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Sparks fly at end of mayoral forum

Candidates waited until a final question to drop decorum.

Candidates and journalists at the Moving Philadelphia Forward forum in Philadelphia on Thursday, April 9, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )
Candidates and journalists at the Moving Philadelphia Forward forum in Philadelphia on Thursday, April 9, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )Read more

A FUNNY THING happened on the way out of the forum.

Not ha-ha funny, but stay with me for a moment.

It happened Thursday, after yet another mayoral forum - this one hosted by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, at Community College of Philadelphia. When all six candidates were offstage, where they posed for photos, I had a chance to pose one final question, so I asked: What didn't we ask you tonight that you wish we had?

During the next 12 minutes, we had chest-pounding, insinuations and even a little drama. First up to the mic, set up in a room right next to the auditorium where the forum took place, was former Philadelphia Gas Works executive Doug Oliver. He wanted to correct the "misconception" that he was running for mayor "so that I can be the mayor for young people."

"I want to disabuse us of that idea and say instead that it's not for young people but it is, in fact, about young people," the 40-year-old said. "The best thing we can do for them is grow our tax base. The best thing we can do for people is keep people here learning."

Milton Street stepped in next and talked about the plight of homeless veterans. Former Councilman Jim Kenney followed him and brought up the environment and sustainability. State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams questioned why racial prejudice and public safety hadn't been a bigger topic and mentioned the disturbing case of the late Walter Scott, a black man shot in the back while fleeing a white police officer South Carolina. Nelson Diaz piled on, adding: "That is something that should have been on everybody's radar screen."

At that point, Street interjected, "I'm appalled. I'm angry. . . . One person gets shot and right now everybody's trying to speak about it."

Street went on to accuse his fellow candidates of speaking out on the subject of policing and race only because of the May 19 primary. "These people who are standing up here now, Senator Williams and the rest of them, never said a mumbling word, never said a mumbling word," Street claimed. "Now, you're running for office and I guarantee you, if they weren't running for office, they wouldn't have said a mumbling word about this."

Then it was former District Attorney Lynne Abraham's turn. She proclaimed her disappointment that no one has asked about women's issues at any of the mayoral forums. The instant she finished, though, the discussion pivoted back to the issue of policing, with Williams testily pointing out that not everything he's ever said on the topic becomes news. Finally, Kenney interjected: "This format is not a debate. We're out here talking about issues."

That's when Street shot back: "Then why are you going to talk about it's not a debate, because you don't have nothing to say?"

It was a drop-the-mic moment. (Street had already had a couple of those at the forum.)

But Kenney soldiered on, pushing back against earlier Williams statements about a report that John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, had defended officers who make derogatory ethnic or sexual comments. McNesby reportedly said: "We understand that people make mistakes. We would lose a decent amount of police officers if that was the case."

That comment was one that Williams had pointed to earlier in the forum.

"As far as the FOP is concerned, I have not had an opportunity to read his statement," said Kenney, whom the FOP has endorsed. "Any racial epithets, the N-word is unacceptable, it's deplorable. But I'm going to be able to have a police commissioner that's going to be able to make decisions on how to discipline people, and I don't think people should be disciplined in a debate over a campaign. I would like to talk to the man who said it - if he said it. . . . This environment is just not a good environment to deal with it."

Street called out, "It's not a good environment for him."

It could have gone on and on.

But after a final statement from Williams and some raised eyebrows in the room, it was over.