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Charles W. Bowser, towering political figure in Philadelphia, dies

Charles W. Bowser, 79, a tenacious advocate of racial fairness and an influential civic leader whose two campaigns for Philadelphia mayor inspired a generation of African American political leaders, died Monday from complications of Alzheimer's disease at HCR Manor Care in King of Prussia.

Charles W. Bowser ran for mayor in 1975 and '79. In 1975, he ran with Council candidate T. Milton Street.
Charles W. Bowser ran for mayor in 1975 and '79. In 1975, he ran with Council candidate T. Milton Street.Read moreFile Photograph

Charles W. Bowser, 79, a tenacious advocate of racial fairness and an influential civic leader whose two campaigns for Philadelphia mayor inspired a generation of African American political leaders, died Monday from complications of Alzheimer's disease at HCR Manor Care in King of Prussia.

For almost 40 years from the mid-1960s on, Mr. Bowser was a force in the city's civic life while mentoring and encouraging virtually every major black elected official who has emerged in the last 25 years.

From fighting to end the wearing of blackface by Mummers to serving on the commission that investigated the MOVE bombing, Mr. Bowser proved a determined and intellectually gifted lawyer and public servant.

But his most enduring legacy can be found in the office he never was able to achieve for himself.

While Mr. Bowser was not the first African American to run for mayor in Philadelphia, his campaigns in 1975 and 1979 were the first to galvanize black voters. In doing so, they challenged the notion that a black candidate could not win.

"Charlie Bowser convinced the African American community we could do this," said John F. Street, the city's second black mayor.

W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's first black mayor, shared that sentiment.

"Charles Bowser paved the way for me," he said. "The fact that he was able to run and do so well gave people absolute confidence that I could be successful in my 1983 campaign."

Mr. Bowser's campaigns taught the fundamentals of politics to the class of young black leaders that followed. Goode trained volunteers for the Bowser campaigns. Street was a volunteer, as were State Rep. Dwight Evans, now chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, along with members of City Council and holders of other elected offices.

"He was the leading independent political force in the city," Fattah said. Over the years, even as numerous black political figures came to power in the city, Mr. Bowser remained one of the major architects of African American empowerment, he said. "He was a force to be reckoned with over the lifetime of five or six mayors."

Gov. Rendell called him "the most effective African American politician and leader who never held office."

"We've lost a great leader and a moral compass for Philadelphia, someone who fought for others," Rendell said.

He said that while their relationship ran hot and cold over the years, Mr. Bowser was one of his strongest supporters in the 2002 gubernatorial race.

"He never sold out, he never compromised his position," Rendell said. "He fought hard and incredibly effectively for people. His moral leadership will be missed."

Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees Local 1199, was a lifelong friend of Mr. Bowser's.

"Philadelphia lost an icon, a visionary, a leader who loved justice more than life itself," he said. "He spent the major part of his life trying to move a social agenda that encompasses everyone."

Fiercely competitive

Mr. Bowser grew up poor in North Philadelphia. A fiercely competitive man, he played football at Central High School, where he was a star fullback.

Between undergraduate studies and law school at Temple University, he served two years in the Army in the Korean War. An "ordnance disposal expert," he cleared mine fields and defused bombs.

After graduating from law school in 1957, Mr. Bowser made his way in a world almost unrecognizable by today's standards. African Americans had little role in public affairs, the professions, and certainly politics.

"When I was coming up, Cecil B. Moore and Charlie Bowser were the only black lawyers I knew," Street said.

Mr. Bowser was among a cadre of young local civil rights activists determined to create a more inclusive and fair society.

In 1964, as an attorney for the local NAACP, Mr. Bowser led a successful fight to end the use of blackface by marchers in the Mummers Parade.

His first full-time stint in public service came a year later, when he was named director of the Philadelphia Anti-Poverty Action Committee.

In 1967, he became deputy to Mayor James H. J. Tate, a first. Black Philadelphians who wanted access to city government now had someone they could go to.

He became director of the Urban Coalition in 1968. His secretary for a time was Marian B. Tasco, who now serves on City Council. Tasco remembered a determined man who help develop programs to get African Americans into the trades and provide minority contractors the skills needed to compete more effectively.

He inspired her as well.

"He mentored me," she said. "He got me involved in the political world. He made me pay attention to what was going on around me. He would say, 'You have to know what is going on if you expect to change things.' "

Mr. Bowser made his most significant challenge to the status quo in 1975 when he ran for mayor as a third-party candidate against Democrat Frank L. Rizzo and Republican Thomas Foglietta.

"We formulated his campaign in my office and we went to the Democratic City Committee for support," Nicholas said. "And when they didn't support us, we came back and put our own independent campaign together."

Mr. Bowser finished a distant 177,000 votes behind Rizzo, but beat Foglietta for second place. It was an unheard of outcome for an independent candidate in the city.

Four years later, he came within 37,000 votes of defeating Bill Green for the Democratic mayoral nomination, another stunning result for a black candidate.

Moore and W. Hardy Williams had both run for mayor before Mr. Bowser, but neither had been anywhere near as successful.

"It really woke people up that Philadelphia could elect a black mayor, that it was possible," Mr. Bowser recalled years later. "One of the things we always stressed was, 'This is not a sprint, this is a marathon. We are going to achieve our goal - if it takes a generation.' "

As it was, it took only four years.

"There always has to be somebody out there opening the door and making people thinking differently about things," Street said. "That was Charlie Bowser."

Evans remembered the fun and excitement of being part of the Bowser movement in 1979.

He recalled the motorcades twisting through black neighborhoods with trucks blaring "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," the song by Philadelphians Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff that became the unofficial anthem of the campaign.

"He was one of the original warriors," Evans said of Mr. Bowser. "If there was a Mount Rushmore of Philadelphia politics, his face would be up there."

Former U.S. Rep. William H. Gray III, the first African American to become chairman of the House Budget Committee, remembered Mr. Bowser as the chief architect of a political alliance between black Philadelphians and liberal white Philadelphians that changed the city's political landscape in the '70s and '80s.

That alliance help elect black mayors and other important black leaders. It also helped elect progressive white Democrats, who alone could not have fought the traditional Democratic establishment. Among them was Rendell, elected district attorney in 1977.

Gray said of Mr. Bowser: "He broke the walls down."

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said Mr. Bowser worked behind the scenes to make sure that at least half of all candidates for endorsed judicial positions by the party were African American.

"He wanted to catch up, so he wanted it 75-25 - but he was happy with 50-50," Brady recalled. "I said we'd catch up over time."

Respected lawyer

While he never ran for office again after 1979, Mr. Bowser remained an influential figure in the city and a respected lawyer.

"I think that we underrate him when we put him in a pigeonhole as a politician," Goode said. "He was much more than that. . . . People went to him for advice . . . black politicians, black religious leaders, black civic leaders, and white and black business people sought advice from him."

Goode himself tapped Mr. Bowser to served on the MOVE Commission, which reviewed the city's handling of the 1985 siege and bombing in West Philadelphia. The commission issued a scathing report on the incident, and Mr. Bowser went on to write a book about the bombing.

Goode said Mr. Bowser remained a valued friend and adviser.

"The thing which I liked about Charles Bowser was that he would always tell you what he thought," Goode said. "He would not try and sugarcoat it."

Though Mr. Bowser was best known for his political activity, fellow lawyers in Philadelphia knew him as a sharp litigator, who represented clients ranging from corporate giants such as Peco Energy to ordinary people.

"His political prominence somewhat overshadowed his legal skills as far as the public was concerned," said Luther E. Weaver III, who was a law partner of Mr. Bowser's for more than two decades.

"He was an excellent trial lawyer. He received million-dollar settlements in personal injury cases. He tried several criminal cases, and he never lost, not while I was with him. But he did mostly commercial litigation and environmental litigation."

When not working, Mr. Bowser was an avid tennis player.

He played regularly at the Chamounix Tennis Courts in Fairmount Park. He played at his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard. And he took his racket when he traveled out of town. "He played everywhere he went," Weaver said.

Mr. Bowser retired from his law practice in 2004. At that point, he was suffering from the growing effects of Alzheimer's.

Aware of what his future held, Mr. Bowser wanted to remain as active as he could for as long as he could, Nicholas said. So he moved his desk, his law books, and his souvenirs from a lifetime in politics and the law into an office that Nicholas made available to him in the Center City building owned by the union.

"He had a lot of contacts across the country, and he wanted to stay busy until he couldn't find his way anymore," Nicholas said. "His wife finally came to me to say she was terminating his activity, because she was concerned about him getting back and forth safely."

Mr. Bowser is survived by a daughter, Leslie Bowser Hope; a son, Charles Walker Bowser II; a sister, Thelma Rambert; and three grandchildren. Mr. Bowser's wife of 50 years, Barbara Potts Bowser, died in 2008. A daughter, Maria, died in 2002.

Services were pending.