Five years before he helped get Barack Obama elected to the White House, David Axelrod played a pivotal role in keeping John Street in City Hall. In 2003, Street was facing a tough rematch against Sam Katz, whom he'd defeated by just one percentage point four years prior. According to Katz, one month before Election Day, his polling showed him leading by six points, partly attributable to inroads he was making in the black community.
But everything changed Oct. 7, 2003, with the discovery of a listening device inside Street's office. Axelrod, in his new memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, explains what happened next:
"I got a call from George Burrell, Street's savvy political deputy at City Hall.
" 'I think we have a problem.'
" 'Problem?' I asked warily.
" 'Yes, it seems we've found a bug in the mayor's office.' "
Axelrod writes that after learning the bug belonged to the federal government, he saw advantage.
"It struck me, as I thought about it, that this was our problem but also our opportunity," he writes. "In an overwhelmingly Democratic town, a probe launched by the Republican Justice Department in Washington would surely be greeted with skepticism, perhaps even outrage. I called Burrell back. 'We need to hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall and accuse John Ashcroft of trying to steal this election.' When Street confronted reporters, frantic over the news, he came armed with a line I had written for him: 'I'm happy to speak into a microphone I can see.' "
Street followed the script. On NBC's Today, he told Katie Couric: "I think there will continue to be a huge amount of speculation and concern that some of this is racially motivated. We live in the greatest country in the world, but it's not perfect."
Cue Street's friend Ron White, a target of the probe, who said: "I am a black man in America doing what I think needs to be done, and people resent that."
Lost in the spin was that for a bug to have been placed, investigators had to first convince a federal judge that there was probable cause to believe that crimes had been, or were about to be, committed and that the office was being used in connection with those crimes. But the spin worked.
"Liberal whites, traditionally resistant to Street, decided any enemy of John Ashcroft's was a friend of theirs," writes Axelrod. "Sensing a looming injustice, an outraged African American community came out in large numbers to support Street, who defeated the Republican by 17 points."
Not mentioned in his book, however, is that long after the polls closed, U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan racked up almost two dozen convictions in cases related to the investigation.
Twelve years on, Sam Katz doubts it was Axelrod who hatched the strategy.
"Axelrod's memory reminds me a little of Brian Williams' memory," Katz said. "He has constituted a set of facts to craft a heroic figure in the person of David Axelrod. For 48 hours after the bug was discovered the mayor and his campaign were in complete disarray. And if someone was as sharp as the person that David Axelrod describes in his autobiography, it wasn't apparent to me or to anybody who was following the campaign from that Tuesday until that Thursday. I'm dubious that Axelrod is the author of the Son of Watergate strategy that ultimately succeeded in saving the Street campaign and I think he has embellished the story exponentially."
Regardless of who came up with the strategy, Katz concedes it changed the course of the election.
"I got 2 percent of the African American vote in 1999 and I was between 12 and 14 percent in the poll that was done just prior to the disclosure of this listening device," he said. "Within 10 days my 12 to 14 was back down to the 2 that I received in 1999, and the support that I had among progressives and liberals was off maybe 10 or 15 points. And so this device, this story, completely changed the election, removed it as a matter of local issues and became a Philadelphia referendum on the legitimacy of the Bush presidency. This was a very shrewd strategy and frankly one that well might have been deployed without the bug, but the bug gave it much more grist for the mill."
I wondered if, in light of the many convictions that resulted from the probe, Axelrod had any regrets about his role in blaming the GOP? "No," was his emphatic answer.
"I don't, Michael, because, as you know, John Street was never indicted for anything," he said. "He was never accused of anything and I felt that to have bugged his office particularly in the midst of a very competitive partisan race was not the right thing to do and would not have happened without the knowledge of the Justice Department at the highest levels. . . .
"I actually have a very, very high regard for John Street, who I think, in his own rough-hewn way, was a guy of real integrity who took public service seriously and played a big role in saving Philadelphia from a disaster during the Rendell years and did some very good things for the city - afterschool programs, abandoned cars, and so on - during his years as mayor. . . . I wouldn't have gotten as far as I got and I wouldn't have helped get really good people elected if I wasn't willing to stoutly defend them in moments like that, but I don't feel any regret about that."
While acknowledging a begrudging admiration for the strategy that sunk his mayoral prospects, Katz has not forgotten those who played along.
"I think anytime you lie and you sell the lie to everybody who has credibility, whether it was Jim Carville or David Axelrod or Al Sharpton, I'm not so sure how credible he is, but a Jesse Jackson, virtually every Democratic [elected official], [Congressman] Joe Hoeffel, [City Controller] Jon Saidel, [Congressman] Bob Brady, everybody who spoke on this, knew they were lying."