Political Bombshell: White to Back Katz

by William Bunch, Staff Writer, Philadelphia Daily News

September 14, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

In a move that will rock Philadelphia's political world, John White Jr. – the Democratic mayoral candidate who lost the May primary but became a favorite of liberal voters who may decide the November election – is slated to cross party lines and today endorse the GOP's Sam Katz.

Sources said late last night that White, a lifelong Democratic Party stalwart who has been city housing chief, state welfare secretary, a city councilman and state lawmaker, was slated to announce the stunning move at a mid-morning news conference at Katz's Center City headquarters.

Katz supporters hope that White – in rejecting Democratic candidate John Street, his one-time friend and former City Council colleague – can bring along with him a good chunk of the white liberals and even some upscale blacks from neighborhoods like Center City, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, who voted for him last spring.

Many political experts believe that White's move greatly enhances the chances that Katz – the financial consultant who ran for mayor in 1991 but has never held elective office – could overcome the Democrats' 4-1 voter registration edge to become Philadelphia's first Republican mayor in a half-century.

"For Katz, this is a key ingredient in any recipe for victory," Larry Ceisler, the Democratic political consultant and Fox-TV analyst, said last night. He said a Republican can't win a major election in this heavily Democratic city unless some big-name Democrats pledge their support.

White's decision came after a long day of closed-door meetings, beginning at 9 a.m. yesterday when he met privately with a small circle of about 20 top political supporters to listen to their opinions about whom he should back in November.

Sources who attended that meeting said while a few White allies said the group should stick with the Democratic Party, the majority sentiment in the room was clearly with Katz, who, sources have said, has been more aggressive than Street in wooing the group.

The sources said that White did not say then what his decision would be but he seemed to be looking to see if anyone in the room had strong reasons why he shouldn't endorse Katz.

Ironically, it was Katz – and not Street – who ran blistering radio and TV ads last spring that attacked White and his record as state welfare secretary and in voting for a tax hike while on City Council. Most experts say that Katz aired the spots attacking White – and others that slammed rival Marty Weinberg – because he was eager to oppose Street.

But since Street won the Democratic primary – with Weinberg placing second and White third – it has been Katz who most avidly sought the former housing chief's support.

He visited White's home in Wynnefield and apologized for the ads, wooed White's father, an elder statesman of the city's black political movement.

Several White supporters said Street was off-putting in his one appearance before their group and that he never really asked for their support.

Most experts say that a White endorsement of Katz would cut through the fog of both race and party loyalty that typically clouds Philadelphia politics.

The line of thinking goes that there are thousands of white liberals and some upscale blacks in neighborhoods like Center City or Chestnut Hill who like Katz but are reluctant to vote for a white Republican.

But if White – a big-name Democrat and indisputably one of the city's top African-American leaders – says it's OK to vote for Katz, these pundits say, many voters may go over with him.

Ironically, White himself would be the first politician to concede that endorsements alone aren't always enough to win an election.

In the primary, White placed third, well behind Street, despite racking up a steady stream of key endorsements from key players in city politics, including the teachers' union, the major municipal employees' unions, gay-rights activists and two veteran City Council members.

That, political experts said, is because Street won the only endorsement that truly mattered: The blessing of the hugely popular Mayor Rendell, barred from seeking re-election himself.

With Rendell's approval rating at an astronomical 75 percent or better, and with most Democrats eager to carry on Rendell's programs, the mayor's pronouncement that Street was the best choice of the five Democrats to do so swayed many voters.

Rendell's endorsement, along with the editorial nods from both the Daily News and Inquirer, may have reassured wavering voters that Street really was an experienced government insider who can get things done, and not the wild-eyed rabble rouser that some recalled from the early 1980s and was depicted in Weinberg's TV ads.

Ceisler and other experts agreed that the White endorsement will be the most meaningful if many or all of his team of supporters – a group that in the primary included City Council members Michael Nutter and Marian Tasco, among others – go along with him. Otherwise, they said, voters might view White as merely a sore loser.