A newly aggressive U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah used a televised Democratic mayoral debate Friday night to go after former City Councilman Michael Nutter, who has been rising in the polls.

Fattah, widely considered the favorite when the race began, took advantage of every opportunity to question the depth of Nutter's commitment to improving Philadelphia's education system and to helping its poor.

"I remember many impassioned speeches by Mr. Nutter about cutting taxes," said Fattah, who has focused his campaign on combating generational poverty and low educational attainment. "I'm trying to recall speeches he made at Council to spend more money at schools."

Nutter replied that he supported tax cuts because they help generate jobs for Philadelphians and that he has called for city government to shift new revenue to the school system.

"I have a passion for education," he said, "and if the congressman doesn't know it, I'm sorry for it."

After the debate, Fattah was asked by reporters why he appeared to have abandoned his practice of not speaking ill of his fellow candidates. He initially denied that he had done so, then added: "If I offended the darling of the media, I'm sorry. But this is a debate about the future of our city."

In the last few weeks, Nutter has been endorsed by The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia Magazine, the Northeast Times, and other publications.

The Fattah-Nutter hostilities highlighted an hour that was more tense and confrontational than the three debates that came before it. It also featured something that has become customary whenever the Democrats get together - ganging up on Tom Knox.

Given the chance to ask questions of one another, both U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and state Rep. Dwight Evans took aim at the millionaire businessman.

Brady asked Knox to explain why he, as a Democrat, had made political contributions to two Republicans, President Bush and former Sen. Rick Santorum - and why he owned stock in Halliburton, whose involvement in the Iraq war has drawn wide criticism.

Knox replied that the contributions to Bush and Santorum had been small, a total of $1,500, and that they had been made at the behest of his wife, who was a Republican until this election. By way of comparison, he said, he has given $500,000 to Democrats over the years.

"Five hundred thousand dollars," Brady said later. "I wonder whether that comes under pay-to-play."

As for the Halliburton stock, Knox said: "Frankly, I don't know what I own."

The debate, held at Drexel University and televised by 6ABC, covered a wide range of topics, including violent crime, pay-to-play politics, public education, the poverty rate, and what each man would bring to the mayor's office.

On that score, Evans emphasized his work in Harrisburg, his role in changing the city's schools and police department, and the praise he received this week from Gov. Rendell, who called him "the best-qualified" candidate in the race.

Knox talked about his success in business over the last 40 years and the work he did as a deputy mayor in the Rendell administration, cutting costs and improving efficiency.

Brady, as he has done, pointed to his record of bringing people together, particularly in resolving numerous labor disputes.

But the evening was dominated, almost from start to finish, by the Fattah-Nutter exchanges.

When Nutter talked about his proposal to have police stop and frisk individuals suspected of carrying illegal weapons, Fattah called the idea well-intentioned but said "the road to hell is paved" with good intentions.

When Nutter said that he "literally wrote the book on the subject" of an improved city ethics policy, Fattah shot back: "The question is, where's the councilman's passion for people in this city who are jobless. He's got so much passion for these other matters."

And Fattah also accused Nutter of being hypocritical for opposing a tax break Fattah has proposed for businesses that come into Philadelphia while supporting tax breaks that the city already has.

"You can't have it two ways," Fattah said, "and you can't have collective amnesia."

Replied Nutter: "I thought this was the Channel 6-Philadelphia Tribune debate, not a WWF smackdown." He said he simply disagreed with Fattah's approach to business taxes.

The debate was the first of three in four nights for the five major candidates in the May 15 Democratic mayoral primary. The next will be Sunday night at 8 on WHYY TV12.

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com
Staff writer Jennifer Lin contributed to this article.