Frank Rizzo and the Making of Modern American Politics

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In this excerpt from his book Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), Timothy J. Lombardo discusses Frank Rizzo’s populist appeal among white ethnic, blue-collar Philadelphians. The first former police commissioner of a major American city, Frank Rizzo was one of the most controversial figures in Philadelphia’s history. As police commissioner, he earned a national reputation for his tough stance on crime, the heavy-handed tactics of his police force, and his openly hostile treatment of civil rights activists. Although he was a Democrat, Rizzo maintained his base of support by opposing public housing, school desegregation, affirmative action and other liberal programs that he deemed unearned advantages for nonwhites. Though he was hated by liberals and antiracists, white ethnic, blue-collar Philadelphians rallied around Rizzo and called him “one of us.” This excerpt places Rizzo’s blue-collar populism in the context of the cultural and economic shifts of the early 1970s and shows how it helped him survive his tumultuous first term as mayor.

Frank Rizzo’s reputation as Philadelphia’s no-nonsense police commissioner thrust him into the national spotlight. His election to mayor cemented his standing as a symbol of the city and its civic identity. Nationally syndicated comic strip artist Garry Trudeau made that connection explicit in August 1972, when he set a series of his popular comic Doonesbury in Philadelphia. The three-part series was part of a larger storyline that followed characters Mike Doonesbury and Mark Slackmeyer on a cross-country road trip to the Republican National Convention in Miami. Making their way via motorcycle and sidecar, the duo stopped in Philadelphia en route to Florida. The first panel in the series found Doonesbury and Slackmeyer asking a bystander for directions to the Philadelphia YMCA before being confronted by a hulking figure with a slick of black hair in the comic’s second panel. Armed with nightstick in his left hand and a rifle in his right, the figure towered over Doonesbury and Slackmeyer, saying, “I’ll give you some directions, hippie! You get this junk heap out of my city or I’ll beat your brains out! Got it?” As he walked away, a stunned Slackmeyer turned to ask “Who was that?” of the bystander offering him directions. “The mayor,” he responded.

Since Doonesbury’s creation in 1970, Trudeau’s widely read strip had come to epitomize countercultural-inspired satire. A favorite among liberals, Trudeau’s biting wit pulled few punches when lampooning public figures. Rizzo was no exception, especially in the second strip set in Philadelphia. The comic opened with a disheveled and unshaven Slackmeyer sitting at a diner counter with a cup of coffee. From out of frame a voice yelled, “Hey! You! I thought I told you to get out of town.” Standing over Slackmeyer in the next panel, Trudeau caricatured Rizzo’s blue-collar accent and mannerisms when he had the character ask, “What you still doin’ in Phillie, Boy?” Slackmeyer responded, “Gee, I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t think you were serious. After all, I’m a fellow Italian American.” Rizzo, noticeably cheerier in the next panel, exclaimed, “You Are?! Well, now, that’s different. Yup, that’s a very different kettle of fish!” A smiling Rizzo settled in next to Slackmeyer in the final panel. Laying his hand on Slackmeyer’s shoulder and finishing the gag, Rizzo said, “I thought you were a Hippie or a Negro or somethin’!”

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Trudeau never identified Rizzo by name in the three-day series. It was unnecessary. The humor in the Doonesbury series rested on the mockery of Rizzo’s reputation for brutality and bigotry, at least when the strips ran nationwide. When the second strip ran in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin edited the final frame to say only, “I thought you were a Hippie or somethin’!” By editing the punchline the Bulletin softened the criticism against the mayor and reiterated Rizzo’s carefully crafted public color blindness. As the nationally syndicated version of the comic attested, however, Rizzo was never able to dissuade liberal critics from his racist reputation. The final strip in the series, furthermore, played on Rizzo’s other popular well-known characteristic: his ethnic pride. It followed Doonesbury and Slackmeyer as they left the city. Slackmeyer, telling Doonesbury of the evening he spent with the mayor the night before, said that he turned out to be a “pretty nice fellow.” The two went to Rizzo’s house, he said, where they shared a home-cooked meal, wine, and stories about the “old country.” The mayor even signed Slackmeyer up as an honorary member of the Philadelphia Italian Anti-Defamation League. “All of which is no mean feat for a Jewish boy,” Slackmeyer quipped in the final panel, bragging of his ability to fool the mayor.

Doonesbury showed how much Rizzo had come to represent the city in the public imagination. The strip featured no other identifiable figures or landmarks. If not for Rizzo, there was nothing to identify the setting as Philadelphia in the final two strips. In Doonesbury, Rizzo became a stand-in for the entire city. Moreover, the Frank Rizzo caricatured in the comic was the embodiment of blue-collar Philadelphia and its connotations. The weapons Rizzo carried in the first strip reflected his toughness and inflexibility. His unpolished vernacular reinforced his up-from-the-streets image. White ethnic heritage mattered deeply to the character. The fictional Rizzo was an exaggeration, but he captured an image that represented both the mayor and his city. It was especially representative of the blue-collar Philadelphians that felt they finally had a mayor that truly represented them, who they considered “one of us.” They supported Rizzo throughout his political career, and through a series of challenges and controversies, because they saw him as one of their own.

Blue-collar Philadelphians wrote to Rizzo constantly. The sheer amount of mail his mayoral office received was astounding. People wrote to Rizzo to express their admiration, to inform him of local issues that mattered to them, or even to ask him to act on state or national issues—like capital punishment and abortion—that were beyond his control. Letters encouraging Rizzo to run for governor of Pennsylvania started filling his mailbox as early as 1972. Yet blue-collar Philadelphians did not just write to Rizzo as a politician. They also sent him mountains of fan mail and well wishes. Birthday and holiday greetings piled up year after year. They sent him postcards from family vacations. His wife, Carmella Rizzo, intentionally kept a low profile and refused a public role of any kind, but still received Mother’s Day greetings from adoring strangers. Time and again, letter writers included personal anecdotes, telling Rizzo how they had met him at a campaign rally or how he had once helped a relative. Most times, they received a letter from the mayor thanking them for writing and telling them that he remembered them. Of course, it would have been impossible for Rizzo to respond to every letter and recall so many minute details. More than likely a staff member responded to the letters and maintained a personal touch. But it worked. Each letter reinforced the feeling that Rizzo not only represented blue-collar Philadelphia, but was a part of blue-collar Philadelphia.

Italian Americans were especially proud of Rizzo. In 1972, a letter from South Philadelphia’s Loretta Crea exemplified the kind of mail Rizzo regularly received. Crea began by telling Rizzo how much she admired him and thanking him for helping to end a labor strike at the Delaware River Port Authority, where her husband worked. The reason for her letter, however, was to let Rizzo know how sorry she was about the criticism he received. It was unfair, she said, and clearly based on his Italian ancestry. “I find that people will attack you in my presence because they know that I am of the same Italian heritage that you are,” she told Rizzo. She identified with Rizzo and it mattered deeply that she could see Rizzo as one of her own. “You have given people like myself a great deal of hope,” she concluded her letter. “I sincerely hope that you continue on the pattern you have set in front of yourself thus far.” Like so many others, Crea received a personal response from the mayor’s office. To white ethnic, blue-collar Philadelphians like her, Rizzo was more than a mayor, he was like a friend and neighbor. When scandal plagued his administration, letter writers reminded Rizzo that he still had their support.

Rizzo’s first term in office was riddled with controversy. The scandals ranged from frequent verbal gaffs and poorly timed media appearances to much more serious allegations of misappropriation of federal funds and using the police to spy on political enemies. At times, the scandals veered toward the cartoonish, as when, in 1973, Rizzo publicly failed a polygraph test administered immediately after vouching for its veracity. Democratic Party rival Peter Camiel had accused Rizzo of using the police department as a personal spy ring and offering bribes to reward the mayor’s friends. Local newspapers initiated investigations into corruption in City Hall and Daily News editor Rolfe Neill challenged Rizzo, Camiel, and deputy mayor Phillip R. T. Carroll to take lie detector tests. All three agreed. Before taking the test, Rizzo famously said, “If this machine says a man lied, he lied.” Rizzo and Carroll failed. Camiel passed. But Rizzo’s blue-collar constituency refused to believe any of the accusations and steadfastly stood by their mayor. One said that her faith in Rizzo was “now stronger than ever” and another said Rizzo had been “baited by the lousy liberal press bastards.” Likewise, when a disastrous appearance on the nationally televised Lou Gordon Show ended with Rizzo storming out of the interview after being presented with evidence of widespread police corruption under his watch, blue-collar Philadelphia came to his defense. Most of them blamed “the biased media” who were out to get “the working peoples’ mayor.” When accusations swirled about Rizzo’s misappropriation of public funds to build a multimillion-dollar mansion, his supporters wrote off the accusations as mere rumors. Many of them thought Rizzo had earned his “dream house” and congratulated the mayor on its purchase, even after evidence proved his administration had misused public funds to construct the house. Throughout his first term and most of the 1970s, there was little Rizzo could do to jeopardize the loyalty of white, blue-collar Philadelphia.

While Rizzo maintained enormous popularity in blue-collar Philadelphia, his controversial mayoralty divided the city and the local Democratic Party. He continued his criticism of the civil rights movement and publicly fought with liberals. He alienated Democrats when he endorsed Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972. Rizzo considered the president a personal hero and called him the greatest president in American history. The respect was mutual. Nixon considered Rizzo essential to his urban strategy and welcomed the endorsement from across party lines. Rizzo then made a spectacle of his support for the president and opposition to George McGovern. When Rizzo held a press conference to publicly endorse Nixon for reelection, he carried with him a rubber chicken pinned with a “McGovern for President” campaign button. He also presented Nixon with a Zippo cigarette lighter featuring an illustration of popular cartoon dog Snoopy saying “Fuck McGovern.”  Rizzo seemed to go out of his way to insult and antagonize liberals. They, in turn, assumed a defensive position. Liberals and civil rights activists regrouped and began forming a new political coalition capable of challenging Rizzo’s blue-collar appeal. For the time being, however, they were overwhelmed by a city and nation that welcomed Rizzo’s brand of blue-collar politics. [Former Mayor] Richardson Dilworth called it an “unfortunate period,” the “Reign of the Hard Hat,” and the “persecution of intellectualism.”

Liberals like Dilworth saw the rise of Frank Rizzo and the blue-collar cultural populism it represented as a dangerous deviation from the politics of the postwar era. They interpreted the success of figures like Rizzo and Nixon as a fluke guided by the politics of resentment and backlash. In many ways, Rizzo did owe his victory in 1971 and his unrelenting popularity to the blue-collar resentment of liberalism and the civil rights movement. But Rizzo also reaped the benefits of a widespread cultural populism that celebrated working-class aesthetics in the early 1970s, both locally and nationally. He represented more than political success. His election was proof that blue-collar whites had overcome the challenges of the 1960s. They saw Rizzo’s good fortune as their own because they saw themselves in the mayor. Rizzo was proof that Philadelphia had become a “blue-collar town.”

For working-class white ethnics, the late 1960s were an era of embattled blue-collar traditions and institutions. The rise of blue-collar cultural populism in the 1970s celebrated their working-class authenticity. Popular politics, popular culture, and a vast array of popular entertainments celebrated the blue-collar cultural populism. Throughout the 1970s, television programs like All in the Family and popular movies like Dog Day Afternoon celebrated blue-collar protagonists. Nationally, this blue-collar revival reinforced an image of the working class as narrowly white and primarily male. In Philadelphia, the popular and political culture combined to create an idealized civic identity, an urban manifestation of blue-collar culture represented by Frank Rizzo and his blue-collar authenticity. Television’s cantankerous blue-collar stereotype Archie Bunker would have felt perfectly at home in Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia.

The reality of an increasingly multicultural working class and struggling economy contradicted the blue-collar optimism represented by Rizzo-era cultural populism. Movements for racial inclusiveness forced federal and local policy changes that ended white men’s exclusivity in blue-collar employment. As police wives and neighborhood school mothers proved, blue-collar culture was neither wholly nor exclusively male. Economically, moreover, Philadelphia no longer fit the blue-collar label. Like many American cities, a loss of manufacturing jobs sapped traditional blue-collar jobs. The federal spending that led to record levels of construction jobs in the 1960s subsided in the sagging 1970s economy and put a once-secure blue-collar job into steady decline. Simply put, the blue-collar cultural ascendency did not change the reality of blue-collar economic decline. Even as Rizzo signified a triumph of blue-collar identity politics, his administration oversaw the reinvention of Philadelphia’s economy. Despite his conservative rhetoric, Rizzo’s mayoralty did not dismantle urban liberalism on a local level. His team of talented economic advisers worked to attract new industries and established policies that helped make the city a center of the health care and pharmaceutical industries. Ironically, Philadelphia’s blue-collar reputation emerged just as it was in the midst of transition to a more white-collar and service-sector economy. The city maintained its reputation as a “blue-collar town” partly because of Rizzo’s image and partly because popular culture in and about Philadelphia in the 1970s reinforced that civic identity.

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Rizzo both helped create Philadelphia’s blue-collar civic identity and reaped the benefits of the city’s blue-collar identity politics. His identification with blue-collar Philadelphians helped him survive a tumultuous first term in office that made him a frequent target of the liberals who were never comfortable with his presence in City Hall. New political enemies he created with his divisive politics and personality joined the effort to oust him from office. In 1975, they waged a challenge to Rizzo in the Democratic primary election. Rallying liberals and civil rights activists behind the candidacy of liberal lawyer and Richardson Dilworth’s stepson Louis Hill, Rizzo’s critics and enemies hoped they could bring together the traditionally Democratic factions Rizzo had alienated. The threat was real enough. Some of Rizzo’s advisers briefly considered switching parties before deciding to wage the fight against liberal Democrats. But Louis Hill and his backers also seriously misjudged Rizzo’s enduring popularity. While Hill sought the backing of disaffected Democrats, Rizzo again campaigned in white, blue-collar neighborhoods. He easily held together the coalition of organized labor and white ethnics that elected him in 1971. He won the Democratic primary with a greater margin of victory than he had four years earlier.

Rizzo overcame the primary challenge relatively easily, but he was still livid at the attempt to remove him from office. He vowed revenge after the general election. His retaliation, furthermore, would be severe. On the campaign trail, with victory in the general election all but assured, Rizzo repeatedly told reporters that he would “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” when dealing with those that he thought had double-crossed him. The comment, which became one of the most famous of Rizzo’s entire career, stood apart from the outlandish rhetoric that Rizzo employed on a regular basis. It was emblematic of his blue-collar populism and spoke volumes about his character. The hyperbolic assertion of aggressive manhood promised quick and violent retribution. For liberals and civil libertarians—especially those in or with ties to the homosexual community—the comment confirmed that Rizzo represented the worst of brutish, boorish populist conservatism. They hoped it would sink his campaign.

Blue-collar Philadelphians, however, saw a politician unafraid to speak his mind. As they had in 1971, blue-collar neighborhoods came out in droves to support Rizzo in the general election of 1975. The Republican Party weakly tried to defeat Rizzo with its own appeal to white ethnic politics. They nominated city councilman and fellow Italian American Thomas Foglietta. He simply could not compete against Rizzo for blue-collar, white ethnic votes. Charles Bowser, who was James Tate’s city manager and the highest-ranking African American official in the city during the late 1960s, created the Philadelphia Party to wage a third party challenge to Rizzo. While Bowser came in second and marked another notch in the effort to create a new political coalition, he had no chance of defeating the mayor. Rizzo won with 65 percent of the vote and won in blue-collar wards by a four-to-one margin.

The blue-collar populism that carried Frank Rizzo through his early political career appealed to broader popular culture that depended on strong, tough women protectors, but privileged a primarily white and male cultural identity. Rizzo wielded this popularity in the elections of 1971 by contrasting his own blue-collar authenticity with effete liberals that allegedly threatened traditional neighborhoods, schools, and institutions. As he did, Rizzo adopted and exemplified a key trait in the emerging blue-collar conservatism. In 1975, he relied again on his masculine blue-collar identity and politics to remain in office. Supported almost entirely by white, blue-collar voters, Rizzo’s victories signaled changes in white, working-class politics as well as a broader rebuke of an urban liberalism based in central planning and the promotion of equal opportunity. Rizzo and his supporters rejected the liberal reform agenda that dominated most of the postwar era. They also ushered in a new era in the city’s political and cultural history. By 1977, Rizzo felt confident in declaring that Philadelphia was “now a blue-collar city.”

Timothy J. Lombardo is an assistant professor of History at the University of South Alabama, longtime friend-of-the-blog, and the author of Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, which is part of the University of Pennsylvania Press’s Politics and Modern Culture series, edited by Margot Canaday, Glenda Gilmore, Michael Kazin, Stephen Pitti, Thomas J. Sugrue, and Robert Lockhart. Excerpted by permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press, © 2018.

Author: timothylombardo

Timothy J. Lombardo is an assistant professor of modern US history at the University of South Alabama, where he teaches and writes about cities, politics, and social movements in the twentieth century. He tweets @TimLombard0. Follow him and he'll be forever grateful.

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