Clout | If Knox is to be stopped, rivals must act swift-ly

YOU CAN almost hear the distant rumble of swift boats on the Mekong.

With millionaire Tom Knox spending his way to a wide lead in the mayor's race - nearly double that of his closest rivals, U.S. Reps. Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah, in the NBC 10 poll this week - an independent, swift-boat-style TV ad might be the only way to sink him.

You might recall that ad from the 2004 presidential election attacking Democratic candidate John Kerry's Vietnam War record. Kerry's slow response to the attack was a major factor in his narrow loss to George W. Bush.

The ad was bought by "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," a so-called 527 group. Named for a provision in the U.S. Tax Code, a 527 group is a nonprofit entity that is not bound by limits on campaign contributions.

With his four rivals hobbled by new city campaign-finance limits, Knox has dumped more than $5 million of his own money into his campaign, most of it for TV ads that portray him as a poor-boy- made-good who wants to wrest City Hall from Philadelphia's corrupt pay-to-play culture.

Knox has outspent Brady on TV ads by nearly 5 to 1 and Fattah 10 to 1 as he's moved from dead- last to top of the polls.

Can anything stop him? Maybe a swift boat 527 torpedo between the stacks, painting Knox as an interest-rate-gouging payday lender and an insider whose businesses have benefited from political connections.

"It certainly could have an impact," said Neil Oxman, media consultant to mayoral candidate Michael Nutter. "If a 527 for or against anybody spent $250,000- $300,000 a week, you could change somebody's numbers."

Said political analyst Larry Ceisler, "If I had a dollar for every time I've heard 527 in the past few weeks, I'd have enough money to start my own 527."

Ceisler agrees that "the only way to stop Tom Knox now is for a 527 to take him on, but in this town to organize people [to form a 527], get them on the same page, with only a few weeks to go is an almost impossible task."

The most imaginable scenario would be an alliance of big-bucks supporters for either Fattah or Brady. Fattah's mayoral exploratory committee got six-figure contributions from Michael Karp, Gerry Lenfest and George Weiss, among others. Such a group has the dough to float a 527.

Of course, a 527, even if it was formed, is not a sure thing. The closer you get to Election Day, the more skeptical voters are about negative ads.

"One problem with the 527," said Republican consultant Chris Mottola, "is that if it's obvious the people are connected to one of the other candidates, it plays into Knox's argument that this is just politics as usual. He can say, 'They agreed to abide by the spending limits and now look how they're using this to bend the rules.' "

Mottola is dubious that a 527 attack can work, but if it is launched, it should attack Knox right in his message: His past and just who he is.

"He says he did a lot of stuff for Ed Rendell, but the newspapers show very little," Mottola said. "You do political jujitsu. You turn his strength against him."

Brady gains power in House

A little-noticed development in Washington could have major impact for Brady. U.S. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., has been diagnosed with cancer and taken a leave of absence from Congress.

Millender-McDonald is chairwoman of the House Administration Committee. This is a major committee that oversees salaries and expenditures for committees and staffs, government printing contracts and all federal construction projects in the District of Columbia.

The committee chair is often referred to as "the mayor of Capitol Hill." Millender-McDonald's successor? Brady, who is acting as interim chairman.

"She is a great lady and I hope she comes back strong as ever," Brady said. "My family's thoughts and prayers are with Juanita."

Should Millender-McDonald be unable to return, Brady, as next ranking Democrat, is the likely successor. In short, he could lose as mayor of Philadelphia and wind up as mayor of Capitol Hill.

Brady's jailed donor

A North Philadelphia developer cooling his heels in federal prison donated office space earlier this month to Brady's mayoral campaign, with a little help from state Rep. Angel Cruz.

Brady opened his "Latino Outreach Office" in the Fairhill neighborhood two weeks ago.

Cruz told us Brady "asked me to participate and help him open an office in the Latino community," so he asked his landlord, Lance Investments Inc., to donate the office space to him. Cruz in turn donated the space to Brady's campaign.

Lance Investments is run by Reinaldo Pastrana, who pleaded guilty to three counts of bribery after he was indicted with former Councilman Rick Mariano in October 2005. Pastrana's son, Lance, for whom his company is named, runs the day-to-day business.

Pastrana's connection to the new office came as a surprise to the Brady campaign, according to his spokeswoman, Kate Philips.

"We had no clue," she said. "It was a shock for us to learn this."

The campaign, she added, intends to keep the office.

"It's an in-kind contribution to us, much like if we got an in-kind contribution of catering," Philips said. "We wouldn't check to see who the caterer was or who his father was."

Cummings fights

Democratic tide

In our report about Traffic Court candidates last week, we screwed up by saying that Scott Cummings had a car registered in Montgomery County. It was a different Scott Cummings.

The real Scott Cummings is trying to win the Democratic endorsement even though he's a Republican.

Cummings has the right background for smash-mouth Philadelphia politics. He used to work for Donald Trump. As a bodyguard. He was also once head of security for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Cummings says party labels don't faze him.

"I've had a bipartisan approach as head of the Mayfair Civic Association, so I work with Democrats every day," Cummings said.

One of his innovations: Placing a radar machine near schools and playgrounds that records drivers' speeds, encouraging them to slow down. *

Staff writers Gar Joseph and Chris Brennan contributed to this report.