Tensions rising: 3 mayoral candidates launch attacks

After months of tepid exchanges in the mayor's race, elbows began flying over the weekend - most of them aimed at Tom Knox, the millionaire businessman who has bought a significant lead in the polls with $5 million in self-financed television ads.

Yesterday, State Rep. Dwight Evans revealed a new television commercial that portrays both Knox and Congressman Chaka Fattah as weak on crime issues.

"Tom Knox has no record fighting crime and Chaka Fattah says there's nothing a mayor can do to immediately reduce the murder rate," the Evans ad says.

The ad proceeds to credit Evans for reducing crime in West Oak Lane, where the state lawmaker has promoted a series of economic-development projects.

The commercial followed a contentious debate that aired yesterday on WPVI-TV (Channel 6). Congressman Bob Brady - until now the most amiable of the five major Democratic candidates - went after Knox, charging that he had a history of "ripping off men and women" in his business ventures.

Evans criticized both Knox and Fattah during the debate. He accused Knox of exaggerating his role in the Rendell administration and said Fattah was using "fuzzy math" in his proposal to lease the Philadelphia airport to private investors - the cornerstone of Fattah's campaign.

Knox initially tried to slough off the criticism as a routine attack on the leader with barely three weeks left before the May 15 primary.

"I guess it's the time when everybody's going to start criticizing somebody in this election," Knox replied when Evans accused him of "making up" a record on crime issues.

"I'm going to keep this thing even-keeled and I'm not going to criticize anybody," Knox said. "And if I do, I'll apologize for it."

But Evans took another poke at Knox several minutes later, and Knox was testier.

"Tom is trying to sell himself as the David Cohen of the Rendell administration," Evans said, referring to Rendell's ubiquitous chief of staff. "The bottom line is, you're trying to portray yourself as something that you're not."

"Dwight, that's a lot of baloney," Knox interrupted. When Evans suggested that Knox should wait his turn, Knox replied: "I don't need to listen to your lies."

Brady waited until the last moment of the debate to level a broadside at Knox's record in business.

"There are four candidates sitting at this table that all their life helped working men and women," Brady said. "There is one candidate, Tom Knox, that has not. [He's been] ripping off men and women, working men and women . . . Predatory lending, insurance scams, attacking pensions. Now, I'm going to get a lot of negative ads coming back to me, probably a million dollars negative on me. But . . . my vision is too important for this city to have Tom Knox become the mayor."

It was a calculated attack. As the candidates left the television studio, Brady aides gave reporters a one-page sheet of allegations, based on Philadelphia newspaper stories and a report by Maryland insurance regulators.

One allegation involved the operations of Crusader Bank, a Knox investment that offered high-interest "payday loans."

Another charge involved Maryland Fidelity Insurance, purchased by Knox in 1999. Brady's handout alleged that the company had been fined $70,000 by Maryland regulators for several violations, including instructing policyholders to seek permission from their primary-care physicians before visiting a hospital emergency room.

Brady also accused Knox of trying to reduce pension benefits for employees of Fidelity Mutual Insurance after the Casey administration took over the troubled company and appointed Knox to run it in receivership.

Knox did not stick around long enough to answer the allegations in any detail.

"Desperate candidates are saying things that they need to say," Knox said as his wife, Linda, pulled on his arm and his campaign manager, Josh Morrow, pushed Knox toward the exit.

Later, Morrow called reporters to dump on Brady. "Bob Brady knows that his gravy train is over when Tom Knox is elected," he said. "This is the guy who gives out the jobs, who gives out the no-bid contracts."

Fattah and former City Councilman Michael Nutter tried to hover above the fray.

Fattah defended the feasibility of leasing the airport.

Nutter repeatedly described himself as the only candidate in the race who had dealt with city problems - forcing the hiring of more police officers in a budget battle with Mayor Street, and getting City Council to limit campaign contributions and strengthen the city Board of Ethics. *