T. Milton Street Sr. had blown off an early-morning mayoral forum at Independence Mall and could not care less.

The perennial political striver strode through a North Philadelphia supermarket in blue jeans a few hours later, unapologetic about being a no-show to talk tourism. He had never played by the conventional political rule book. At 76, he wasn't about to.

Progress Plaza was home turf, in a neighborhood near Temple University, where, four decades earlier, he had begun his transformation from farmer's son to radical activist and larger-than-life public persona.

It's also a place where some voters still pull the lever for a man who has not held office in decades, proudly disavows 9-5 work, and has not had an income-producing gig since he went to federal prison for unpaid taxes.

"I got retired," is how Street puts it, "when they sent me to jail."

Shopper after shopper at the Fresh Grocer approached him - proof that his colorful, if distinctly checkered, image is a thing of local legend.

"We were just talking about you," Isaiah Curtis Bronson Jr. told him. "You are the man."

Street was a two-minute walk from the Temple campus, where, in the 1970s, he and his brother John were denied, and were determined to push back hard.

The first black food vendors on campus, they were targeted by police and inspectors. They staged stormy protests inside City Hall, tangled with authorities, and eventually joined the system they had vowed to change.

John became a lawyer, City Council president, and two-term mayor. Milton became a legislator and gig-to-gig hustler whose oratory remained lofty as his fortunes went south.

With John long out of the spotlight, Milton continues to reach for the megaphone, proclaiming himself an apostle for the disenfranchised - voters, in other words, who give little thought to the city's tourism challenges.

"I'll see you at the polls, man," Street told Bronson.

To the city's establishment, Street is a stubborn outlier, an unfiltered and self-serving public figure. A guy who keeps running for office no matter how many times he loses, because he is addicted to the attention.

But at least some in the Progress Plaza crowd see Street as a straight talker who refuses to put lipstick on a pig in a city where one of four people live in poverty. A guy who won't mince words or genuflect to kingmakers.

In 2011, challenging incumbent Mayor Nutter in the Democratic primary, Street captured a quarter of the vote - though he was freshly released from prison.

So what if his odds of winning in a field of six are slim to none? So what if the "elites," as he derides them, snicker?

"How you doing, future mayor?" another man said as he approached Street at the supermarket.

"If these people that I'm trying to represent go and vote," Street said, "I can't be trumped."

An instinct for drama

Even some of the many who roll their eyes at the mention of Street confess a kind of admiration.

He is widely viewed as uncommonly intelligent. There is no doubt that he has a dead-on instinct for political theater.

During six years as a state representative and senator, he was a savvy operator, but one whose methods ultimately short-circuited his tenure in Harrisburg.

He pitched a tent on the Capitol lawn and was rewarded with better office accommodations. He won a committee chairmanship as a freshman senator by switching parties to vote with the Republicans.

"I think all of the reasonable words fall short," said lawyer Robert W. O'Donnell, a Philadelphia Democrat in the legislature during Street's years there. "To call Milton unconventional is to pull all the drama out of it."

Street gained some say in Harrisburg, sending affordable-housing dollars to his district, through an approach O'Donnell described this way: "Rather than take the world as you find it, the world needs to take Milton as a given - and then cope with it as they see fit."

But Democrats ousted him from his seat in 1984 as payback for his GOP switch.

Since leaving the legislature, he has run for office no fewer than six times.

His latest campaign is being managed by his unemployed son, Milton Jr. Street said he had spent only about $4,000 - funds donated by developer and City Council candidate Ori Feibush. ("He says a lot of goofy things, ," said Feibush, who says he has given to most of the mayoral candidates in the May 19 Democratic primary. "But every once in a while, he has a couple of good ideas.")

Street wants to help former prisoners find jobs. He wants to fire Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. He pounds the need to reduce violence in neighborhoods and schools.

He would squeeze landlords by letting needy families occupy, and pay taxes on, vacant homes. He would help residents cut through City Hall bureaucracy.

"I want to get rid of the raccoons," Street said, "the possums, kangaroos, and everything else running out there in the community that people can't get responses for."

Kangaroos?

Street smiled.

Farm to factory to . . .

He was raised in Montgomery County by a black stay-at-home mother and a white father who planted crops on their rented farm and worked at a nearby furnace manufacturer.

Street worked in the factory after graduating from Conshohocken High School, and delivered sermons as a teenager at Ebenezer Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Philadelphia.

He studied theology at a church-affiliated college in Alabama, but left without a degree to marry and start a family.

His parents thought he might become a preacher. Street instead became a wig salesman - "I sold $600 in wigs at my first wig party" - and then a hot dog vendor in North Philadelphia.

He quickly realized he was unwelcome. Police would tow his stuff morning after morning.

Such "episodes of injustice" initially drove him and his brother to advocacy, said lawyer Carl Singley, who was on Temple's law faculty at the time. Singley supported the brothers as they staged wild protests that sometimes featured fistfights in Council or Street's handcuffing himself to avoid being removed from City Hall.

John Street declined to be interviewed about his brother. "With the Street brothers," Singley said, "it was about the power and the limelight, without a doubt. And that's why Milton is still around."

'No remorse'

In the three decades since he left public office, Street has gone bankrupt, failed to pay $2,000 in traffic tickets, fallen way behind in his taxes, and gotten heat for landing city-connected contracts.

"I would never do a 9-5" job, Street said. "Because you've got to take instructions sometimes from people who can't think."

To St. Joseph's University urban history guru Randall Miller, Street embodies a fabled mantra of Tammany Hall: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

"He's a hustler," Miller said. "But even hustlers come to believe that hustle's a good thing."

In 2006, when his brother was mayor, federal prosecutors charged Street with fraud and tax evasion relating to contracts at Philadelphia International Airport. He was also accused of influence-peddling. The name of one of his businesses? Notlim - Milton spelled backward.

A jury acquitted Street of the influence-peddling, and of defrauding a businessman in connection with a $3 million subcontract at the airport. But it convicted him of not filing tax returns on $3 million he collected, some of which paid to Street as consultant.

He showed "no remorse for his conduct," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams wrote in a 2008 sentencing memorandum.

Street was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $413,000 in back taxes, in small monthly increments.

He won a more recent, if less consequential, court battle, representing himself against a challenge aimed at booting him off the May 19 Democratic ballot - a challenge he claims was meant to help a rival candidate, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams. Politicos figure Street could take some black votes from Williams.

Street relishes that little victory.

"It says that I am showing the whole city and the whole state that I'm not only a big mouth that runs around the city and demonstrates and takes over City Council," he said, "but I can think."

T. Milton Street Sr.

Party: Democratic.

Age: 76.

Residence: North Philadelphia.

Family: Three grown children, Milton Jr., Kevin, and Renee.

Education: Conshohocken High School graduate. Studied theology at Oakwood University, Huntsville, Ala., in the 1960s.

Occupation: Retired.

Campaign website: None.

Career: State representative (1979-80); state senator (1981-84); food vendor (1970s and later); community activist (1970s); consultant. Served time in federal prison (2008-10) for failure to file tax returns.

EndText

INSIDE

Ramsey: Keep

me out of the campaign. B1

Williams backers' large ad buy marks

a milestone. B1.

Lateness and absences draw notice at poverty forum. B1

WHO'S RUNNING

Profiles of the Democratic mayoral candidates.

MONDAY

Lynne M. Abraham

TUESDAY

Nelson A. Diaz

WEDNESDAY

James F. Kenney

THURSDAY

Doug Oliver

FRIDAY

T. Milton Street Sr.

NEXT MONDAY

Anthony Hardy Williams

EndText

215-854-2431 @Panaritism