APART FROM the cheap little dart Chaka Fattah tossed at Michael Nutter this week suggesting Nutter needs to remind himself he's black, this mayoral race is relatively free of Philly's famous racial politics.

And while a black-on-black political mugging might be odd and reminiscent of the sort of hits so often seen in city races, it's a far cry from past elections known for black/white schisms.

This year - as others and I already noted - is different.

The leading black candidate, Nutter, is polling better among white voters than among African Americans.

The leading white candidate, Tom Knox, is polling better among African Americans than well-known black candidate Dwight Evans.

And Election Day troubleshooters are likely to watch two groups of white guys - Bob Brady's carpenters and Johnny Doc's electricians - for potential problems unrelated to race.

If race is a factor, it's no longer determinative. In Philly that is news.

There are many reasons, including the appeal of candidates themselves.

But one reason is no racially polarizing person is on the ballot or on voters' minds, and it's the first time in a generation that that can be said about an open-seat election.

For 36 years, for example, such elections included the actual or implied presence of one Francis Lazarro "Frank" Rizzo Sr., among the most polarizing figures in modern Philadelphia political history.

(Honorable mention goes to John "the brothers and sisters are running the city" Street.)

Rizzo was even an electoral factor back in the 1960s.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter said one reason he lost the '67 mayoral race to James Tate was that Tate promised to keep Rizzo as police commissioner and Specter did not.

Since then, in open-seat mayoral elections, Rizzo won in '71; in '79, his presence was felt in the hangover from the previous year's ballot question to change the city charter so he could seek a third successive term; in '83, he lost to Wilson Goode in the primary; in '91, he ran as a Republican and won the GOP primary (over now-state Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille and Sam Katz) before dying of a heart attack at age 70 that July.

Even in '99, Rizzo was there in spirit, in the primary candidacy of longtime friend, aide and ally Marty Weinberg, who lost to John Street, whose own racial polarization was muted only by the endorsement of predecessor Ed Rendell.

Veteran lawmaker and 3rd Ward leader, state Sen. Anthony Williams (whose father, Hardy Williams, lost to Rizzo in the '71 mayoral primary), says this year's open-seat run is the first he can recall without actual or perceived racial divisions.

"There is no polarizing figure," says Williams.

"There's no doubt Rizzo was polarizing, but the interesting thing is that in this time of crime, Frank Rizzo would give anybody a run for their money, including in the black community," Williams said.

State Rep. Michael McGeehan, 41st Ward leader and 27-year Democratic committeeman, also sees less racial impact.

"I think there's a maturing among voters," McGeehan says. "We've had two black mayors so it's less and less an issue. It's more about competence, and

you're seeing that in the polling."

Carl Singley, former Temple Law School dean, long a player in city government and politics, says, "This really has been a race that defies the conventional wisdom. I'm actually encouraged."

And Zack Stalberg, head of political watchdog Committee of Seventy, says race-based voting in Philadelphia is on the way out.

"Younger voters are coming along who are much more accustomed to diversity and much less locked into racial attitudes," Stalberg says.

So, apart from little pricks - and here I refer to injuries, not people - the overriding message of this race might mark the end of a tradition well worth ending. And that, no matter who wins the election, is a welcome and noteworthy message.*

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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