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Who Will Win the Bid for City Hall?

February 8, 2007 By:
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Three mayoral hopefuls discussed their plans and ideas for Philadelphia at a candidate forum at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.
And they're off! From schmoozing at dinners in Chestnut Hill and Roxborough to appearing at a town hall meeting at a Center City synagogue, then on to releasing policy papers on issues such as crime, health care and education via cyberspace, the five Democratic candidates for mayor of Philadelphia are out of the starting gate and racing toward the May 15th finish line.

The contestants at present are U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-District 1), U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-District 2), State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-District 203), former City Councilman Michael Nutter and businessman Tom Knox.

It appears all but certain that one of them will be the next mayor, since no Republican candidate has entered the race.

That means that the city's 746,834 registered Democratic voters -- out of a total of 995,142 registered Philadelphia voters -- will in effect get to choose who runs the city for the next four years. A simple plurality is needed to win the primary.

It seems there are few, if any, issues of specific concern to the Jewish community, at least at this point in the campaign.

"In a number of cities, there have been candidates who have had a history of conflict, tension and disagreement with the Jewish community. That's not true here," said Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

"The fact that Philadelphia Jews care about the same issues as every other Philadelphian is probably a healthy sign," he added.

So what are the issues these men are pushing?

Fattah, 50, who according to the most recent Daily News/Keystone Poll is in the lead with 26 percent, has touched upon crime and touted his efforts to get illegal guns off the streets. But, by and large, he's focused on health care, education and creating more opportunities for disadvantaged residents, as well as small-business owners.

The six-term congressman has also, as of Dec. 31, raised nearly $400,000 for his campaign.

Several Jewish political insiders with close ties to Gov. Ed Rendell are either backing Fattah or working directly with his campaign, although Rendell has not endorsed anyone. For instance, Mark Aronchick, who has served in a number of roles for the Democratic Party, is working as a senior policy adviser for the campaign, and Herb Vederman, a one-time deputy mayor under Rendell, is Fattah's finance chair, as well as policy adviser.

"Chaka is one of those people who has the ability to know all the facts and figures, and understand the problem," said Vederman, 58, a member of two area synagogues. "You have a lot of good candidates in this race, but I think Fattah is really the best person to take that legacy that Ed left us and move it to the next level."

Many political observers were more than a little surprised that Tom Knox, 66, a self-made businessman with little or no name recognition before the start of the race, was polling second at 22 percent. That's partly because he's virtually had the television airwaves to himself so far, financing his campaign advertising largely through his own wealth. This has led to an effort in the City Council to overturn city campaign-finance regulations, and make it easier for the other candidates to raise enough cash in order to compete with Knox on the airwaves.

Knox's campaign has focused on the need to reform the city's "pay-to-play" culture, make the bureaucracy more accountable and efficient, and improve the economic climate so as to attract more businesses to the area. He's also pinpointed the escalating homicide rate as a major issue.

"He will bring a businessman's approach to running city government," said Mark Schneider, 46, a Rodeph Shalom congregant who runs a Center City-based medical billing firm.

"He is beholden to no one. He will bring integrity and honesty to City Hall. I think we have been called the next great city, and we can't lose the momentum that we currently have."

In that same poll, Nutter had 12 percent, Evans 10 percent and, perhaps most surprising, Brady -- who runs the municipal Democratic Party machine, and who commands vast support among ward leaders and rank-and-file union members -- trailed with 8 percent of the vote.

Nutter, 49, who stepped down from City Council last year in order to run, is perhaps best known for his push for the 2006 law banning smoking in restaurants and bars, as well ethics-reform bills that would limit campaign contributions.

He's also railed against corruption in city government, and called for the addition of more police officers, stepped up the use of surveillance cameras, and the increased employment of stop-and-frisk measures in troubled neighborhoods

As of Dec. 31, Nutter had raised nearly $1.4 million.

Susan Jaffe, a 63-year-old member of Society Hill Synagogue, who once served on the city's zoning board, first met Nutter through her work, and is supporting him and organizing a fundraising event.

She said she felt that crime, honesty in government and the health of the business community were the defining campaign issues.

"Certainly, crime, because it impacts all of us. It puts a stigma on this city and leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth," said Jaffe.

Evans -- a longtime state representative who chairs the body's appropriations committee -- pledged to hire more cops, and urge the police department to target quality-of-life issues, such as graffiti. Like Fattah, he's also stressed the need to improve public schools.

Evans, who ran in 1999 and finished last in the Democratic primary, has, as of the end of the year, raised slightly more than $1.2 million.

Peshe Kurlioff, a 59-year-old resident of West Mount Airy and a Germantown Jewish Centre congregant, said that Evans presents the most substantive solutions to urban problems.

"I'm really tired of ward politics and the inability of the Democratic Party to modernize and produce exciting young candidates, and support new ideas and be willing to take risks," she said.

"Everyone knows that Dwight is a creative thinker. They might question whether he can get elected," said Kurlioff. "People have to believe in his capacity to get elected. The only thing that holds people back is their desire to support someone who can win."

The final candidate is Brady, who in many ways has dominated city politics for two decades. The 61-year-old, elected to the House of Representatives in 1997, waited until Jan. 25 to officially enter the ring. Still, he'd accumulated more than $400,000 for his campaign.

Brady was the only candidate who decided to skip a Jan. 25 candidate forum at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street, where the mayoral hopefuls spent two hours fielding questions from the audience.

According to Andi Pringle, a spokeswoman for Brady, the same night as the Rodeph Shalom program, the politician attended a fundraiser at the Golden Gate Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia, a gathering hosted by Rabbi Solomon Isaacson, religious leader of Congregation Beth Solomon Suburban of Somerton.

Isaacson said that several congregants were involved in the planning stages, but that the shul itself was not sponsoring the event, since endorsements would imperil its tax-exempt status.

It's been widely speculated that Brady, who promised to hire 1,000 new police and truancy officers if elected, played a part in convincing former City Controller Jonathan Saidel to drop his bid for mayor.

But now Saidel, one of the most well-known Jewish politicos in the city, is chairing Brady's campaign.

Conspicuously, Brady did not mention the word "reform" in his announcement speech, and some of his detractors have claimed a Brady administration would simply spell business as usual.

According to Saidel, "The system has to be transparent. There has to be bidding for almost everything. But the issues that affect someone living in Philadelphia is not reform of its government as much as services that are not being provided to its citizens."

Is Saidel sorry that he's not in the thick of it with the campaign in full swing?

"In some ways, there is a twinge of remorse," he admitted.

"But what's more important than [me] becoming mayor is someone becoming mayor that has the same feelings about family and neighborhood," said Saidel. "This is the most important election this city faces in the next 50 years. We are on the cusp of greatness." 

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