Recalling another recall battle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He had barely settled in to a second term when the fiscal demons stole the stage, and soon a movement was under way to recall the political veteran from office.

This might be California's exclusive story line at the moment - the saga of embattled governor Gray Davis - but Philadelphians of a certain age have been there before, minus the actor-bodybuilder, former child actor and billboard queen.

As California marches toward an election Oct. 7 to decide the fate of its governor, the bizarre drama on the West Coast is bringing not-so-fond memories to people in the nation's birthplace, where opponents of their larger-than-life mayor, Frank L. Rizzo, tried unsuccessfully to unseat him in 1976.

That movement didn't have the glitz bestowed on today's California contest by Arnold Schwarzenegger and other celebrities who want to replace Davis. But it did have Frank ("Frank the Tank") Rizzo, a towering figure in meticulously pressed pinstriped suits, a one-man political machine who inspired extreme loyalty or extreme fear, and little in between.

As a result, the city exploded with political fireworks throughout that bicentennial spring and summer, until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that such an election would violate the state's constitution.

"It tore the city apart," says Martin Weinberg, a Philadelphia attorney who was then Rizzo's chief adviser. "It brought out very strong emotions on both sides."

Rizzo, a burly former police commissioner, was first elected mayor in 1971 with Democratic Party backing, campaigning on the slogan "the toughest cop in America." (During his supercop days, he had led regular roundups of homosexuals and raids on beatnik coffeehouses looking for drugs.)

But the bombastic mayor, who in 1972 called Richard M. Nixon "the best president this country ever had," soon fell out of favor with party leaders and had to run for re-election without their support. As he waged war against one of the nation's most formidable political machines, he vowed to make Attila the Hun look like a weakling (the precise language he used was unfit to print, then and now) - and he did; he went on to win a landslide victory against two opponents.

But it was during that campaign, in April 1975, that he spoke the fateful words: "Taxes won't be raised next year, and as long as I'm the mayor there'll never be a city employee laid off."

Only two weeks after his inauguration in January, details of the city's financial crisis bubbled to the surface. A large deficit - eventually projected at $80 million or more - was found in the city's budget. By April 1, Rizzo was proposing a major tax increase - which ended up reaching 30 percent - and announcing plans to lay off more than 900 city employees.

By that time, a group of political and labor leaders known as the Citizens Committee to Recall Rizzo had plenty of ammunition. On March 31, they launched a petition drive to oust the mayor from office and began gathering the required 145,448 signatures of registered city voters, 25 percent of the total votes for Rizzo, to put the question on a ballot.

Among those leading the effort was Charles Bowser, the former leader of the city's Urban Coalition, who had finished second to Rizzo in the November election.

The tax increase wasn't the only factor fueling the drive. Just as the financial crisis hit, Rizzo had made the unpopular move of closing Philadelphia General Hospital, which at the time was the city's only municipal health care facility, serving about 200,000 indigent patients.

And in another provocative act, the mayor picked a fight with The Philadelphia Inquirer over a satirical column in the paper's magazine poking fun at his profanity and bad English.

He sued the newspaper for $6 million after failing to get the court to block the distribution of the magazine. And the afternoon of the hearing, about 250 members of the Building and Trades Council, a labor group whose leader was closely allied with the mayor, surrounded the Inquirer's headquarters in a major show of force, preventing anyone from entering or leaving and delaying two editions of the paper. Two photographers were attacked in full view of city police officers, who refused to get involved. Finally, U.S. marshals dispersed the crowd.

When the recall campaign began, Rizzo laughed it off, joking that he knew some of the people who signed petitions, "voters like Mickey Mouse, Al Capone and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

But two weeks before the deadline, the group had enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The number of signatures eventually swelled to 211,970, about 66,000 more than required.

By August, after an exhaustive process of verifying signatures, the three city commissioners - two of them Rizzo allies - had invalidated enough names to trim the number to 88,894.

Then, in September, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas nullified their actions and upheld the validity of the original petition, saying that city officials who were political friends of the mayor had tried illegally to throw out the petition by an "incorrect," "arbitrary" and "unconscionable" elimination of names.

So Rizzo and his supporters appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which on Sept. 30, 1976, ruled out the possibility of a special election.

Rizzo survived the recall attempt, but his career was ultimately tarnished, political observers say.

"The effect of the movement was that Rizzo's political career was ended, although by reason of the court decision he was able to hold office until the end of his term," says Gregory M. Harvey, a Rizzo opponent who was the lead lawyer for the recall committee.

Barred by local law from seeking a third consecutive term in 1979, Rizzo tried to have the city charter changed so he could run again. Voters resoundingly rejected the idea.

"That basically became our recall election," says Eugene E.J. Maier, a city commissioner who opposed Rizzo at the time, now a Common Pleas Court judge in Philadelphia.

Even Rizzo supporters were uncomfortable with the bold attempt at changing the charter, Weinberg says.

"That's Philadelphia," he says. "You have a very traditional conservative, nonchanging streak. People would have voted for Rizzo 100 times if they had the chance, but they would not vote to change the charter."

But Rizzo didn't give up; he spent most of the next decade trying to return to city hall, even changing parties to run as a Republican after losing to W. Wilson Goode in the 1983 Democratic primary. Four years later, he went on to win the Republican candidacy for mayor in 1987, but lost to Goode in the general election.

He again won the Republican primary in 1991, but died of a heart attack July 17, 1991, at age 70 at the headquarters of his last mayoral campaign, while trying to win back the mayoralty for the third time.

The recall movement "may have eroded his base sufficiently so that he couldn't win again, but he was a voter registration drive like no one's ever seen," says Frederick Voigt, executive director of the Committee of Seventy, a political watchdog group in Philadelphia that monitored the signature validation process in 1976.

With hindsight of 27 years, Harvey says, the recall movement was the right thing to do. "Because the person against whom it was directed was not only a bad manager of the finances of the city but was an unusually brutal person both in what he did personally while he was in the police department and what he did politically when he became mayor."

As for recalls in general, Voigt says they're not particularly useful as a democratic tool.

"I think anywhere we elect people for a term of office, once you do that, [a recall] becomes too dysfunctional to the process," he says. "The more fragmented the process becomes, the more fragile society becomes."

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