Diaz has good record but faces long odds in mayor's race

Nelson Diaz speaks at the Bright Hope Baptist Church mayoral forum in Philadelphia on Monday, April 7, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )
Nelson Diaz speaks at the Bright Hope Baptist Church mayoral forum in Philadelphia on Monday, April 7, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )

If mayoral elections were determined by the heft of a candidate's resumé, Nelson A. Diaz might advance from long-shot to front-runner.

He was Philadelphia's youngest and first Latino judge. He was city solicitor. He has had big private-sector responsibilities. A child of Harlem, he grew up to help set federal housing policy. He served two presidents.

On the campaign trail, he repeats his accomplishments over and over in the hope voters will see them as evidence of his fitness to run the city.

His rise from tenement to the judge's bench is not only an American success story, it is one he hopes will resonate with Philadelphians, particularly in the Latino community, where quarreling political leaders who once supported him have turned their backs.

Two weeks out from the May 19 Democratic primary, with no television advertising presence and low poll numbers, Diaz is clawing to hang on.

"I don't think I've been taken seriously, and if you look at my record, that makes no sense to me," Diaz, 68, said in an interview. "Tell me which one of these candidates have ever strengthened any business area? How many have served on one of largest corporations in the country and have been effective at improving diversity there? How many reformed the courts? Changed public housing? I have the most experience in this race."

 

A mother's message

Diaz grew up in a rat-infested tenement, raised by a single mother who kept him in school and enforced strict rules. A supportive stepfather worked as a minister and bolstered Diaz's faith. Diaz credits a neighborhood baseball coach with keeping him away from gangs and shaping his character.

A graduate of St. John's University in Queens, Diaz came to Temple Law School in 1969. He was the first Puerto Rican to get a law degree there.

"Temple has been synonymous with my life in Philadelphia," Diaz said one recent morning while driving down Broad Street. He pointed at a YMCA where his portrait hangs, and recalled protests he helped lead to push Temple to recruit more black and Hispanic students.

Diaz has long been a go-to voice for Latino issues. Newspaper articles spanning 30 years quote him on topics from the low number of Hispanic police officers here in the 1980s to the 2009 appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He was appointed to Common Pleas Court and became administrative judge of a docket so backlogged that many civil cases were taking seven years to lumber through the system.

"Nelson was the first in a line of court leaders that put in place some programs to cut the backlog and reduce the time it took to bring a case to trial," said former Common Pleas Court Judge William Manfredi, who worked with him. "He was on the ground floor of the whole development of the case-management system."

He went on to become general counsel to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, overseeing 400 lawyers. His 1994 opinion allowed public agencies to partner with private developers in large-scale public housing redevelopment projects. It's known as the Diaz opinion.

"It was critical," says economist Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. "By blending private money with public oversight, that opinion paved the way to take old public housing projects and deconcentrate poverty, in the old high rises, these incredibly dangerous intense pockets of deep poverty."

Diaz was city solicitor from 2001 to 2004 during Mayor John F. Street's administration, a post he rarely mentions in the campaign. He supervised 168 lawyers, and coordinated responses to subpoenas and requests for documents during the 2003 FBI investigation into corruption in city contracts.

For the last decade, Diaz has been out of the public eye, at the Dilworth Paxson law firm, mostly handling dispute resolution and public housing litigation. He sat on the board of Exelon, where he took on the mission of getting more Latino representatives on boards nationwide.

His wife, Sara Manzano-Diaz, grew up in the same tenement he lived in as a child, though the two did not meet until years later. Her resumé rivals his; she is a regional administrator for the General Services Administration.

On the campaign trail, she is a constant - and candid - presence. "It's great to have someone who loves you in the audience but who can give you loving criticism," Diaz said.

Diaz’ son Nelson (one of three children Diaz had with his first wife, Vilma) says that when family and friends assumed he, too, would go into law, it was his father who emphasized passion over position.

"He always supported whatever I wanted," said the younger Diaz, 42, who works in IT management. "It was just, 'Finish college,' and that was the drive - it didn't matter what I studied - 'Just get your education,' because that's what saved him."

Education has been Diaz's hallmark issue in this campaign. He has vowed to work to abolish the School Reform Commission, the state board that runs the Philadelphia School District. He wants to help fund the schools by expanding hours for Center City bars and restaurants, to reap more liquor taxes.

He has stressed environmental concerns when the mayoral debates have turned to energy development. He touts his civil-rights activism, and, like his rivals, says he wants to amp up community policing and end stop-and-frisk.

These days, he greets commuters at subway stops at 7 a.m. with fliers and awkward high-fives, shows up at every forum, and comes home exhausted, sister Noemi Rodriguez said. "He'll come back, eat something, kiss his parents good night, give what we call bendición [a blessing] in Puerto Rican culture - and go to sleep." His parents are in their 90s.

 

'Si, se puede!'

The happiest moment in Diaz's mayoral run was the day he announced it.

On that January day, the city's Latino ward leaders came out to endorse him, chanting, "Si, se puede!" ("Yes, we can!") In an April interview, he described the union of the sometimes fractious group as "a miracle."

His worst experience?

Last month, many of those same ward leaders abandoned him and threw their support behind former City Councilman James F. Kenney. Diaz says that was because he refused to support a controversial Council candidate backed by the group.

"The hardest thing about this race is, you learn who your real friends are - people I saved from extinction, groups I saved, have basically turned their backs while saying, 'Good luck,' " Diaz said.

Former Councilman Angel Ortiz, who once butted heads with Diaz but has become a key ally, laments that Latino leadership has not recognized the importance of a Diaz administration.

"I was hoping that everyone would come behind him and recognize that this is a historic moment in our community's history in the city," Ortiz said. "That hasn't happened. When the history of this community is written, the historians will not look very well at those individuals that were not behind Nelson's candidacy."

Diaz's support has come from as far as Puerto Rico, where he held fund-raisers, and Hollywood, where the actress Eva Longoria included him in a nationwide drive to elect more Latinos.

But is there enough love in Philadelphia?

To seasoned politicos - who liken his odds to those of a lightning bolt's striking City Hall - he sounds a self-assured and hopeful note, his eyes weary but bright.

"That's what they say," he says, "but lightning will strike, lightning will strike."

Editor's Note: This story was corrected to reflect that Diaz' son Nelson is one of three the mayoral candidate had with his first wife.


Nelson A. Diaz

Party: Democratic.

Age: 68.

Residence: Chestnut Hill.

Family: Wife, Sara; three grown children, Nelson, Delia Lee, Vilmarie; five grandchildren.

Education: Rice High School (New York City); St. John's University (Class of 1969); Temple University School of Law (Class of 1972).

Occupation: Lawyer.

Campaign website: http://www.nelsondiazformayor.com

Career: Special assistant to Vice President Walter F. Mondale (1977-78); judge, Common Pleas Court (1981-93); general counsel, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (1993-98); city solicitor (2001-04); board of directors, Exelon (2004-15); partner, Dilworth Paxson law firm (2011-present).


INSIDE

Candidates go for the youth vote: Fourth and fifth graders. B1

Lunch-hour interviews indicate some aren't paying attention. B1

WHO'S RUNNING

Profiles of the Democratic mayoral candidates.

MONDAY

Lynne M. Abraham

TUESDAY

Nelson A. Diaz

WEDNESDAY

James F. Kenney

THURSDAY

Doug Oliver

FRIDAY

T. Milton Street Sr.

MAY 11

Anthony Hardy Williams


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215-854-5506 @juliaterruso