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Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America.

What urban America could learn from Frank Rizzo, one of the country's most infamous city politicians

In 1990, a delegation from the U.S.S.R.'s Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies came to America to explore the nuts and bolts of democracy and capitalism. The delegation's first stop was Princeton University. At the coffee break following my presentation, several delegates asked follow-up questions on topics ranging from federalism (how it really works) to junk bonds (where to buy them). But one delegate asked where in the "States of America" I "had grown." I told him Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and credited his nodding smile of recognition to Benjamin Franklin, the Philadelphia Orchestra, or perhaps hockey's Philadelphia Flyers (who mopped the floor with the Soviet national team in the seventies). But then he said, "Dear John, Philadelphia is the city of Rizzo. A great man of the people, true?"

True, ultimately. S A. Paolantoulo, an award-winning national reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has written a dramatic yet scholarly book on the late tough-cop-turned-mayor Frank L. Rizzo. Drawing expertly on hundreds of sources ranging from Rizzo's heretofore tight-lipped widow, Carmella, to his political confidants, including Richard Nixon, Paolantonio combines first-rate biography with compelling political analysis to produce a remarkably revealing book on urban personalities, politics, and policies. At a time when "the cities" have edged their way back onto the national political agenda, here is a book about a particular city that holds general lessons about where post-LA. riot urban America needs to go and how it might actually get there: by forceful leadership with a human touch.

Paolantonio's subject more than justifies the subtitle. Rizzo was the "last big man in big city America." Presidents consulted him. Street punks feared him. The mafia would not deal drugs in the city because of him. He was more powerful than Chicago's Daley yet more beloved than New York's La Guardia. Forever scorned by the city's WASP establishment, he was finally embraced by its black leaders. He defied the town's powerful Democratic machine in the seventies and rolled over its Republican machine in the eighties. And then on July 16, 1991, on the eve of one of the most spectacular comebacks in the history of urban politics, he did the one thing that most Philadelphians, life-long admirers and inveterate critics alike, never thought he would do: He died.

He died, but the city he loved did not. And while urban America's "big men" are gone, a new generation of competent and compassionate urban leaders, both men and women, have begun to arrive. For example, a story in the April 1993 issue of Governing magazine documents how well Philadelphia is doing under its present mayor, Ed Rendeli. The city has renegotiated contracts with public employees and improved its bond rating. It maintains one of the lowest crime rates in urban America. And it remains a "city of neighborhoods" where life can be fulfilling and affordable for everyone from old working-class families to newly-arrived yuppies.

The seeds of this Philadelphia renaissance were planted by Rizzo. He held the line on inner-city crime when to do so was considered racist. He implemented plans to preserve and invest in urban neighborhoods before Kempites invented enterprise zones and Clintonites reinvented them as empowerment zones. He criticized the performance of public schools and took on teachers' unions when to do so was neither politically fashionable nor expedient. And, above all else, he was a real, hands-on populist who gave Philadelphians the sense that they were part of one big extended family.

The tragedy of Rizzo's career is that it wasn't until the year he died that his populist politics included blacks. But, as he emerges from this well-balanced book, Rizzo was a flawed yet public-spirited man who saved a city and who came close to redeeming himself in the eyes of many who had long opposed him.

Rizzo was Philadelphia's Democratic mayor from 1972 to 1980. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up on the ethnic mean streets of South Philadelphia in the thirties and forties. As he grew into his 6'2", 250-pound frame, he grew into his reputation as the toughest good kid in the neighborhood, the type who didn't bully anybody but whom nobody, not even the local gangsters, dared to bully. Like his father before him, in 1943 he became a spit-and-polish beat cop. Known throughout the city as "the Cisco Kid" for his fearless first-in-action exploits against drug dealers and other criminals, he rose steadily through the ranks.

In 1967, Rizzo became police commissioner. Within a few months of his appointment he began to make national and international headlines. His name became a political Rorschach test on the question of how to deal with black urban unrest. For example, in 1970, the Black Panthers declared war on police officers nationwide and called for a "revolutionary people's convention" to be held in Philadelphia in September. But Rizzo raided the Panthers' Philadelphia headquarters in August, confiscating shotguns, rifles, and pistols. The Panthers were stripped naked and searched. The next day, a photograph of the Panthers' bare buttocks moved across the Associated Press wire.

Rizzo hadn't given the order to strip the Panthers; he was home in bed when that occurred. But he wouldn't question the officers' action, and he wouldn't tolerate others questioning it either. Nevertheless, the truth remains that Rizzo was never willing to deal forthtightly with the members of the police department, both black and white, who were prone to use excessive force in dealing with black suspects. Paolantonio explains Rizzo's my-cops-right-or-wrong philosophy but wisely makes no attempt to justify or excuse it.

Rizzo was at his best, however, with the countless average people in whom he took a direct, personal interest and for whom he did favors. Paolantonio recounts how in 1971 Rizzo befriended a campaign hanger-on named Abie Kanefsky, "a troll of a man" with "a crooked nose and the voice of a hard-drinking tugboat pilot." Kanefsky made sure the mayor "had a cup of coffee, a fresh pack of Kents, and a book of matches on his desk each morning." When Kanefsky later became homeless, Rizzo dispatched his city solicitor to find an apartment for the little guy. He then called the landlord, "talked him down from $185-a-month to $125," and gave Kanefsky "an $8,000-a-year job making coffee at City Hall." Kanefsky, who today sells newspapers on a downtown Philadelphia streetcorner, "says he owes Frank Rizzo his life."

Eight years as mayor did nothing to weaken Rizzo's hands-on populist streak. A month before Rizzo left office, Rendell, who was then the city's district attorney, received a panicked call from the mayor. Rizzo asked Rendell to do him the "big favor" of getting jobs as county detectives for his two most trusted bodyguards, Tony Fulwood and Jimmy Turner. Paolantonio records Rendell's reflection on the call: "Here's the mayor of Philadelphia calling me, frantic, to take care of two ordinary black cops...what so-called liberal would ever do that?"

Rizzo Redux

During his second term as mayor, Rizzo tried to change the city's charter, which imposed a two-term limit. But by that time the blind eye he turned to police brutality had mobilized the city's black community against him. (Full disclosure: I worked against Rizzo's charter change effort and against Rizzo-backed candidates in several city-wide elections.) The charter change effort fizzled, and it seemed for a while that Rizzo's political career was over. But in 1987, Rizzo, running as a Republican, made a comeback attempt against the city's first black mayor, Democrat Wilson Goode.

In 1985, Goode had presided over the police bombing of a home occupied by the radical black back-to-nature group MOVE. The bombing resulted in the deaths of six adults and five children and incinerated a struggling black neighborhood of 61 homes. For Philadelphia, it was a human tragedy and a national public relations fiasco. In the days following the disaster, many recalled that in a Rizzo-directed 1978 confrontation with MOVE, the only person to die was a police officer, James Ramp. The contrast wasn't lost on the city's black community. Nor, for that matter, were the conciliatory gestures and words that Rizzo had begun to offer in an attempt to reach out to blacks. Still, most observers gave Rizzo no chance of beating Goode. They were stunned when Rizzo lost by fewer than 20,000 votes out of over 650,000 cast.

After losing that election, Rizzo took to the airwaves with what quickly became the most popular radio call-in show in the Philadelphia region. Many of the callers were black, and they got to hear and sense the humorous, compassionate, lay-down-his-life-for-you Rizzo that the city's white ethnics had long known.

In 1991, Rizzo decided to make one last effort to recapture the mayor's office. The city's Republican chieftains opposed his bid for the nomination, but this time he did not merely stun them. This time he won.

As he headed toward the November general election against Rendell, Rizzo focused on the black community, not only for electoral reasons, but for historical and personal ones. He wanted to make up for the real and perceived wrongs he had committed against this part of the city family. He campaigned vigorously in the poor black neighborhoods where he had once been so despised. Local television news viewers were amazed by images of Rizzo leading anti-drug marches in black communities, rallying the crowds with the promise that he would restore order and revitalize the neighborhoods.

When Rizzo died before the election, thousands of Philadelphians turned out to mourn him in person, while tens of thousands more mourned him at home. In stultifying heat and humidity, the lines at Rizzo's funeral stretched for blocks around the cathedral. The faces of the mourners were white, black, and brown. As Paolantonio writes, Carmella Rizzo "greeted each mourner-- lawyers and judges and police officers, truck drivers and waitresses and construction workers--like a member of the family." So much is true; I was there.

Paolantonio concludes that, had Rizzo lived, he would be mayor today. It's impossible to know whether that's so. But one thing is certain: For urban America to survive and prosper, it must recapture the inclusive sense of community, the color-blind outrage at lawlessness, and the warm personal touch that are Frank Rizzo's ultimate legacy to the City of Brotherly Love.
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Article Details
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Author:Dilulio, John J., Jr.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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