Gizzi on Politics: May 7-11

Two Days in Philly

I was in Philadelphia last week for the Heritage Foundation’s Resource Bank meeting, but, of course, couldn’t resist talking about many of the lively political developments in the City of Brotherly Love with some of my old political friends while I was there.
Hard Knox on Mayor’s Race.

Right now, Tom Knox would win the [Democratic] primary for mayor May 15 — no question about it,” mused Philadelphia “superlawyer” James Baumbach over lunch at the Palm Restaurant last week. “But there are a lot of folks among the 400 or so powers in this city, most of whom are Democrats, who won’t swallow him. He’ll be like [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg — someone they can’t control. Where they go if he wins, well, we’ll see.”

This observation by Baumbach, a canny player in Philadelphia mayoral campaigns for a generation, says it all about the current primary battle to succeed lame duck Democratic Mayor John Street. A just-completed survey by Susquehanna Polling and Research for the Pennsylvanians for Effective Government business group showed Knox — a millionaire from banking and health care enterprises — leading the Democratic primary field with 20% of the vote. The survey showed former City Councilman Michael Nutter closing in on the front-running, big-spending Knox with 18% of likely primary voters, and rounding out the field were U.S. Representatives Chaka Fattah (14%) and Bob Brady (9%) and State Rep. Dwight Evans (7%.)

What bothers people about Knox, who served for a time as deputy mayor under Ed Rendell, now the governor of Pennsylvania, when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia from 1991-99? Part of the controversy has to do with how Knox became rich. Last week, in an issue that also carried an endorsement of Nutter, Philadelphia Magazine featured a withering article with highly critical quotes from people who had had business dealings with Knox. Among the criticisms highlighted in the magazine was a story claiming that a bank Knox helped manage made high-interest “payday” loans to needy citizens.

The other major reason for the animosity toward Knox among fellow Democrats is that the millionaire candidate is the chief beneficiary of newly enacted campaign finance rules with strict caps on donations: $5.000 from individuals, and $20,000 from political action committees. Because he is spending almost exclusively from his own wealth, Knox (whose campaign is being orchestrated by onetime Howard Dean for President quarterback Joe Trippi) is free of any limitations.

Last week, a new “527” group known as the Economic Justice Coalition for Truth emerged to run TV ads attacking Knox’s business practices. The Committee of Seventy, a civic watchdog group, blasted the TV ads and called on the city’s Board of Ethics to investigate what it branded a “brazen attempt to avoid the city’s campaign finance laws.” Among those involved in the anti-Knox “527” are attorneys Alex Talmadge, Jr. (an ally of mayoral hopeful Brady) and Abbe Fletman (a Fatah backer.)

Other Philadelphians are making contingency plans for a Knox triumph May 15. Financier Sam Katz, the near-successful Republican candidate against Street in 1999 and ’03, announced last week that he was changing his registration to independent — a move that would qualify him to run on an independent line in the fall.

During my visit, the hottest political rumor sweeping the city was that, in the event Knox emerges triumphant May 15, Republicans will attempt to persuade their likely mayoral nominee, Al Taubenberger, to relinquish the GOP standard. In that event, the rumor goes, they would replace him with Lynn Abraham, Philadelphia’s Democratic district attorney since 1991.

“Sure, anything could happen, and a lot of folks like Lynn because she was a tough prosecutor,” Baumbach told me, “But she’s also a lifelong Democrat. I wonder if anyone has checked with her about running as a Republican.”  

Pennsylvania House Speaker for Thompson

Although he has yet to say officially that he is running for President, Fred Thompson last week picked up a major endorsement for the ’08 Republican nomination.

“I like Fred Thompson,” Dennis O’Brien, speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, told me in his Philadelphia office. “And I’m for him for President. I have no problem being for him, because I like what he stands for.”

Although the 52-year-old O’Brien offered no specifics, he did point to the role the former Tennessee senator played two years ago in guiding President’s Bush’s nomination of John Roberts as chief justice through the Senate confirmation process. In his words, “Supreme Court justices are among the most lasting things a President can give the nation, and [Pennsylvania Republican Sen.] Arlen Specter and Fred Thompson were among those most responsible for securing confirmation of a great jurist.”

Like Missouri GOP Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, so far the highest elected official outside Tennessee to endorse the 64-year-old Thompson for President, O’Brien cited the reputation the former senator and TV actor has as a communicator and said, “Fred Thompson approaches the level of the greatest communicator, Ronald Reagan, in being able to have Republicans viewed in terms of what we’re for rather than what we’re against.”

In talking about his support for Thompson, O’Brien predicted that the former senator “could carry Pennsylvania because he will carry blue-collar districts like mine.”

 Other Republican heavyweights are expected to join O’Brien on the Thompson bandwagon soon. One person increasingly mentioned as a Keystone State Thompsonite is Delaware County Republican Chairman John McNichol. Clearly, such strong backing for someone who has neither filed an exploratory committee nor even announced his intentions will put more pressure on Fred Thompson to indicate his plans — sooner rather than later.

Rizzo for No One in ’08

The heir to one of the best-known political names in Philadelphia, and himself one of the few Republican office-holders in the City of Brotherly Love, is neutral in the ’08 presidential race.

“I have no favorite in the racec — not now anyway,” City Councilman Frank Rizzo told me last week. The 64-year-old Rizzo, whose namesake-father was the city’s police commissioner in the 1960s and mayor from 1972-80, said he “was so focused on the local situation” that he had not really strongly considered any of the GOP contenders vying to succeed Bush next year.

“Sure, I know them — and I really like [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney,” Rizzo told me at this office in City Hall, which looks out on a statue of his legendary father (who died in 1991), “But I know [Arizona Republican Sen.] John McCain and I have campaigned with [former New York City Republican Mayor] Rudy Giuliani.” Rizzo recalled how he once introduced the New Yorker at an event in Philadelphia as “the second greatest mayor in American history” — obviously excepting his father, known for his hard-nosed “law and order” stand while in City Hall. (Giuliani knew the elder Rizzo while he was a Justice Department official in the 1980s and was a great admirer of the policeman-mayor.)

Among likely GOP voters in Pennsylvania, the latest Strategic Visions poll slows Giuliani as the ’08 favorite at 44%, followed by McCain at 17%, Thompson at 10%, Newt Gingrich at 5%, and Romney at 3%.