cameramen in 1990.

Local media reported that the mayoral wiretap was part of a federal investigation into the practice of giving money to city officials in exchange for city contracts. The FBI declined comment.

“African-Americans see the bugging as racially motivated and Republican dirty tricks,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania, a swing state in presidential elections. Al Gore carried the city and state in 2000, when Tom Ridge, now secretary of homeland security, was the Republican governor.

Since the early 1970s race has played a crucial role in Philadelphia city politics, when the late Frank Rizzo, an Italian-American, ran the city with a powerful political machine. At the time black mayors were rising to power across the country.

“If you were in a city with a black population the size of Philadelphia, it was clear that a black candidate would come along soon,” Mr. Bositis says. “Frank Rizzo’s purpose of being was to keep power in white hands.”

Wilson Goode, elected Philadelphia’s first black mayor in 1984, is best remembered for the disastrous 1985 police bombing of the headquarters of MOVE, a radical political group. The ensuing fire killed six adults and five children, destroyed 61 nearby homes, and became a notorious emblem of the city’s economic and social despair.

In his first term, which began in 2000, Mr. Street spent heavily to foster economic development, borrowing $200 million to raze abandoned buildings as part of a successful “blight elimination” program. He also won a bruising fight to build two new sports stadiums, and the city has a new convention center to lure business.

Mr. Street faces a local economy still struggling to recover from the late 1980s loss of manufacturing jobs. Private sector employment is down 10 percent from 1988, notes Tim Blake, senior analyst at Moody’s.

Until the listening device was discovered in Mr. Street’s office, the campaign was a standard Philadelphia affair — tough but unremarkable. Mr. Katz, a liberal Republican, was running on a platform of cutting an unpopular “wage tax” while improving the city’s system of awarding contracts. Mr. Street campaigned on his record cleaning up the toughest neighborhoods.

The bugging incident then converted lukewarm African-American support into a significant cause for the community.