Milton Street has been beaten up by the media and others. But will he have the last laugh?
Never mind the oncoming traffic. The big man is crossing Broad Street as the light changes, but he can’t resist stopping another pedestrian to shake his hand. “I’m Milton Street and I’m running for mayor,” the former state senator tells his mark. Large, gregarious and oozing charisma in a gold tie and green baseball cap, the candidate earns a grin from the man he stopped. “You got my back?” Street asks.
“Vote for the people’s champ!” yells out a campaign ally to no one in particular. Street is in his element, covering the blocks around Broad and Erie, handing out campaign posters to the businesses on Germantown Avenue, venturing into electronic shops, dollar stores and pizza joints. “Yo, Street!” yells a man on the sidewalk. Plenty of old acquaintances recognize the hot-dog vendor-cum-politician, who despite being just a few months out of prison for “failure to file” federal taxes, is running against Mayor Nutter for this year’s Democratic nomination.
“How you doing?” a man asks.
“A lot better since I saw you!” Milton answers.
“We gonna do this?” another passer-by asks. “Cause we gotta get Nutter out of there.”
Considered a prohibitive long-shot in the election, Street is out to defy the odds and show the city he’s the true man of the people. He’s been ridiculed in the press for his prison record, his million-plus in unpaid taxes and his bombastic attitude, among other things. Most pundits have written him off as a viable candidate, but his game is to take advantage of a seething sentiment among the city’s poor, destitute and disenfranchised that Nutter has ignored them and their plight.
Street moves easily among his people, chatting and greeting, making connections on the sidewalk even while an overweight Daily News reporter hounds his side, jamming a microphone into his face. The candidate stops to talk to a pretty girl in a leather jacket standing on the corner of Broad Street.
“Can I count on your vote?” he asks her. Sullen, she shakes her head no.
“No? Why not?” Street asks, grinning. “You’re not 18?” She shakes her head again, fiddling with her ear buds. He laughs, and moves on down Erie Avenue.
Always great with an audience, Street has enlivened the campaign with phrases like, “I’m pregnant with information!” and comparing himself to Moses, rising from servitude to greatness. He has found some vocal support: Last week, he helped lead a rally for hundreds of discontented blue- collar city employees, furious after four years with no pay raise. That union, as well as the city’s firefighters, have endorsed Milton for mayor. But though the primary grows closer, the Street campaign has started to shy away from the press. It’s hard to blame them. The media has not been kind, associating the campaign with words like “clown” and “nightmare,” with even the appreciative opinion columns that support his ideas ending with some variation on the phrase “he shouldn’t be mayor.”
Milton Street Jr. has taken on the role of protecting his dad from negative coverage, writing an angry letter to the Daily News to protest the paper’s slant, and canceling scheduled interviews with other venues, at one point screaming at a reporter over the telephone, “I’m not going to let anyone bash Milton Street Sr.!” Campaign Manager Johnny Patterson actually left the team several weeks ago, citing disputes over the direction and leadership of the campaign.
But it may not matter. Street is betting his run on a whole other constituency, one that doesn’t form opinions based on the Inquirer or Daily News, one who hears “tough on crime” and knows it means “tough on me.” These are people who see expanding ‘nice’ neighborhoods as a farce to displace them from their homes, who still resent Nutter for closing down the swimming pools two years ago. The 200,000 or 300,000 former convicts, nobody seems to know for sure how many, who are denied access to jobs and services but who still live and vote in Philadelphia. “That’s Milton Street getting on the subway,” says an admiring 18-year-old a few cars in front of the candidate after the Germantown Avenue canvassing. “I’m gonna go down and volunteer for his campaign tomorrow!”
When asked what he liked about Street, the youth instead replies in the negative about the current mayor. “Throw Nutter in the gutter!” he says, citing the usual swimming pool and library justification.
Whether Street has actually captured the imagination and support of his desired constituency remains unclear. At a March meeting with the leaders of various ex- offender groups in a North Philly community center, he and candidates for other local offices make their pleas. Street, wearing a black windbreaker this night, stands and with sweeping arm gestures accentuates the grandiloquence of his words. “Let me define politics for you,” he tells the few dozen people sitting around the small conference room. “Politics is the ability to achieve purpose.” Many of the activists in the room have been frustrated by years of slow response by the city to their issues, but Street tells them the time is ripe. “We shouldn’t, with our numbers, have to be asking anyone for anything!” he tells the audience.
“When presidents come here to carry the city of Philadelphia, they have to talk to you!” he continues, his voice rising and falling as he speaks, his eyes bugging in and out of his head. “The fact that you went to prison, did time, came back rehabilitated?” the candidate says. “The playing field should be level!”
“That’s right!” people yell from their seats. But not everyone in the room is receptive to Street’s message. Wali Smith, who heads the NAACP state prison project, stands and makes his own speech while Street leans
back in his chair and listens, hands on head. “We ain’t gonna be nobody’s meal ticket,” Smith starts, heated and angry. “Now, it’s a buzzword. Everybody do ex-offender issues,” he continues. “Ya’ll new jacks coming in, you gotta really sell us. I ain’t gonna be with you just cause you been busted. I don’t want any Johnny-come-latelys coming in.”
Of the handful of political candidates in the room, Smith names two that he thinks are sincere. “The only person in this room I’m supporting is [Common Pleas judicial candidate] Leon King. And that young brother [At-Large City Council Candidate] Isaiah Thomas.” Notably missing from the list is Street, the would-be mast-carrier for ex-offenders. “You ain’t gonna play on all the work we done,” Smith says. “We ain’t gonna let nobody hustle us. We the hustlers!”
Milton listens attentively while a few others in the room echo Smith’s statements. “I am so pissed off that the electoral time-period is the only time we see you [politicians],” says Hakim Ali, a white-bearded activist who says he spent nearly 40 years in state and federal prisons. Some judicial candidates speak up to defend their motivations, but Street doesn’t respond directly to the negative comments, though he does later talk about how the concept of parole and civil restrictions on felons should be done away with. His impact on the polls May 17 will hinge on how well he can convey his message to skeptics, and how deep the city’s Nutter-resentment really runs.