Mayor Street hot topic at candidates' forum

Many seeking his job leaped in at a chance to attack. Others may be in line for an endorsement.

Near the end of an otherwise staid mayoral-candidate forum yesterday, a moderator posed this provocative question: "If you could question Mayor Street about the city's budget, what would you ask of him?"

"Oh, I can't wait," cracked Michael Nutter, the former councilman and longtime Street antagonist.

Most of the candidates jumped at the chance to pile on. Republican Al Taubenberger wanted to ask Street about his reluctance to cut taxes more quickly. Nutter said he would question Street's budget philosophy. Businessman Tom Knox wanted to ask about corruption in City Hall.

Then it was U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's turn.

"The truth is that public service is a challenge. John Street's given about three decades now of his life, and he's done a lot of good things," Fattah said. "I think it's fairly much a cheap shot for all of this nonsense about John Street."

Street has yet to publicly back a successor, but Fattah is one of the candidates who has a shot at his endorsement. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who also has a good relationship with Street, was in Washington and could not attend the forum, moderators said. The House was not in session; Brady's Washington chief of staff, Stan White, said the congressman was attending meetings.

It was a crowded dais nonetheless, as State Rep. Dwight Evans and the other major Democratic candidates - except Brady - were joined by Green Party candidate Kerry Foster and little-known Democratic candidate Queena Bass. Their participation did yield some novel ideas, such as Bass' plan to establish community centers in abandoned homes, where people "could learn Italian."

If there was a clear winner, it wasn't any of the candidates: It was the host, Community College of Philadelphia.

Just over a week after Street proposed cutting community college funding by $1 million, each of the seven said they would restore the funding if elected mayor. Nutter and Knox both described the city's low level of community college support as a "disgrace," and Evans went so far as to suggest that a community college education should be free.

"If you want to grow a middle class, and you want to lift people out of poverty, community college really needs to be free," Evans said.

Community colleges in Pennsylvania are supposed to be funded in equal parts by the state, municipalities and students. The City of Philadelphia does not come close to meeting that obligation. The $22.4 million Street proposes to give the college in 2007-08 is about $15 million short of the city's one-third share.

Bridging that gap "would make a huge difference in the depth and breadth of what we do," college president Stephen M. Curtis said at the forum. "This group of candidates clearly has education as a high priority. I'm delighted."

Though the candidates touched on many issues in the forum, they came back repeatedly to education, workforce training and job creation, as well as the roles they play in long-term prevention of violence.

All well and good, Nutter said, but not enough.

"While we're on the path to opportunity, turning people around, showing them there is a bright future, possibly later on this afternoon, while we're all very safely in this auditorium, someone is going to be shot or possibly killed," Nutter said, championing his crime-reduction plan. "You need to be safe right now."


Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.