Civility reigns as candidates gather again

A gentlemanly forum before the Phila. bar.

Only three days remain before the first televised debate, little more than a month before the May 15 primary.

But at least in public, the tone of the dialogue in the Philadelphia mayor's race remains what it has been from the outset: civil, substantive and mostly noncombative.

All of those characteristics were on display yesterday as the major candidates, with the exception of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, participated in a wide-ranging forum sponsored by the Philadelphia Bar Association and attended by several hundred lawyers.

The only hint of a confrontation involving any of the contenders came when businessman Tom Knox, the leader in several recent polls, was touting his accomplishments as deputy mayor in the Rendell administration in the early 1990s.

Knox talked about the money he had saved in city government, adding that his only regret was his failure to eliminate voice mail and "hold" buttons from City Hall phones - moves that he suggested would improve the quality of customer service.

"That would really have gotten me elected," Knox quipped.

"You're going to come close," replied U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, the erstwhile front-runner.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the four Democrats and Republican candidate Al Taubenberger answered questions about the education level of the city's workforce, the need to attract and retain young families, the balance between fighting urban violence and maintaining civil rights, plans to reduce taxes on business, and the need to root out Philadelphia's pay-to-play culture.

On the last issue, State Rep. Dwight Evans called for public financing of campaigns and free television time for candidates as ways to take money out of politics.

Former City Councilman Michael Nutter, who helped bring the city its new Board of Ethics, said that a mayor "has to make a decision to send a message that corruption will not be tolerated."

Knox touted his self-proclaimed status as an outsider, saying the city needs "somebody not connected to the system to come in" and clean things up.

And Taubenberger pledged to make all appointees of a Taubenberger administration take annual classes on ethics, similar to those required of lawyers as part of their continuing education.

Fattah, who did not arrive in time for the ethics discussion, devoted much of his time to extolling the virtues of his plan to lease Philadelphia International Airport to a private operator and use the proceeds to fund a large-scale antipoverty initiative in the city.

Brady was not at the forum because he had a previously scheduled fund-raiser in Pittsburgh, said spokeswoman Kate Philips.

In advance of yesterday's forum, Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Jane Leslie Dalton sent the candidates a letter last week asking them to pledge their support to five priorities identified by the organization.

The priorities are eliminating the business-privilege tax; supporting only those judicial candidates recommended by the bar; constructing a new courthouse for Family Court; increasing funds for the schools; and creating a permanent police-advisory commission.

How the candidates responded was not revealed yesterday. A spokesman for the bar association said that some had yet to reply and that the association would report the results on its Web site.

The first televised debate of the campaign takes place Saturday, with the five major Democrats scheduled to participate. The event, hosted by CBS3, is to be taped during the day and aired at 7 p.m.

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or