The Philadelphia Story

John Street, Mayor of Philadelphia, commenting on a listening device found in his office, Phildelphia, 10-7-03
Beth Lester of the CBS News Political Unit reports on the Philadelphia mayor's race.

Philadelphia's mayoral election, a rematch of the 1999 race between Democratic incumbent John Street and Republican businessman Sam Katz, has taken a surprising turn as voters seem to be rallying around the mayor since an FBI investigation of alleged political corruption became public.

Far from hurting him, the investigation appears to have given a boost to Street's campaign. In the three weeks since the probe was revealed with the discovery of a tap in the mayor's office, the investigation has targeted several of Street's associates, including his brother Milton, who has tried to win a city airport contract for more than $1 million, and Ronald A. White, a top Philadelphia lawyer who has several large contracts to represent city departments and negotiate bond programs.

Based on this, Street has portrayed himself as the victim of racially motivated attacks by higher powers seeking to manipulate the election. Street has repeatedly told crowds, "It's not until the last couple of weeks that anybody ... raised any question at all about my integrity."

Other Democrats have put a similar spin on events. At a rally this week, Rev. Jesse Jackson blamed the investigation on "The same forces that stopped the counting in Florida and disenfranchised voters. Those same forces are entering into, in the same ugly way, this election in Pennsylvania."

Katz is crying foul over Street's interpretation of events. "John Street," Katz told reporters, "has shown a willingness to divide Philadelphia racially to win politically." And while FBI investigator Jeffrey Lampinski told a press conference that the probe's timing was dictated by "the facts in the case," new polls suggest voters are more inclined to buy Street's explanation.

The first post-investigation poll, concluded October 15 and conducted by Temple University/CBS3/KYW-AM, showed Street pulling ahead of Katz, 48 to 41 percent. One month ago in the same poll, Katz was leading 46 to 40 percent. And Street's rise seems to be holding; polls by other organizations show his lead widening to up to 17 percent.

Key to the mayor's surge has been a solidification of support among black voters. As Andrew Smith, who conducted the Temple poll, told CBS News, Street's support among African-Americans has gone up 14 percent since last month, from 70 percent to 84 percent. A Mason-Dixon poll found similar results: 82 percent of black voters favored Street, compared to just 5 percent for Katz.

G. Terry Madonna, who conducts the Daily News/Fox Philadelphia/Keystone Poll, which shows Street's lead widening, says there is also some evidence that Street's numbers were already improving before the investigation became front-page news. Madonna told CBS News that Street was up by 8 points among likely voters by the last week of September. He thinks the Temple poll was the first that "caught up to where Street" was heading.

However, Maureen Garrity, spokeswoman for the Katz campaign, downplays the numbers. "We're not putting stock in any particular poll, there are so many," she says. Indeed in the 1999 election, several polls, including the Keystone Poll, showed Katz leading Street as late as October in a race that Street went on to win.

Despite the hedging of bets, there is general agreement that the FBI story has helped Street. "To say there was a spontaneous eruption of feeling" when the investigation was discovered "would be an understatement," said Dan Fee, spokesman for the Street campaign. "People went nuts."

And pollster Madonna said, "My sense is that African-American voters believe, rightly or wrongly, that the mayor is being targeted unfairly."

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Street's success at the hand of the FBI is actually right out of another mayor's political playbook: Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C. As Barry did following his release from jail on a drug-related conviction, Street is playing an offensive game that combines race and charges that larger forces are trying to manipulate the election. Black voters have rallied around Street, like they did Barry, because they feel that black politicians are being harassed by greater powers.

Sounding the chord of one whose been there, former President Bill Clinton summed up the Democratic spin on the issue at a noontime rally for Mayor Street on Friday in Philadelphia. "I know quite a bit about Republicans investigating Democrats," he said.

By Beth Lester