Knox seems unfazed by snarling of rivals

If millionaire mayoral candidate Tom Knox feels like a lone swimmer surrounded by sharks, it was not apparent last night as he treated 120 people to dinner at a community center in Mantua.

Looking relaxed and confident, Knox spent more than an hour shaking hands, taking questions and promising wholesale change in city government if he wins the Democratic primary May 15.

He referred several times to the criticism leveled at him the past week by his mayoral rivals, but said it didn't bother him.

"Right now I feel like I've got a little target on my back; everybody's taking potshots at me," he told the people who showed up for a community dinner of barbecued chicken, collard greens, macaroni and sweet potatoes.

The crowd, predominantly African-American and elderly, seemed to be familiar with Knox from his TV ads and was pleased with his answers, applauding several times as he promised more affordable housing, lower gas bills and more efforts to get guns off the street.

Knox said the National Rifle Association had too much influence in the Legislature. He said he would coordinate a lobbying campaign by Philadelphia and other cities to "force those buggers to give us our legislation," allowing the cities to pass their own gun-control laws.

Knox defended his hiring of a disbarred lawyer, convicted of embezzlement, to work at his Maryland health-insurance firm.

The Bob Brady campaign criticized the hiring as "cronyism" and Dwight Evans called it "Tom's idea of a prisoner re-entry program," but Knox said the individual, David S. Fishbone, worked hard and deserved a second chance. "What was I supposed to do, shoot him?" Knox asked.

The "knock Knox" stretch of the campaign began over the weekend, when his rivals took several shots at him in a televised debate at Channel 6.

It hasn't stopped since.

An Evans TV ad said Knox "has no record of public service," and he later held a news conference to hand out meatless hamburger buns, asking "Where's the beef?" in Knox's record.

Michael Nutter opened up at a Tuesday news conference, saying that he'd never seen Knox at budget hearings when Knox was deputy mayor, and that in the recent past Knox never did a thing to support ethics reforms in Council.

"I'll put my 40 years' experience in business up against their records any day," Knox replied last night. "I'd rather have no record than a bad one."

Yesterday, an independent political committee set up to challenge Knox's business record held its second event, a news conference featuring former Councilman Ed Schwartz.

Schwartz attacked Knox for his involvement in high-interest payday lending in the late '90s.

"What kind of person gives loans at 491 percent interest to the most economically desperate members of our community?" Schwartz said.

The content wasn't much different from the group's first event outside Knox's North Philadelphia headquarters, where a costumed Knox-taunter named "Tommy the Loan Shark" made his first appearance.

But yesterday's event attracted six reporters, as Knox is increasingly the focus of attacks and attention.

The Daily News and Inquirer have run stories about Maryland insurance regulators fining Knox's insurance company, and there are signs the Brady campaign will take its Knox attacks to the airwaves.

Campaign spokeswoman Kate Philips said yesterday that Brady doesn't want any anti-Knox political committees in the campaign.

"We don't need any 527's to get Knox's record out," Philips said, referring to Section 527 of the tax code that governs political-action committees. "We're going to get it out. We won't sit idly by while Tom Knox runs a fraudulent campaign painting a picture of someone who doesn't exist."

Knox said last night that he wasn't worried about the formation of an anti-Knox PAC. If its contributors are working for the city, he said, "we'll have a good record on how to find them. The people who don't want me to be mayor are the people who are afraid they're going to be found out and kicked out."

Meanwhile, "Tommy the Loan Shark," who professes to be independent of any campaign or political group, plans another anti-Knox stunt today. *