The effects of national politics in the local scene

Photo courtesy of JFK Library.

Eight years next month, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton was stumping for then-outgoing City Council President John F. Street in his bid to become Philadelphia’s next mayor, as election day was nearing and Street was facing hot competition from Republican challenger Sam Katz.

Rallying at LaSalle University, Street at his side, Clinton campaigned vigorously.

I want you to know I came here not as President to tell you how to vote. But I hope you will listen to me as someone who has tried to be a good friend to Philadelphia.”

Clinton was known to have a good relationship with Ed Rendell, who had left just before his mayoral term expired to serve as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

But, in an article by the New York Times, Clinton noted his uncertainty on the power national political leaders can exert on local elections.

The President recalled that former President Ronald Reagan had visited Arkansas to endorse the Republican challenger when Mr. Clinton was running for re-election as Governor, and said the endorsement had little effect on the outcome. Mr. Clinton’s last endorsement effort, when he went to New Orleans last month on behalf of William J. Jefferson, the Democratic candidate for governor of Louisiana, was similarly fruitless.”

One noted difference in Katz’s 1999 campaign, for which he received more than 48 percent of the vote, and his larger loss in 2003, being beaten by more than 80,000, was the smaller, more Democratic team Katz had during his first battle with Street. Katz, like his campaign director Bob Barnett, was originally a Democrat. Though Katz changed his registration, Barnett remained a Democrat and Clinton supporter. Still, Barnett was careful to not that, while a Clinton friend, the President’s uncertainly about his effect on local politics was true.

When President Clinton leaves, the abandoned car on the street is still there. ‘This is not about foreign policy or the nuclear test ban treaty. Philadelphia has not reacted well to people coming in from out of town to tell them how to vote.”

So, while Clinton has significant star power, some may think it is more a celebrity sighting than real politicking. Interesting, indeed, but, to many, if 1999 was proof national politics can’t win an election – despite a booming economy, backing from a popular President, a large black population and 5 to 1 Democratic majority, Street still won by just two percentage points – 2003 seemed the opposite.

As the documentary Shame of a City displays vividly, Sam Katz – by most accounts a more liberal candidate than his incumbent, Democratic opponent John Street – was portrayed as a Trojan Horse for the National Republican Party, as if President George W. Bush, then already the scourge of liberals, would have policy meetings with Katz. It seemed to work, as it’s generally considered Katz lost enormous ground in liberal progressive voters, the ones who were so fearful of Street became more fearful of John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and other GOP bogeymen.

This entry was posted in Political History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.