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Race at the finish: Crossing color line

Candidates are sparring over complex meaning of African American identity.

Chaka Fattah questioned Nutter's authenticity.
Chaka Fattah questioned Nutter's authenticity.Read more

Let the record show that the R-bomb was not dropped on the Philadelphia mayor's race in any of the usual ways - an attack on Section 8 housing vouchers for the poor, for instance, or an anonymous sleazy leaflet.

No, two African American candidates brought race squarely into the campaign on live television during a debate Monday night, squabbling over what it means to be black.

Chaka Fattah accused Michael Nutter of having to "remind himself that he's an African American," drawing gasps from the audience at the National Constitution Center.

"He said it," Fattah said. He and the other candidates had been piling on Nutter's proposal to allow police to stop and frisk people suspected of carrying illegal guns in high-crime areas; they argued that would lead to racial profiling and police abuses.

"As a person who's been black for 49 years, I think I know a little bit about racial profiling," Nutter said, defending his proposal. Then Fattah pounced.

If on its surface the exchange was about policing, the subtext was deeper.

Nutter has surged to the front of the five-way Democratic primary field, with polls showing stronger support for him among white voters than African Americans - an anomaly in a city that has tended for decades to vote along racial lines.

Fattah, a West Philadelphia congressman, was the favorite early in the campaign but has seen his lead in the polls slip away. He has based his campaign on an ambitious plan to attack poverty by leasing the airport, and is counting on capturing a large share of undecided African American voters.

"Fattah is worried," said Randall Miller, a historian at St. Joseph's University who analyzes Philadelphia politics. He said making Nutter seem out of touch is a potentially effective tool for Fattah.

"He was basically saying, 'You are not only a phony, but you are a phony in the most fundamental possible way. In no way can you speak for us,' " Miller said.

For his part, Fattah said it was Nutter who had brought race into the campaign with a string of references. The former city councilman has described himself an "outraged black man" in referring to the city's soaring homicide rate, and he has called those killings "black genocide."

"Congressman Fattah never mentions his race," said Rebecca Kirszner, a senior adviser to Fattah's campaign. "He called him [Nutter] out on the hypocrisy."

In the debate aftermath, Nutter campaign spokeswoman Melanie Johnson would say only that the candidate was "saddened" by Fattah's remark.

In February, all five candidates pledged to refrain from appeals based on race, in response to a letter from the Anti-Defamation League and others. Fattah's gibe at Nutter raises questions about that pledge, said Barry Morrison, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the ADL.

Morrison offered the view that Nutter's reference to his own race was relevant to a discussion of racial profiling - but "as to whether he's black enough, that's not appropriate," Morrison said. "This has been a healthy campaign that has stuck to the issues. Here in the 11th hour, it would be a shame to see the course of the [campaign] change because of desperate tactics."

Oddly, their platforms suggest Fattah and Nutter might not be as far apart on Nutter's stop-and-frisk policy as the debate made them seem.

Nutter would empower police to stop, question and frisk people whom officers suspect of carrying illegal weapons.

Though Fattah has blasted the idea, his anticrime proposal talks about designating specially trained officers in each precinct to go after illegal guns. His campaign cited landmark research by criminologist Lawrence Sherman showing that in the 1990s, such concentrated enforcement dramatically reduced gun crimes in Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis.

Nutter, too, cites Sherman's research, and the two approaches do not differ greatly on paper.

"I call things for what they are," Nutter said after the debate. "I call it 'stop and frisk.' That's the only difference."

Fattah's adviser, Kirszner, said his proposal was different because he would involve two officers per precinct in gun interdiction, while Nutter would unleash police throughout the city - and thus "encourage racial profiling," she said.

Nutter has not spelled out how many officers would carry out his stop-and-frisk plan, spokeswoman Johnson said. "It's an open number," she said. "It depends on what's going on in the city at the time."

What is clear: Nutter's proposal on gun crime has become a lightning rod. In debates, his rivals have raised the specter of police abuses (Tom Knox likened Nutter's plan to "martial law"). Nutter retorts that Philadelphians have a "civil right not to get shot."

By last night, Nutter's stance was the subject of an attack ad. The ad features the Liberty Bell and images from the 1960s civil rights struggle - and says Nutter would "suspend constitutional rights in some neighborhoods."

After showing baton-wielding police confronting marchers, the ad says, "Haven't we had enough of politicians like Nutter who step on our rights in the name of security?"

The ad was produced by a group called One Step Closer. It has previously accepted money from a Fattah-connected group but insists it isn't tied to any mayoral candidate. The ad was to begin airing last night on CBS3 and Fox29.

Earlier in the day, mayoral candidate Dwight Evans also attacked Nutter's policy during a news conference at 52d and Market Streets. Evans - who yesterday was endorsed by the Philadelphia Tribune - appeared with a retired Philadelphia police officer who called stop-and-frisk a bad idea.

Jerry Johnson, 56, said Nutter's idea reminded him of the "swoop and scoop" policy in force when he was a young officer. It led to "a lot of lawsuits," Johnson pointed out.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld police power to stop and frisk pedestrians if officers have a "reasonable suspicion" they are carrying weapons. The tactic has been credited with cutting gun crimes and murders "in selected areas," said Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. He said studies found no resulting rise in complaints of police abuse or profiling.

"If the only reason not to do it is the city may be sued, I'd just disagree with the value judgment," Sherman said. "As a citizen of Philadelphia, I'd rather not see my neighbors get killed."