Rolling up Roosevelt Boulevard in his pal Ernie DeNofa's black Cadillac Escalade, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady learns someone is mad at him. This is a problem.

Not that Brady cares what anyone thinks. Oh, no. As the Philadelphia mayoral candidate will tell anyone, he's not one of those slick, status-seeking pols who spend their whole lives trying to win people over.

"I am what I am," he likes to say. Deal with it.

But the angry person today is a ward leader and longtime Brady ally: Councilwoman Carol Ann Campbell.

Which means the anger could disrupt the smooth functioning of the city Democratic organization. And that is something Brady - the machine's boss since 1986 - cares about a lot.

A day earlier, Campbell was forced to appear in court because a rival filed suit to knock her off the ballot. According to DeNofa, she's upset that Brady never called to see how it went.

"It was, 'Oh, I was in court all day and he never called,' " DeNofa explains. " 'I worry about him, he doesn't worry about me.' "

You get used to such complaints when you're a go-to guy like Brady. Though he votes on war and peace in Washington, he still mediates fights and soothes egos back home.

If his legislative accomplishments don't prompt comparisons to Henry Clay, his diplomatic skills might impress Henry Kissinger. During his reign atop the party, Brady, 62, has transformed it from a West Beirut of racial politics to a veritable promised land of equal opportunity.

This year, those talents are Exhibit A in his case for why he should be mayor.

Now, as Brady and his entourage cruise between campaign stops on a March Saturday, he marshals his wiles to head off a blowup with Campbell - an accidental byproduct, he says, of his busy campaign. Sensing danger, he gathers information, then uses it for political peace, if not necessarily full honesty.

Brady whirls around to face a reporter tagging along. As it happens, the reporter covered Campbell's hearing.

"I got to ask you a question," Brady says, adopting the mock-threatening tone of a 250-pound man staring down someone he could bench-press. "If you don't answer, I'm going to throw you out of the car."

What time, he asks, did the court dismiss Campbell's case?

About 3:30, the reporter says.

Moments later, Brady grabs his ultra-slim Motorola phone, which looks tiny in his oven mitt of a hand. It's Campbell.

"Congratulations!," Brady exclaims. "I knew at 3:30 yesterday afternoon! The judge called me right away!"

Soon the old friends are joking and reminiscing.

"We got to get out of this business," Brady says and laughs. "Maybe we should go sell pretzels."

And so, in Brady's world, peace reigns anew. For the moment.

Making peace, in fact, is a central theme of Brady's campaign.

In TV spots, he touts his record of solving labor disputes in public transit and at the public schools. On the stump, he talks of making people put aside selfish interests to work together. In candidate forums, Brady rarely slams his rivals' ideas; instead, he insists that only he has the connections to get them done.

But the bulk of his deal-making happens far from those public forums. It happens in phone calls at his ward clubhouse in West Philadelphia or meetings in the dingy back room of Democratic headquarters on Walnut Street.

Last summer, Brady gathered local political and business leaders to meet - behind closed doors - to discuss violence. Last month, when he brokered an end to a strike at the Community College of Philadelphia, he did so by cell phone from a truck driving him to campaign rallies.

Even a photo op designed to showcase a public-policy proposal last month became a chance to deliver back-channel assistance. Visiting the crumbling North Philadelphia home of a woman named Jackie Holmes, what Brady was supposed to do was roll out his plan to fund home repairs. But he stepped on the message by announcing he had just phoned the building trades unions, which pledged to renovate the house for nothing.

The news brought tears to Holmes' eyes; she embraced him as cameras rolled. The policy wonk his campaign wanted to showcase vanished behind the personal benefactor Brady has always been.

Three weeks after the event, the work had yet to begin. Ken Snyder, a top Brady aide, said, "He will see to it that it gets done. He made a commitment and Bob Brady honors his commitments."

Brady has been pulling the levers of power since he entered politics four decades ago.

The first of those levers was the one that controlled the broken light outside his family's rowhouse in the 7300 block of Woodbine Street in Overbrook. Following Philadelphia custom, Brady, a recent graduate of St. Thomas More High School, sought help not via the bureaucracy but through the political system.

He leaned on his local Democratic committeeman, expecting the usual bargain of help now in exchange for votes later. But nothing happened.

Brady knew what he had to do. He ran for committeeman. And won.

In those days, the local ward leader was George X. Schwartz, who was also City Council president. Schwartz took a shine to the young carpenter. Brady cemented the alliance by fixing up Schwartz's basement free of charge.

Schwartz secured Brady a job as sergeant-at-arms of City Council. Brady was the one, he says, who hauled then-Councilman John Street from chambers after a brawl between the future mayor and Fran Rafferty.

The friendship between Brady and Schwartz also survived Schwartz's conviction in the 1980 Abscam scandal. Before heading to federal prison, he helped Brady succeed him as ward leader.

"It's about services," Brady says. "We're here to get things done."

Never mind that within the sprawling ranks of city government toil people whose actual job descriptions involve fixing streetlights; the logic of machine politics turns on having people owe you for doing things that ought to happen as a matter of course.

And that machine has worked for Brady.

In 1984, Mayor W. Wilson Goode hired the ex-sergeant-at-arms, fresh from an unsuccessful City Council run, as a top labor adviser.

When Brady's party post required him to leave that job some years later, Council President Joseph Coleman scored him a $40,000 contract as an economic-development consultant - a gig Councilman W. Thacher Longstreth lambasted as "pure patronage." A friendly state senator later got Brady a contract as a liaison to veterans. Brady, who never served in the military, earned $30,000 a year for working in Harrisburg one day a week.

In 1986, Brady's fellow ward leaders elected him to run the Democratic City Committee. All those years of reliability, of loyalty, of being there bore fruit. He's been there ever since.

Brady the leader was just as loyal as Brady the follower. Other pols might urge controversial friends to avoid their events, but at Brady's December fund-raiser Schwartz was there for all to see.

In 2005, when embattled Councilman Rick Mariano set off a suicide scare days before an expected indictment, it was Brady who escorted him from the City Hall tower.

"I'm about loyalty," says Brady. "What you see is what you get."

Brady's sense of inclusion has also made him a master conductor of Philadelphia's Democrats. Even those who hate his brand of politics say they like the guy.

"He reached out to me about two weeks after we started Neighborhood Networks," says Marc Stier, now a City Council candidate, who founded the good-government group. He and Brady speak regularly.

In a city whose Democrats warred along racial lines when Frank Rizzo was mayor, Brady has proved an even-handed dispenser of endorsements, patronage and other benefits. He has campaigned tirelessly for African American candidates, such as Mayor Street, whom many white voters - and the white pols who represent them - shied away from even after he won the Democratic nomination. Brady lists U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who was bludgeoned at the 1965 march on Selma, Ala., as the person he most admires.

Self-styled reformers argue that Brady has built this goodwill by giving jobs to the dim-bulb cousins of the influential.

"The people who have been party to these deals, who benefit from these deals, are quite happy with how the city works," says Brett Mandel of the tax-reform group Philadelphia Forward. "The rest of the 1.5 million people of Philadelphia live in a city where the cost of living and doing business is too high, where the number of jobs is too low, where more people decide to leave every year. By that measure, we don't have success."

But Brady fans use a different calculus. They admire political results.

"He kept City Committee together when it could have been Bosnia," says Lou Agre, a Brady supporter and Roxborough ward leader. "He knew exactly what to do: Don't let anyone get too mad, give everyone a little something . . .

"He's Rizzo without the racism."

Brady waits outside the first stop of what should be an easy campaign event for an Irish Catholic candidate: a St. Patrick's Day bar crawl through Northeast Philadelphia.

"Come inside," says an aide. "You look like a bouncer standing out there."

Physique aside, bouncer is an apt description of the role Brady wants to play as mayor. With relentless focus on public safety, he promises to protect neighborhoods. With repeated references to the world of his blue-collar youth, Brady also sets himself up as defender against the destabilizing forces that have rattled the city in the decades since.

Brady's high school pal Frank Lafaro remembers old West Philadelphia as a sweet place of after-school ball games, played with taped-up newspaper.

"Did you ever see that movie A Bronx Tale?" Lafaro asks. "It always stayed that way. Just like the 1950s."

While teens elsewhere rebelled through rock 'n' roll, Brady's favorite music was doo-wop. Four decades later, Lafaro, now a professional musician, sings retro on his old friend's behalf: He's recorded a Sinatra-esque campaign theme song to the tune of "Luck Be a Lady."

Though the rowhouses Brady evokes and the unpretentious lifestyle he leads remain, much has changed in the candidate's old neighborhood. Once heavily white and largely Catholic, it now has an African American majority. Brady's high school, which educated Catholic kids from across West Philadelphia, closed and was sold to a Muslim group in 1976; today it is known as the Sister Clara Muhammad School.

It is also unclear how the electorate interprets such nostalgia.

Pollster Ron Lester says black voters are often wary of nostalgic political talk from a white candidate - even one, like Brady, who represents a majority-black congressional district, has African Americans as top staffers, and commissioned a rap theme song to accompany Lafaro's swing number.

"You have to be very careful with black voters when you talk about going back to the past," Lester says. "There are a lot of things with the recent past that black voters have some problems with."

On St. Patrick's Day in the Northeast, on the other hand, the schtick is a huge hit. Brady's greeted like a god.

"You're among friends," one man says. "Remember that." A bartender asks him to autograph a framed photo of Brady; she vows to hang it behind the bar, right next to Rizzo's.

Elsewhere, the politics prove trickier. Shaking hands in Mayfair, Brady approaches two men sitting in a bar. They're drunk.

"What are you going to do to keep the blacks off Frankford Avenue?" one of them asks.

Brady does not acknowledge the ugly rhetoric. Still smiling his glad-hand grin, he moves on to the next patrons.

"What was I going to do?" he asks later.

But by the end of the day - after listening to "Whiskey in the Jar" four times, shaking hundreds of hands, and posing for dozens of cell-phone pictures - Brady looks bushed. Whereas pols like Bill Clinton and Ed Rendell get pumped up among voters, Brady, despite his backslapping image, gets worn down.

Though he keeps his game face, Brady comes back to life - Irish eyes twinkling - only after the last stop, when he and his entourage repair to a back office away from the crowd.

When Brady and second wife Debra, a former Eagles cheerleader, bought their $300,000 Overbrook Farms house in 2004, it became his first free-standing house. The son of a Delaware River Port Authority policeman and a nonteaching assistant in the city school system, Brady had always lived in the rowhouses of neighboring Overbrook.

The Brady home features a white carpet, a white piano, and family pictures on white walls. A flag in the front yard is big enough for a suburban car dealership.

Three hours separate this private world from the marble halls of the U.S. Capitol. Yet Brady's role in Congress isn't all that different from his role in Philadelphia.

Brady has quietly amassed influence by taking on unglamorous jobs that allow him to do favors for colleagues, which in turn helps him funnel money back home - $2.3 billion over six years.

One of his subcommittees oversees the Capitol police force ("I'm like the mayor of Capitol Hill," he quips). Another runs congressional printing. Brady says he'll demand that contracts go only to union shops. "We're looking for printers in Philadelphia," he adds.

As he steps onto the exclusive real estate that is the floor of Congress, Brady seems ebullient. He fake-wrestles with Illinois Rep. Rahm Emmanuel before taking up his perch in the "Pennsylvania Corner" alongside veteran Rep. John Murtha.

At a ceremony later in the day, Brady even bumps into President Bush.

"Mr. President," he says, "I'm Bob Brady from Philadelphia."

"Hey, Philly," responds Bush, apparently unsure whether he's talking to a lawmaker or an enthusiastic visitor.

"You see that?" Brady asks. "It doesn't matter about the party. You got to respect the office."

In his nine-year career, Brady has voted the party line, winning ratings of 100 percent from groups like Planned Parenthood, Americans for Democratic Action, and the NAACP.

But a true operator admires tactics as well as ideology. Thus Brady says he admires the Democrats' favorite enemy: former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay. They used to chat in the gym.

"All he was doing was helping his party," Brady says of the indictment that forced DeLay from office. "What's wrong with that? He wasn't lining his own pockets. . . . I always said, if we get the majority back, we need our own Tom DeLay."

In Philadelphia, where the party has held a firm grip since 1952, Brady plays that role. His organization secured city majorities that tipped the state to Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

"If we could take this organization, and I could bottle them and put them on a bus and take them down to Miami, we'd be saying 'President Gore' right now," he said in February. "If I could take it to Cleveland, we'd be saying 'President Kerry.' "

But will that machine enable Philadelphians ever to say "Mayor Brady"?

So far, he's had a hard time.

A surprise rival, self-financed businessman Tom Knox, has forced Brady to work harder for the white vote - and obliged him to battle legal maneuvers trying to knock him off the ballot.

The media have also complicated Brady's life with stories about allies, friends and family.

A doting family man, Brady appears ill at ease with a central truth all mayors face: Their relatives - for example, Brady's son, who worked for the city Recreation Department and is now at the state Turnpike Commission (where Brady was a commissioner in the 1990s); or Brady's brother, who is a Municipal Court judge; or his wife, a Philadelphia Housing Authority commissioner who also has a $100,000-per-year job with a city contractor - are part of the story, especially when they are on the government payroll.

The campaign cited previous news coverage in declining to make Debra Brady available for an interview.

"I think Bob at core is a very shy person," says Larry Ceisler, a political consultant who's not affiliated with any of this year's races. "When he's within his element, with a bunch of union guys, he's fine. But bring him up to Chestnut Hill or something different, and he seems quite shy."

Thus Brady, who loves his roles in Congress and the party, can seem like the reluctant warrior of 2007.

He didn't act like a typical mayoral aspirant before the race, either. That description fit former City Controller Jonathan Saidel, Brady's closest ally, who had planned his run for years, raising money and hiring aides. When Brady became interested, Saidel dropped out.

Asked whether he'd been pushed, Saidel says that persuaded is a better word. "You can't get pushed [if] you're willing to listen," says Saidel, who now chairs Brady's campaign. "I thought he had a better opportunity to win."

Brady's colleagues in Washington seem to agree, enthusiastically saluting him as "Mr. Mayor." At a hearing last month, Michigan Republican Rep. Vern Ehlers exclaimed, "It's the next mayor of Philadelphia!"

"Be careful what you wish for," Brady responded, gaveling the meeting to order.

"He's one of the most introspective people I've ever met," says Lauri Kavulich, Brady's policy director. "But he's also just incredibly inspiring. An hour alone with you and he can convince you to do whatever he wants. And that's the skill the next mayor needs."

Kavulich, a member of Mensa, should know: She left her post as chair of the city's financial-watchdog authority, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, to work for his campaign.

No matter what happens, of course, Brady says he'll still work the levers of power on the city's behalf.

He regularly answers questions about Philadelphia's budget crunch by proclaiming his willingness to hop in the car and lobby Washington - using a former congressman's access to areas off-limits to others.

"I can walk on the floor of Congress," he said, "as long as I'm alive."

The Brady File

Age: 62

Residence: Overbrook section.

Political party: Democratic.

Education: Graduated St. Thomas More High School, 1963.

Labor experience: Union carpenter, 1965-1975.

Political and government experience: Elected Democratic committeeman, 1967; 34th Ward leader 1980-86; 1986-present: chairman, Democratic City Committee; 1975-83, sergeant at arms, City Council; 1984-87, deputy mayor for labor.

Income: $165,200 congressional salary. Wife earned $100,000 last year as executive director of Philadelphia Writ Service, which has a contract with the city.

Family: Wife, Debra; two adult children; Robert and Kimberly; four grandchildren.


New Post Possible

While U.S. Rep. Bob Brady pursues his mayoral bid in Philadelphia, the death yesterday of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D., Calif.) puts him in line to become chairman of the powerful Committee on House Administration.

Brady, who has been acting as interim chairman, is the second-ranking Democrat on the committee, which oversees federal election procedures and operations of the House, including setting budget authorizations for committees and for members. Millender-McDonald, 68, died of cancer.

Asked whether the likely chairmanship would affect Brady's mayoral campaign, spokesman Ken Snyder would say only: "The chairwoman was a truly great person. His prayers are with her family."

- Marcia Gelbart