Mayoral candidates proceed with caution

No one knows what effect Fumo's indictment will have. As a campaign weapon, it could backfire.


Bob Brady was reveling in the moment.

It was early Friday afternoon, and he had just been endorsed for mayor by the ward leaders who compose the Democratic City Committee.

This was no great surprise; Brady has chaired the committee for two decades. Nor was it any great plum; few voters pay much heed to the political machine in mayoral elections.

But for the congressman, it was better news than had come three days earlier.

Last Tuesday, State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, the man most responsible for getting him into the mayoral race, was indicted on federal charges of fraud, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.

How will the indictment of one of the city's most powerful politicians affect the mayor's race? The short answer is no one knows. It depends, in large part, on whether the candidates try to use it.

Strategists working in the Democratic race don't see a huge impact. But they think it might hurt Brady in the short run, at least from an insider's perspective.

They said that Fumo's absence from the Brady campaign would weaken its political clout, impinge marginally on its fund-raising ability, and feed doubts among the political class about its prospects for victory.

Beyond that, no one, inside or outside the campaigns, was offering any predictions about the May 15 primary.

"You have a change electorate because people think the city's moving in the wrong direction," said Saul Shorr, a political strategist not working the race. "But that's mainly because people are worried about crime, education, lack of opportunity."

In fact, some strategists believe that a bigger factor than ethical concerns in determining the outcome might be the fate of the city ordinance that is limiting the size of campaign contributions.

The ordinance, which has magnified the value of the $5 million that businessman Tom Knox has put into his campaign, is facing revision by City Council and review by Commonwealth Court.

In terms of impact on an election, the Fumo indictment is nothing compared to what happened four years ago, when police discovered that the FBI was bugging Mayor Street's office.

That event - which, after all, directly involved a candidate - transformed the mayoral race overnight and wound up generating a backlash that guaranteed Street's reelection.

Even so, several of the current crop of candidates could benefit from the Fumo indictment this spring, depending on how events play out.

One is Knox, assuming that his willingness to spend as much of his own money as is necessary to get elected (as he said in an Inquirer interview a few days ago) doesn't become a drag on his candidacy. If heightened attention to corruption fuels a throw-the-bums-out mentality, Knox might pick up votes.

Another is former City Councilman Michael A. Nutter. As the leading reformer in the race, he could gain support if voters decide they want a veteran insider who has worked to change the system from within.

And supporters of State Rep. Dwight Evans want people to know that their man has held a position of power in Harrisburg for years, as Fumo has, but hasn't been accused of abusing it for personal gain.

How deeply voters care about cleaning up government, though, remains to be seen.

Over the last six months, they've told pollsters by overwhelming margins that they believe the city is on the wrong track. But that has more to do with the 406 homicides the city recorded last year than any concern about a lack of ethics in government.

"Corruption and ethics haven't played big with Philadelphia voters," said Larry Ceisler, a political consultant not involved in the race. "For better or worse, the city's always had a tolerance for it."

Without question, the strategists said, the Fumo indictment gives all of Brady's major Democratic rivals - Knox, Nutter, Evans and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah - a weapon to wield against him, should they want to depict the party chairman as the handpicked candidate of an indicted state senator.

But there are obvious problems with using the weapon.

One is that Fumo hasn't been convicted of anything, nor was Brady so much as mentioned in the 267-page indictment.

Another is that Brady is his own man and just about everyone's friend; he's in his fifth term in Congress and has been settling disputes and dispensing favors for years.

"You won't ever hear me criticize Bob Brady; we've served in Congress together for a lot of years," Fattah, the apparent front-runner, said Friday just before the city committee's endorsement meeting. "You won't hear me criticize [any] candidates in this race."

Besides, a lot of voters aren't even aware of Fumo's link to the Brady candidacy.

"It's a connection an opponent will have to make," said Dan Fee, a political consultant not working for any candidate. "The voters won't do it themselves."

And trying to establish guilt by association through political advertising is an iffy and risky proposition.

It often doesn't work, as then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) learned when he tried to use it against Democrat Bob Casey Jr. last fall by depicting several current and former Casey backers as sitting in a jail cell. Such attacks often wind up damaging the attacker.

So the expectation is that the candidates will proceed with caution. With three months left before the voting, they can afford to wait and see.

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel

at 215-854-2415 or