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Fed-Up Philadelphia Voters May Clean Political House

WHENEVER Leon Williams attends a session of the Philadelphia City Council, which is more often than not, he sits in the visitors' gallery and holds up a $7 broom. ``We need to clean this place out,'' says Mr. Williams, when asked about his silent protest. ``I brought my broom as a symbol.''

Philadelphia's budget mess has voters so frustrated that they are talking about sweeping out their elected officials this spring. The anti-incumbent sentiment is one of the few clear themes in an otherwise confusing and volatile campaign.

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``Everyone is looking for alternatives to the current pols,'' says John Claypool, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia First Corporation, a business-led civic group.

Outsiders make inroads

Already, two outsiders have made some inroads in the race for mayor, says Ted Hershberg, professor of public policy and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Republican Sam Katz had little name recognition in November. Yet, when paired against Frank Rizzo, the city's well-known former mayor, he ran only about 10 points behind, according to a survey of registered Republicans by Temple University's Michael Hooper. Democrat Peter Hearn was also virtually unknown in November but has raised his visibility in more recent polls with an extensive media blitz.

The question is whether the current mood will create a groundswell when the city holds its primary elections May 23. Several politicians and political analysts don't think the current budget fiasco will sway many voters to oust incumbents.

``They understand that we lost a lot of federal funds - that we really got hurt by the recession,'' says John Street, a powerful city councilman.

``The situation is so complex and there are so many different players here ... that it's almost impossible for any kind of uniform effect to take place,'' says Professor Hooper.

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Unlike many big American cities, Philadelphia has no single locus of political power. It is diffused across a number of local fiefdoms, thanks in part to the weak leadership of outgoing Mayor W. Wilson Goode. He has lost so much credibility that he could not win a third term even if the law allowed him to run, analysts say.

Race is factor

Other politicians are moving to fill the void. So far, though, they have only muddied the picture.

Perhaps the most intriguing figure is US Rep. William Gray III. The powerful Democratic whip, who represents a portion of the city in Congress, is trying to boost his local influence. Mr. Gray's organization has three people on the City Council (out of a possible 17). Last year it chalked up two impressive victories over the local Democratic Party when its candidates won a state House and state Senate seat. For mayor, Gray is backing former City Councilman George Burrell Jr. So far, analysts say Burrell has run a lackluster campaign. Other candidates will give him a stiff challenge - most notably Lucien Blackwell, a powerful city councilman and president of a longshoremen's local union.

Race is a complicating factor. Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Burrell, who are black, could easily split the minority vote and allow a white politician to win the Democratic nomination. Edward Rendell, a former district attorney, and the newly visible Mr. Hearn are mentioned as possibilities.

The disarray among Democrats could boost the city's Republicans (outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by Democrats). One of the party's most attractive candidates, the local district attorney, is reluctant to run. That leaves the field to the newly emerging Mr. Katz and Mr. Rizzo, the peppery former mayor.

If GOP candidates do make inroads, ``it won't be as Republicans, it will be as whites,'' says GOP City Councilman W. Thacher Longstreth.

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