Milton Street had a cold. That much was evident to reporters crowded below the former state senator as he stood on the back of a pickup in West Philly last week and announced his candidacy for mayor. Still an energetic and powerful speaker at 71, the older brother of our most recent ex-mayor dressed up for the occasion in a black wool coat and black beret, the effect only broken by his worn-out, dirty, white sneakers. While he laid out his views on how to fix Philadelphia, he searched for a tissue.
But deeper inside Milton Street’s head is a brain that’s plotting. Here’s a formerly prominent man, on the verge of fading into obscurity, who saw an opportunity to get back in the public eye and ran with it. Though only a few dozen people came out to hear him speak, he got his face and his message all over the evening news and in newspapers across the city.
The timing of his announcement was perfect. Rumblings of discontent about nobody bothering to run a primary campaign against Mayor Nutter had reached a fever pitch when out of nowhere, Street stepped in to break the tension and fill the void. And fresh out of jail for tax evasion, he was happy to grab the spotlight.
Had it already been a competitive primary season, reporters wouldn’t have given him the time of day. As it was, his event drew nearly as many media members as supporters, excited by the prospect to write about a mayoral challenge instead of the lack of one. It may have been the most white people who have gathered at 52nd and Market streets in years.
Though he has been treated as something of a joke from the moment he announced his candidacy a few weeks ago, Street insists he’s for real. “I am as serious as I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. Those who write him off, he explains, don’t understand how deeply his message of dignity for former criminals resonates in this city. “You’re dealing with a frame of reference that you’ve had prior,” he says. “We’re going to mobilize a class of people that have never actually been mobilized before.” He’s banking on the support of as many as 300,000 ex-cons who want to see a kindred soul pulling the strings.
Street says his 26 months in prison helped inspire his mayoral aspirations. “I have been thinking about it for a long time,” he says. “I absolutely had to do something.” Through talks with other inmates, he hatched his plan to put 3,000 ex-offenders on the city payroll to combat crime in the neighborhoods. To fight fire with fire, so to speak, paying his men with money saved by not throwing them back in jail for crimes committed in lieu of employment. That’s the heart of his platform and he needs a big pulpit to see it through. “The only way you can handle this—you gotta be mayor,” Street says.
Whether or not he has any real political muscle left to flex, his candidacy still stirs up an important issue. Street’s message—that former criminals are good for more than just committing more crimes—needs to be heard, says Malik Aziz, a member of the Ex-Offenders Association of PA, who previously worked in the city’s re-entry office under both Mayors John Street (Milton’s brother) and Nutter. “Violence is rampant in the streets. Unemployment is rampant,” says Aziz, who’s currently working on Milton Street’s campaign. “[Milton] knows how to maneuver and get that idea in people’s heads that they can be somebody.”
Re-entry is not something that Nutter has ignored—the city has the Mayor’s Office for Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders (RISE) in place, providing job and life skills training for ex-cons. The program boasts a 3 percent recidivism rate for those who complete it, helping several hundred people get jobs over the past two years. Street’s idea, though, is to say hell with incremental progress and go for a big splash all at once.
Now, a squad of 3,000 ex-cons out patrolling for crime may not be the perfect, most nuanced solution in the world. With a slight leap of imagination, the concept sounds like something out of feudal times, with private militias enforcing the rule of the land. If Street can get his own loyal strike force, can Nutter and Republican candidate John Featherman build up their own brigades and let them duke it out in the streets? That would be a mayoral race to remember.
But flights of fantasy aside, half the point of a campaign is to get ideas brought more prominently into the public discourse. Street’s army may not be practical, but it is bold and attention-grabbing. If we start hearing more about RISE and other ideas on how to combat recidivism and incentivize people to stay out of jail, Street will have made a positive impact.
His campaign is still in its infancy—only about 10 people were signed on to work for him last week, and just a handful of supporters came out specifically to hear him on Market Street. The team says they gathered 1,000 signatures that day to get Milton on the ballot, with plenty more to come. The idea is to run a totally grassroots effort and appeal directly to the poor and marginalized voters they want to reach.
“A lot of people try to crunch numbers and see how things work, but on a campaign it really doesn’t matter,” says Johnny Patterson, Street’s campaign manager. “It matters how you get in front of voters and addressing the specific issues that matter to them.”
And Street assured reporters that despite his lack of other employment, he can dedicate himself to the campaign trail by supporting himself using austerity measures he learned while locked up. “I learned how to live on $14 a month,” he says. He’s smooth—it’s unclear if he rehearsed the joke or made it up on the spot, but he got a few good laughs out of it.
There are at least a few extremely vocal supporters out there. The morning the news of his mayoral aspirations first appeared in the Metro, an unkempt-looking man was running around outside City Hall passing out newspapers, exhorting passers-by, “It’s time we got a mayor who understands our problems!”
Though crowds at his announcement were small, Street did manage to perk the interest of a few bystanders. “I liked what I heard,” says West Philly resident Howard Watson, who happened to be passing by. “What he was saying was very powerful. And it seemed very sincere.”
Others coming and going to the El barely bothered to stop and glance at the man in black standing on the pickup and soaking in the attention. But regardless of where his campaign ends up, Milton Street is having fun. “I’m gonna be out there,” he says, sitting down in the truck bed for a rest after the crowd drifts away, promising we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him all over the city in the coming weeks and months. “You will see me on the block, you will see me on the subway stations, you will see me on the trains!” he exclaims, inviting the rest of Philadelphia along for the ride. That is, “If you’ve got the energy to keep up.”