PHILADELPHIA – Mayor John Street was elected in 1999 by the slimmest of margins, beating his Republican rival by fewer than 10,000 votes in a city dominated by Democrats.
As Street gears up for his re-election campaign, political opponents believe he's no more popular now than he was then and are shopping around for a candidate to oppose him in the May primary.
Though no incumbent Philadelphia mayor has lost re-election under the city's current form of government, some argue that Street has done little to win over the 49 percent of the electorate who didn't vote for him — and has even antagonized some of those who did.
Lawyer Carl Singley, whose 25-year friendship with Street ended in rancor two years ago, is now leading the charge against his former protege. Singley, a former Temple University law school dean, commissioned a poll in August that he says showed Street to be vulnerable.
"Just aside from the financial ineptitude of his administration, he has not demonstrated he has the ability to pull Philadelphians together,'' Singley said.
But Street's chief political aide, George Burrell, said the mayor's record will make him a formidable candidate.
"This is a guy who for the first time has made neighborhoods a real priority,'' Burrell said. "The mayor will be out there telling his own story, and it's a pretty compelling story.''
Slowly but surely, the mayor is girding for battle. His campaign headquarters will open in a few weeks and his administration spokesman is transferring there from City Hall.
Street's administration got off to a fast start. He made good on a campaign pledge by towing 100,000 abandoned cars, appeared on "Oprah'' and presided over the Republican National Convention. He completed a deal to build two new sports stadiums and announced an ambitious $295 million plan to eliminate blight from the city's neglected neighborhoods.
But the pace has slowed considerably over the last two years, and there have been political missteps. Last spring, Street raised eyebrows when he told an NAACP conference that the "brothers and sisters are running the city.'' Street, who is black, apologized for the remarks, which were criticized as racially divisive.
Last week the mayor announced he will cut 2,500 jobs, or 10 percent of the municipal workforce, to head off a looming budget deficit. Moreover, his relationship with City Council is frosty.
Even so, Democratic political consultant Larry Ceisler said Street will be tough to beat because he has delivered on many of the issues important to voters. Property values are rising, trash is picked up, snow is cleared from side streets and many open-air drug markets have been eliminated.
"On all the basics people expected out of government, Street is running a good ship. Is he loved? No, but that's not his way,'' Ceisler said.