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Philadelphia mayor's race is 'off the charts' of bizarre campaigns

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) If Chicago is the grandfather of corrupt, divisive, you-couldn't-make-this-up politics, then the City of Brotherly Love is the scrappy grandson who may soon outshine his mentor.

Nine months ago, when a fiercely competitive mayoral campaign kicked off here, the most interesting storyline was that the election would be something of a "Race for Mayor Redux," pitting Mayor John Street against businessman Sam Katz, the very candidate Street had narrowly defeated just four years earlier.

But things have gotten ever more fascinating - as well as bizarre and just plain nasty - since then.

Campaign fliers - on both sides - have been filled with talk of racial insensitivity, pinstripe patronage, embezzlement, sexual harassment and illegal fundraising.

Both candidates have been skewered for consorting with convicted criminals, inspiring the snappy headline "Every pol has their favorite con."

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An unexploded firebomb was tossed into a Katz campaign headquarters, and one of the mayor's top aides was charged with making terroristic threats in connection with the incident.

And just last week, in the most dramatic twist yet, the mayor's office at City Hall was found to be bugged. The FBI has acknowledged planting the listening device in the ceiling of Street's office as part of an ongoing investigation but has declined to elaborate on the nature of that investigation or how central a role the mayor may play in it.

"Philadelphia politics is always a bit of a full-contact sport," said Fred Voigt, the executive director of a nearly 100-year-old non-partisan political watchdog group in Philadelphia. "But we've never seen anything like this. This campaign is truly off the charts."

With about three weeks until the Nov. 4 election, talk in Philadelphia has almost entirely been diverted from the early issues of the campaign - the crime rate, the blight of inner-city neighborhoods, the merits of lowering the city's wage tax.

Since the bug was discovered on Tuesday - in a routine sweep of the mayor's office by local police - it has become the central player in the mayoral campaign. Both local newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, have reported that law enforcement sources indicate the bug was related to a long-running investigation into possible corruption in city contracts.

Fueling all the speculation about what the bug could mean for the mayor is the disclosure by federal investigators over the summer that they were examining some $13 million in maintenance contracts awarded for the Philadelphia International Airport. Some of that money was awarded to a maintenance company with close ties to the mayor's brother, T. Milton Street Sr. More than 25,000 pages of city records have been subpoenaed in that investigation.

Street defended himself after the discovery of the bug, boasting Thursday that he was having a "great day" because federal authorities had assured his lawyer that the mayor was not a "target" of its investigation. But the mayor has since had to backpedal after lawyers and reporters pointed out that "target" is a specific legal term used by federal authorities only when someone is likely to be indicted. The mayor still could be a "subject" or "focus" of the investigation if his conduct falls within the scope of any grand jury investigation.

When asked last week his understanding of the difference between a target and a subject, an annoyed Street replied, "Well, I understand the target is the really, really bad one."

Katz, even while claiming he wants to "return to talking about the issues," has called for Street to level with the public about what he has been told privately by federal authorities. Katz on Friday noted that a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan had publicly announced that investigators had "stated very clearly to both Mayor Street and his attorney the mayor's status in the investigation."

"If he's asking the FBI what's going on and they're telling him, then I think he should make that public," Katz said in an interview with the Tribune on Friday. "I think he owes the people that."

As if the issue of the bug weren't sensitive enough, race also has been prominent in the Street vs. Katz showdown. Philadelphia, which is about 45 percent white and 43 percent black, has long been racially polarized at the polls.

Street, who is black and a Democrat, has been criticized for boasting in a speech to the NAACP last year that "the brothers and sisters are running the city." And Katz, who is white and Republican, has taken heat for a GOP mailing that encouraged voters to help Katz "take back Philly."

The Katz campaign recently unveiled a campaign commercial that tackles the race issue head-on. In the 30-second spot, a young black woman, a lawyer and mother of two, looks into the camera and says frankly, "This is the City of Brotherly Love, and the brother that I'm voting for is Sam Katz."

Polls show the race in a near dead heat. In one survey, nearly 70 percent of black voters planned to support Street, while 63 percent of whites were backing Katz.

"For a lot of people this entire campaign can be boiled down to the issue of race," said David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

At a debate last week, Street indicated that he suspected federal authorities who bugged his office may have been motivated by race or political partisanship.

"In the true spirit of candor," he said, "there are some people, particularly in the African-American community, who believe that this is too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence."

The Katz camp has brushed aside any conspiracy theories, rejecting the theories on black talk radio shows that President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft had the bug planted in an effort to get a Republican in office in Philadelphia and swing Pennsylvania's electoral votes to the Bush camp in 2004.

"Does anyone honestly believe that if Sam Katz were elected mayor, Philadelphia's voters_who are by and large Democrats_would go to the polls a year from now and say, `Hmmmm, who would Mayor Katz want me to vote for? I guess I better vote for Bush,'" said Maureen Garrity, Katz's press secretary.

While old racial antagonisms are front and center, not every constituency appears to be taking its traditional position. Unions - none of whom supported Katz when he ran against Street in 1999 - have come out in force for the Republican. On Friday, Katz accepted the endorsement of the Gas Workers Employee Union Local 686, the ninth union to endorse him.

But Street has clear support as well, particularly from the Latino community, a bloc that has increasingly constituted a swing vote in Philadelphia.

"Street has been pretty consistent on cleaning up the inner city by dealing with abandoned cars, falling-down properties, things like that," said Rafael Collazo, the regional director of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute.

Still, with three weeks to go before the election, issues like that aren't getting much focus in the debate. The sensational is winning out: the fact that Street was photographed with a convicted drug dealer; that Katz is friends with a former city council aide convicted of extorting money intended for a homeless shelter; that a woman once implicated Katz in a sexual harassment suit before recanting her story; that Street accepted some $125,000 in campaign donations that Katz claims were illegal.

Voigt, of the political watchdog group, laughed when told Philadelphia was looking more like Chicago every day.

"Hey now," he shot back. "We've yet to have an alderman show up for a council vote in handcuffs."

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