Pope? What Pope?
The buzz of the week in Philly was the honor Time bestowed upon Mayor John Street. In a sidebar to its cover story about the nation's five best mayors, it put Street on its shorter list of the three worst mayors in America.
This prompted much cluck-clucking in the local media, a wounded-pride response from Street, and a defense of his record from one of his better known non-fans, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick.
Street's response and Ferrick's defense made roughly the same point, so I'll use Street's response to sum up: "Had it not been for the probe, I may have been among the candidates for the best mayor."
That is probably overstating the case a bit. But it's not too far off the mark.
Street's current situation is not that much different from where one of Time's best mayors, Richard M. Daley of Chicago, finds himself. Both Street and Daley have bit the bullet and taken dramatic steps to reform their cities' underperforming schools. Both have undertaken major initiatives to reclaim rundown and abandoned neighborhoods and redevelop them for a new urban era. Both are surrounded by investigations into corruption that have snared close associates but left them personally untouched.
So what accounts for the difference? Maybe attitude has something to do with it.
If, in 20 years or so, we see a North Central Philadelphia filled with decent working residents, new jobs and small businesses, the credit will belong to John Street, whose Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is laying the groundwork for that possibility. But it's quite likely that people around here will still be talking about the Center City renaissance and municipal ego boost that came with his predecessor, Ed Rendell.
Rendell did no more to dismantle the pay-to-play culture that has dominated municipal government for years than anyone before or after him. But through some highly visible actions, he communicated a things-are-gonna-change-around-here message. The image of the newly elected mayor on his hands and knees, scrubbing a City Hall bathroom, and his willingness to take a short strike to win some significant concessions from the municipal unions, spoke volumes.
So, unfortunately, did Street's comment early in his first term that he did intend to give preference to his supporters when it came to awarding city contracts. Did he do anything different from, say, what Frank Rizzo would have done in his situation? Quite likely not. But he was open about it, and that made all the difference.
The message Street sent early on was: I'm in favor of business as usual. His attempt to halt the gradual wage tax cuts Rendell initiated--which led to a major political defeat midway through his first term--reinforced that message.
Those two actions spoke much louder than 5,000 cops working overtime or new housing in North Central Philadelphia did to the people who pay attention to municipal affairs. And thus does Mayor Street find himself on Time's trash heap rather than its honor roll.