Frank Rizzo

From Academic Kids

Frank Rizzo (full name Frank Lazarro Rizzo, October 23, 1920July 16, 1991) served two terms as mayor of Philadelphia, from January 1972 to January 1980. Before this Rizzo served as Police Commissioner in the turbulent years of 1967 to 1971, until his resignation to run for Mayor. It was his popularity as a tough cop who had worked his way up the police ranks that provided momentum for underdog incumbent James H. J. Tate to defeat District Attorney Arlen Specter, later U.S. Senator, for Mayor in 1967.

Rizzo won the 1971 Democratic mayoral nomination defeating Congressman William J. Green, a former Democratic City Chairman, and State Representative, later State Senator, Hardy Williams. Former City Councilman David Cohen, later a longserving (1980 to date) Councilman at Large, withdrew from the mayoral race and endorsed Green. Rizzo defeated former, and future, Councilman at Large and Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce President W. Thatcher Longstreth to win the election. Although Rizzo, unlike his opponents, disdained the issuing of campaign position papers, his slogan, "Firm but Fair" explained his view of his role.

From the start of this term in office, Rizzo was faced with a very of touchy political problems. The Philadelphia Inquirer began running a negative series about the Philadelphia police department during Rizzo's tenure as police commissioner almost immediately after Rizzo's election. The Evening Bulletin interviewed former Mayor and School Board President Richardson Dilworth about allegations of political spying using the police force that Dilworth had made to the San Francisco Chronicle; Dilworth's elaboration of these hithto obscure charges launched a long new feud between Philadelphia's two most charismatic politicians.

Grateful for the positive publicity that local media had given him as Police Commissioner, Rizzo gave jobs to about two dozen local reporters. This raised eyebrows about Rizzo's previously good press, and, more importantly, stripped the media of Rizzo's most enthusiastic supporters and opened the door to the entry of more critical media observers of his administration.

Within two months after being sworn in, Rizzo had already endorsed Richard Nixon for re-election. Although this action laid the basis for the receiving of more federal funds from Nixon's highly political administration, it held the Democratic City Committee, which had supported Rizzo against opponents with far deeper records of commitment to the Democratic Party, up to public ridicule, and undermined Rizzo's relationship with Democratic Party Chairman Peter Camiel and many Democrats in City Council.

Rizzo began his administration by holding numerous press conferences, at which he answered, in colorful language, media inquiries on numerous subjects, both relevant and irrelevant, to the Mayor's position. When Party Chairman Camiel accused Rizzo of offering him patronage jobs in return for allowing him to name the candidates for District Attorney and City Controller, Rizzo called Camiel a liar at one of the press conferences.

Would Rizzo take lie detector test, a Daily News reporter asked? Rizzo said he would, along with witness Harry Belinger, whom he had appointed Commerce Director. Camiel also agreed. "If this machine says a man lied, he lied,"Rizzo said famously before taking the lie detector test. The machine results said that both Rizzo and Belinger were lying, and Camiel was not.

The lie detector fiasco, reported on front pages throughout the world, ended speculation, encouraged by Rizzo, that he would be a candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania. It also led to the end of his press conferences for about two years, as Rizzo tried to rebuild his public support on a personal basis without the glare of distracting news stories.

In 1975, Rizzo faced opposition from State Senator Louis Hill, the stepson of former Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth, with whom Rizzo had a long public feud. Rizzo defeated Hill, backed by Democratic City Chairman Peter J. Camiel, and then defeated independent candidate Charles Bowser, a leading African-American attorney and a former deputy mayor, and former City Councilman at Large, and later U.S. Congressman, Thomas Foglietta.

It was during his tenure as mayor that African-American community activist and future Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode sued the city in federal court, alleging racial discrimination within the ranks of the city's uniformed services, including the Fire Department and the Police Department that Rizzo had headed prior to becoming mayor. The suit led to the adoption of the controversial "Philadelphia Plan" by the administration of President Richard Nixon, calling for affirmative action in civil service hiring and promotions.

An interesting feature of Rizzo's mayoralty was the establishment, with his complete approval, of a publicly-funded "Anti-Defamation Agency" to combat pejorative jokes sometimes told about Philadelphia. The agency's most celebrated drive involved a boycott of S.O.S. Soap Pads, following a television commercial the product's manufacturer had aired in the summer of 1972 which included a disparaging reference to the city; the boycott had the desired effect, as the manufacturer withdrew the offending commercial, which had been broadcast nationwide.

Rizzo's term as mayor was distinguished by the construction of the Center City Commuter Tunnel, the adoption by the Philadelphia Gas Works of senior citizens discounts, generous municipal labor contracts and the expansion of patronage hiring, and the increase of the city's wage tax from 3.31% to 4.31%, one of the highest in the nation. The tax increase came almost immediately after Rizzo's successful 1975 mayoral campaign, won with the slogan "He held the line on taxes."

The juxtaposition of the campaign slogan—which had dominated the airwaves, mailboxes, and telephone polls of the city for months—with the record tax increase once again infuriated his opponents and led fiscal conservatives to join them. The Philadelphia city charter had been amended in 1951, with provisions for recall added in the case of 25% of the registered voters being willing to sign a recall petition.

Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal activist group that had played a key role in switching Philadelphia from Republican to Democratic control in the late 1940's and early 1950's, took a leadership role in the gathering of the signatures needed. Under the leadership of organizers Richard Chapman and Shelly Yanoff, current and former ADA Executive Directors, the committee to recall Rizzo methodically organized the wards of the city, and shocked political professionals by gathering well over the 250,000 or so signatures required.

Rizzo's allies counterattacked by challenging the validity of the signatures. They also challenged the constitutionality of the recall procedure itself. The campaign to recall Rizzo attracted many thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Polls showed Rizzo was losing by a wide margin. Then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, by a one vote margin, declared the Philadelphia City Charter's recall provision to be unconstitutional in a decision written by Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix, elected to the Supreme Court with Rizzo's support in 1971.

Rizzo opponents, while greatly disheartented, were able to elect Edward G. Rendell District Attorney in 1977, and organize a campaign to elect anti-Rizzo Democratic committeepersons and elected officials in the 1978 primaries. Then Rizzo, facing Philadelphia's two term limit, got the Philadelphia City Council to place a Charter Change question on the ballot to allow him to run for a third term.

"He awakened a sleeping giant," State Rep. Bill Rieger, a sometime Rizzo ally, would reminisce after the election. "It was the biggest mistake Rizzo ever made," Democratic City Chairman Martin Weinberg, an always reflective, always loyal Rizzo supporter would say many years later. In a record turnout for a Philadelphia municipal election, Philadelphians voted two to one against allowing Rizzo to seek a third consecutive term. Republican gubernatorial nominee Dick Thornburgh was able to split the black vote and win the governship against a heavily favored opponent due to Democratic disarray. And the organization was built that would support a partially successful "Clean Sweep" ticket for municipal offices in 1979.


Always a Democrat while mayor, even while supporting Richard Nixon, Rizzo ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Mayor in 1983, losing to former Managing Director W. Wilson Goode. Switching to the Republican Party in 1986, he ran as a Republican in the mayoral elections of 1987 and 1991. He died during the latter campaign against former District Attorney, and later Governor, Ed Rendell, after he defeated the Republican City Committee's choice, former District Attorney and later Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille, in the Republican Primary. The third candidate in the 1991 Republican Mayoral Primary, former School Board Member Sam Katz, went on run unsuccessfully for the 1994 Republican gubernatorial nomination, losing to Erie congressman Tom Ridge, later Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, and to be the unsuccessful Republican nominee for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1999 and 2003, losing both times to Democrat John Street.

In between mayoral comeback bids, Rizzo served as a security consultant for the Philadelphia Gas Works, helped suburban police districts with various problems, and hosted one of Philadelphia's most popular radio talk shows, beginning a family tradition later emulated by his son.

Rizzo's colorful speaking style and charisma both endeared him to many and aroused great fear in others. A respecful critic who began his tenure in office during the Rizzo Administration,and who worked to preserve Rizzo's senior citizen PGW discount, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said that "Taking the long view, Rizzo deserves credit for raising the saliency of concerns about the criminal justice system both locally and nationally, helping to end the glass ceiling in politics against Americans of Italian descent, and arousing many thousands of Philadelphians to participate seriously in politics, both for him and against him. But his politics unnecessarily increased racial polarization in Philadelphia, and led to numerous unnecessary conflicts with minorities, students, intellectuals, gays, labor, business, and the media."

A literally larger than life statue of Mayor Rizzo waving one of his arms in greeting stands in front of Philadelphia's Municipal Services Building. The statue, one of Philadelphia's most recognizable landmarks, was paid for by contributions from Rizzo's family, friends, supporters, and admirers. A mural portrait of him his stronghold of South Philadelphia is a popular site for appearances by political candidates.

Rizzo's son, Frank L. Rizzo, Jr., was elected to one of the two Philadelphia City Council at Large seats reserved for the minority party, defeating City Councilwoman Joan Specter, the wife of U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, in 1995, as Arlen Specter was seeking the Republican Presidential nomination. (He withdrew shortly after her defeat.) A pleasant, easy going man who shuns name calling and personal confrontations, and praises his father's support of labor and community organizations but bears no resentments towards his father's political opponents, the younger Rizzo easily won re-election as Councilman at Large in 1999 and 2003. He is seen as a possible 2007 mayoral candidate for the nomination of either party.


Preceded by:
James Hugh Joseph Tate
Mayor of Philadelphia
1972–1980
Succeeded by:
William J. Green

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