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Uniquely Qualified with a Unique Qualification: An Interview with Mayor John F. Street

by John C. Gregory Jr.

Summer 2000, Vol. 63, No. 2

I have made the study of Philadelphia's mayors somewhat of a hobby, even penning an article about the number of instances our mayor has been a lawyer for this publication's predecessor, The Shingle, in 1991. It has been my distinct honor to interview three of the last four mayors of the City of Philadelphia.

I am always duly impressed by the individual being interviewed, and, of course, the office itself. For better or for worse, come noteworthy success or otherwise, I find myself sitting next to a person who will be forever recorded in history as the leader of the fifth largest city in the United States, which leaves me awed. It was no less so with Mayor Street.

A busy person, the Mayor made time in between appointments, public meetings and policy sessions-the general business of the office-for a brief interview. A less fit person, both physically and mentally, would find the daily grind of this position to be daunting. In addition to questioning Mayor Street about his support for the arts in Philadelphia (which receives special attention in this edition), it was my premise to determine if, and how, his training as a lawyer made him particularly well equipped to serve as mayor. Mayor Street seems to have what's needed to take on the responsibility and do what in his view is best for our city.

Excerpts from our interview follow:

Q: There have been 98 mayors in the City of Philadelphia, a third of which have been lawyers. How did your training as a lawyer prepare you to be a politician or to be the mayor of Philadelphia?

A: The legal profession provides a person with the greatest opportunity to get a wide variety of experience, information and training in a broad range of areas so that it presents you with a unique qualification to deal with the overall variety of policy matters that come up in the context of doing the job as the mayor. When I say unique, I mean being a lawyer is a unique qualification-for example, just understanding the differences in a real and serious public policy way and in a political way between the different sovereigns that exist in this country. The difference between the state as a sovereign and the city as a political subdivision of the state is something that most people do not understand. To the extent that you do understand it, the better you are able to deal with a very different kind of political relationship that has to exist between the state and one of its political subdivisions, the state and the federal government, and the federal government and the city.

I got into lots of very interesting discussions about all of that when we were structuring the PICA (Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority) legislation. There were these questions about what was delegated to the city by way of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter. To what extent can the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania infringe on the rights of home rule? It's esoteric to some people, but when it got right down to it there were very serious and important questions raised that had to be answered at the time. So being a lawyer was a unique qualification.

When I was in law school I took a course on corporate finance where we discussed how to value a going concern. You know, when we start talking about this whole stadium legislation, the concepts of the value of a going concern were raised right here in this room. I had Council members who were saying: "That franchise is going to be worth so much more if we do the stadiums, and what does the city get out of it?"

Well, that's the kind of discussion I first started having in law school, you know? And now, when we start figuring out what's going to be the value of these franchises, assuming the deals are made for new stadiums, it's a very important issue. People say, "Well, what happens if we agree to build a new Phillies stadium, and do build a stadium, and the Phillies decide to sell the franchise? What does the city get out of it?" There are people today saying that the Phillies could be worth two or three hundred million dollars, and if we do new stadiums their value could triple. What about all of that?

Well, these are interesting questions, and in this business you have to know what you don't know, but you also have to know you don't know it first. Being a lawyer gives you a tremendous advantage over other people who may be much more dependent on the judgment of others in many areas. The whole PICA legislation and now this whole business with the stadiums are just a couple of examples.

Q: What other influences in your life, perhaps outside the law, have contributed to your ability to lead the city, or to your life as a politician?

A: Probably my involvement with my church and the early leadership opportunities that I got out of it. It's interesting you raise that question. I was recently the commencement speaker at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. It made me reflect on my five years in Alabama, 1961 to 1966, when I had the opportunity to go to a small church school. I was somebody at that school. If I had gone to Temple University or some of these other great big schools that have four or five different campuses and thousands and thousands of students, I think I would have been just a number. And I probably would have been less reasonably served as a result of it. I may have gotten one or two more academic courses, but I don't think I would have developed many of the leadership skills because I would have had very few, if any, of the leadership opportunities.

Q: While on City Council you were a supporter of projects dealing with the arts. Are you still?

A: Well, I believe that it is important that the City of Philadelphia support its arts/cultural community because we have learned over the years that one of the biggest reasons why people visit the city as tourists is because of the arts and cultural amenities that we offer. People come here and bring conventions here, I think, because we have a brand spanking new facility that's probably the best that exists in the country, but the arts and cultural amenities that we have are also very important. As it turns out, a lot of the arts/cultural groups themselves actually entice groups here.

The other very significant thing is that a lot of people choose to stay in the city and in this area because they really want to be close to the Philadelphia Orchestra, they want to be close to all of the restaurants and the Zoo, Independence Mall, and of course we have all of the Penn's Landing development and the Regional Performing Arts Center and the Art Museum and Freedom Theater-there are all of these wonderful institutions, including a lot of the smaller groups in the neighborhoods, that make the city a special place. People love it.

We find that there's almost a whole new generation of people who are moving into town that really are not interested in the Schuylkill Expressway or I-95. They would really rather be able to walk to local entertainment, arts and culture. We sometimes refer to this group as the empty nesters who are coming back to town; we have occupancy rates in Center City that are up over 98 percent. A lot of people just don't want to be out in the suburbs anymore. A lot of them want to live in the city because they want to be close to these activities. The arts are very important to our city, and we need to do everything we can to support them.

I also believe that there needs to be a closer relationship between what we're doing in the city and what we're doing in the region. I have long been a proponent of a regional authority for arts and cultural activities that can have its own income base, its own source of funding, and that can be a recipient of grants and funding from Harrisburg, Washington and other places. This would be a better way of being able to fund a lot of these activities. Our city's arts and cultural funds have been helpful, but it's not enough. It's a struggle; it really is not enough. But, it's always been my expectation that there really needs to be a very strong and coordinated relationship between what the city does and what the arts and cultural organizations in the region do because we are so dependent upon each other in so many different ways. I believe that if we had a more coordinated approach to both the funding and the other organizational and management challenges, we could probably do a lot better. But we'll get there. I have a whole transition team that has done a lot of work on it and as soon as we put the rest of our team in place, we're going to spend some time focusing on these issues.

Q: It's kind of early to ask this, but what will you do after politics? Will you go back to the practice of law?

A: I don't know. It's a little early. I mean, it would be hard to deny that I've had a successful political career, but I have a certain regret that I was unable, because of all of this political stuff, to really get more engaged in the practice of law. I enjoyed it, and I think it's really a very noble profession. Who knows, maybe I'll get a chance to do some after this.