Philadelphia City Hall

What’s With Philadelphia’s Black Leadership?

Wilson Goode Sr. (LIFE Magazine, 1984)

Wilson Goode Sr. (LIFE Magazine, 1984)

The Year was 1986

Wilson Goode Sr. was the first black mayor of Philadelphia.   Originally from the South, he had moved to Philadelphia and slowly worked his way up in public administration, eventually working in the mayor’s office under Mayor Green–the little-remembered 1-term mayor that came after Frank Rizzo.

White flight had toned down a bit from the mass exodus of the city during the late 1970s.  City planners, the mayor and City Council were boxed between a false hope that Philadelphia’s industrial might would one day turn a corner and the reality setting in that it would never, ever come back.   Goode had a vision of a new, service-oriented city whose economy was its people, not products.

Goode was also the antidote to a looming Frank Rizzo who seemed to be itching to come back to power and had become a behind-the-scenes power broker. Black residents of Philadelphia were hit with economic decline much harder than their white counterparts and whether Goode realized it or not, the idea of a black mayor made people feel that their economic suffering would get the attention it deserved.

Not long into Goode’s reign, one of the weirdest strikes hit the city.   Most of both AFSCME locals had decided to strike after contract negotiations hit a rough patch.  Many returned to work after a few days, but the city’s trash haulers decided to stay on strike after proposals were put forward to modernize the department and install larger compacting trucks.

You can guess what came next…

One of the most bizarre scenes hit the city’s streets… trash piles–some the height of four and five story buildings had started accumulating around Philadelphia as residents spent a month with no trash service.   Goode went to battle in the courts.  He threatened to replace all the city’s trash haulers with private contractors permanently, anything to get them back to work and to strike a deal.  When word hit strikers that private haulers were going to cross the picket lines, AFSCME representatives scoffed.   Wilson Goode said “try me” and started interviewing job candidates and prepared to fire the city’s trash haulers permanently.  The picketers rushed back to the bargaining table.

Goode became an instant populist hero across all quarters of Philadelphia.  The trash strike and Goode’s tough words to AFSCME transformed him into a national star.   Soon after the strike, Goode broke ground on what is now known today as Liberty Place–the iconic twin towers of the city.  It was possibly the peak of his career as mayor.   On the same day he broke ground on One Liberty Place, MOVE happened, which is the only thing we remember Goode for now.


Today we learn that Wilson Goode Sr., who now earns his keep as a minister was a lean-to as Congressman Bob Brady allegedly paid off his campaign rival Jimmie Moore to get him to quit running for congress against Brady’s seat.  Moore is African-American.  Reports say that Goode was contacted by Brady.  I can only imagine it was for a single reason—Brady wanted to use Goode to help broker the deal to get Moore to agree to drop out.

Whether Goode actually provided the assistance won’t be known until either the FBI or the US Attorney General releases whatever communications they may have recorded of the meetings.   It’s clear from prosecutor’s descriptions of what occurred that Goode was aware of what Brady was trying to do.

And ultimately: $90,000 left Brady’s campaign account and wound up in the hands of Moore, allegedly for “polling” expenses, if you can believe that.

Congressman Brady often faces little challenge in his re-elections in his specially-drawn safe district.  It’s very improbable that he would need to poll his constituents about anything, much less pay his primary campaign opponent to do the research—but that’s the story Brady’s press secretary is telling the Inquirer.

And this is just another item in the chain of Philadelphia’s list of Black Power Problems.

There’s DA Seth Williams, the first African-American District Attorney of Philadelphia.  He is currently sitting in a holding pen at the Federal Detention Center awaiting sentencing for his bribery conviction.

There’s the total collapse of the Fattah Organization, a power base that launched the careers of many other black politicians in Philly.  The founder of that political powerhouse–Chaka Fattah, once a political stalwart and long-time congressman who used to be Bob Brady’s equal in Congress who was able to assemble a factory that produced one black protege after another, is now serving a Federal prison sentence for wire and mail fraud.   His son Chip Jr. is also in Federal prison for fraud on school contracts.

Or how about the state prosecutions of State Rep. Louise Bishop, or LeAnna “I’m the fuckin’ Senator” Washington, or Thomasine Tynes for taking a fugly Tiffany bracelet as a bribe.

And then there was that one time when the second black mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, had let his poor choice of aides and staffers run wild.  They turned the Street Administration into an illegal den of Pay-to-Play contracting that nearly cost Street his re-election and came close to breaking the Democratic Party’s lock on the mayor’s office.   A chintzy public-relations blitz was launched with the Clintons and movie stars flying to Philadelphia, and local celebs like Bill Cosby and Patti Labelle were deployed to the Save Street operation to prevent Street from losing to Republican Sam Katz.

What is this?

As black representation in Philadelphia politics was infected by the very corruption that is at the core of our politics; it has changed most of us for the better.   It’s obvious now after these disappointments that identity politics is only skin deep.  It’s now reflected in the way Philadelphians vote and younger residents of the city are far less influenced by the “racial math” that so many older Philadelphians are accustomed to playing.  It’s not entirely gone, but the racial math game has led to enough election defeats that we know it’s a fool’s game to play it.

But that doesn’t mean the racial lens that we see our politicians through is gone.   Take a look at our Congressional districts.

Bob Brady’s district was drawn to hug the Delaware River to compact as many white Philadelphians as possible.   District 2, which used to belong to Fattah and is now represented by Dwight Evans, was created to compact as many black Philadelphians as possible.   District 3 was originally drawn to satisfy Northeast Republicans.    Philadelphia’s political leaders, including Brady, helped create these districts.

Today’s rising black stars in the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee still have to pay homage to Bob Brady, as aloof and inattentive to racial issues as he is.  It’s rather pathetic, actually.

I don’t think the current crop of kids who are maturing and see a future in local politics are going to stomach this situation for much longer.  I don’t think they are also happy with the idea that the leader of the Philadelphia Democratic party brokered a deal–willingly–to get rid of a black rival for his seat in a primary by buying him off.   And worst of all: that some of Philadelphia’s black establishment either participated in it, or if they knew about it–stayed silent.

I hope that’s the case anyway.   This doesn’t look good for Brady, and it certainly doesn’t look good at all for Philadelphia’s image as a progressive town.