John Baer | Knox tapping into a longing for change

HOW YA feelin' about your mayor's race?

I, personally, am feelin' Tom Knox. Which, if you think about it, is amazing. It's amazing because Flawadelphia is supposed to be one of those places on the planet where good-ol'-boy politics never changes, where the system is rigged for the same closed crowd, where reform is just a word often heard, never heeded.

The city should be on the verge of electing either a connected incumbent with a street presence such as Chaka Fattah or a connected incumbent with a street presence such as Bob Brady.

Yet, Knox (and, OK, he's not the outsider he pretends to be, but he isn't back-slapping Brady or polished-pol Fattah, either) has to be regarded as the projected winner May 15.

How did this happen?

A unique mix of time, place and money are for Knox three rivers of opportunity flowing in conflux toward what six months ago, three months ago seemed an unlikely destination. Why?

Philly might be shedding its same-old, same-old political skin. The mood of voters nationally and statewide in '06, a mood yearning for change of any kind, seems (surprisingly to me) to be reaching the city in '07.

That creates a time for a candidate - like Knox - vowing something different.

The place benefiting Knox is the field of five serious contenders, a field splitting the primary vote in ways that allow someone to win with support of only a third of the electorate.

And the money - not only his, but the lack of it among others restricted by new, reform-minded campaign-spending laws - creates a singularly exclusive arena enormously advantageous to Knox.

These factors - time, place and money - currently outweigh concerns about Knox's past business bloopers or pay-day lending, his minimal experience, or his personality, described by one elected city Democrat as "dropping the temperature by 10 degrees in any room he walks into."

The question now is whether Knox's early TV inoculates him against predictable, anti-frontrunner attacks or whether the medium that built him up will be used by others to tear him down.

And if not, which is more critical to victory in the distinctive political environment of a mayoral race: sustained, effective TV ads or Election Day street workers to get out a vote?

I don't know.

But I know that any time I write about the contest, I hear from readers who want the devil they don't know more than the devils they do.

And so much of it is perception.

There's a perception that everyone but Knox is the same - incumbents who, since things aren't all that great, especially in areas of public safety, were unable to make things better.

This, of course, is fantasy. They are not the same. But it's no more fantasy than Knox-spun tales of creating Eden on the Delaware, or Fattah's lease-the-airport-to-end-poverty plan or Brady's stickball-in-the-streets 1950s neighborhoods. It's just a fantasy that seems to have taken hold.

A veteran Democratic ward leader tells me many people are "sick of" city politics as played for so long.

"I'm sick of it," he says, "So imagine what my neighbors feel!"

That seems to be what's out there: an unshakable sense of dissatisfaction with the current players, even if (like Brady, Fattah, Dwight Evans and Michael Nutter) they are players who've done good things.

What's left is the TV slugfest and Election Day street fight to come, and whether one or the other knocks out Knox.

Today, I'm not feelin' it.

(Oh, and Sam Katz? Not feelin' that either. If he really wanted to, again, be mayor, he shoulda run like everyone else, not mince up to opportunity. His maybe-run, I assume viable only if Knox wins in May, strikes me as cliche, as in going to the well too often.) *

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