Philadelphia Mayor's Race Tightens

Two major issues face Philadelphia voters as they go to the polls next week to choose nominees to succeed Mayor John Street: corruption in the Street administration and a dramatic increase in the homicide rate.

Five Democrats will fight it out in the May 15 primary, including a wealthy political newcomer. But polls show that the race has narrowed to two candidates — a white businessman who once served as deputy mayor and a black city councilman who is making a late surge.

The winner of the Democratic primary is almost certain to be the next mayor. Philadelphia hasn't elected a Republican mayor in more than 50 years.

Four years ago, shortly before the last mayoral election, the FBI planted a listening device in Mayor Street's office. The bug was part of a corruption investigation that eventually led to more than two dozen convictions, including the former city treasurer.

In the wake of that investigation, Philadelphia passed new campaign finance limits, making it harder for candidates to raise large amounts of cash from individual donors.

Enter businessman Tom Knox. A first-time candidate, Knox hasn't been affected by the new rules — because his campaign is funded almost entirely by more than $8 million out of his own pocket. That's almost as much money as all of the other candidates together have been able to raise. Knox is not defensive about that.

"I'm new in the game, and I believed that in order to catch up, I needed to have exposure," he said. "That's why I put my own money in."

In a field of career politicians, Knox looks like a political outsider — even though he spent 18 months as deputy mayor of Philadelphia in the 1990s. Knox is running on an anti-corruption platform. He says his money shows that he can't be bought. And his campaign tag line is that he's trying to take the "for sale" sign off of City Hall.

But there's a price to pay for leading the pack. While Knox doesn't have much of a political record to attack, he owned a bank in the 1990s that offered payday loans, which his opponents are calling predatory loans.

They were short-term, high interest loans. Knox's opponents — including a guy who shows up to Knox's campaign events dressed in a shark suit — claim that the millionaire made his money on the backs of the poor.

Still, ethics is far from the only issue citizens care about. More than 400 people were murdered in Philadelphia last year, making it one of the deadliest years in recent memory.

The five Democratic candidates have all made crime a leading issue.

In addition to Knox, the race features Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, former city councilman Michael Nutter and State Rep. Dwight Evans.

All say they want to combat crime by hiring more police officers — with proposals ranging from 100 to 1,000.

For much of the year Knox held a firm lead in the polls. But for much of the year he was the only candidate who could afford television advertising.

Now that every candidate is on the air, the race has tightened.

Nutter has come from behind in recent weeks and is running neck and neck with Knox.

While Knox, who is white, has made inroads with black voters in this predominantly African-American city with his rags-to-riches story, Nutter, who is black, has made inroads with white voters with his attacks on the Street administration.

"John Street says I shouldn't be running against him for mayor," says a Nutter ad. "But in a way, I am. I'm running against the things he's done wrong. His indifference to the crime and murder epidemic. Or allowing political corruption to flourish. I'm running to do things differently than John Street."

On the City Council, Nutter helped rewrite the city's ethics laws, hire new police officers and pass a citywide smoking ban.

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