One by one, the six Democrats running for mayor of Philadelphia gave their best pitches Wednesday night to about 300 members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, in an effort to secure the union's coveted endorsement in the May primary.
The meeting, in the sheet-metal workers' hall on Columbus Boulevard, was closed to reporters, but afterward the candidates talked about their prospects of having one of the city's largest unions on their side, and about their views on education funding, which has emerged as one of the top issues in the campaign.
"They know all of the funding does not come from the city," said PFT president Jerry Jordan, "but that there is a need for a mayor to work with the legislature and the governor in Harrisburg in order to make sure that the resources are there for our children."
His members, he said, want "someone who is honest and who will work to make sure the resources are in the classroom for them."
Most of the candidates said they told the union members they would work with Harrisburg for an equitable school-funding formula that would send more money for the district, which is facing an $80 million budget deficit for the next school year.
Some, however, said they would also try to get more money from local sources.
Former Common Pleas Court Judge Nelson Diaz said he would try to shift the tax base to increase the burden on real estate. If the wage tax is lowered, he said, more people will work here and more real estate taxes will come in.
Former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham also discussed tax reform and how the city's fiscal decisions play a role in the school funding debate. "How we spend our money, and can we be more efficient with how we spend our money, so we can use some of the savings to give to the schools," she said.
Former city spokesman Doug Oliver said he would consider selling city assets that are not "a primary function of government." He listed the Philadelphia Gas Works, the Water Department, and Philadelphia International Airport as examples.
Former Councilman James F. Kenney told reporters that "the city can't supplement what the state isn't doing."
He is, however, proposing using "some city dollars" for a universal prekindergarten program that he estimated would cost about $53.5 million.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who has been labeled the charter school candidate because of the support he has received from charter advocates, said he has sponsored legislation to bring more money to all city schools.
"I focused largely on what I've done for public education starting in '89 . . . through the 1 percent sales tax, which is mine, and the cigarette tax, which is mine, and the $55 million I negotiated with the governor for the one-time grant," Williams said. "There's nobody else running who has done more for funding than me."
The Rev. Keith Goodman, who declared his candidacy last week amid questions about his residency and mayoral qualifications, also said local revenue increases are needed for schools. He said he wants to go after the estimated $500 million in uncollected delinquent real estate taxes.
The union won't endorse a candidate until mid-March, once all 12,000 members have had a chance to vote internally.
Interviews with union members after the session ended, however, suggested Kenney had emerged as a favorite.
"It seems like [Kenney] is the strong supporter of public schools and of unionized schools, and the types of schools I think the city needs," said Charlie McGeehan, an English and math teacher at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts.