What would Philly be like if Lou Hill had become mayor?

News July 31, 2013 0 Comments

Lou Hill

by Len Lear

When I read last week that Lou Hill had died, I felt sick, even though I knew that he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for years and that at the age of 89, he had certainly lived longer than the allotment of years for most human beings. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a long obituary in its July 15 issue that listed Lou’s many accomplishments, but I was moved to write this testimonial because of one aspect of Lou’s life that was omitted from the obit, which could have conceivably had a significant impact on the lives of all Philadelphians.

For those who are not familiar with this giant of a man, Lou Hill had a perfect resume for any person running for public office. Hill had an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a tall, photogenic patrician who had been a successful heavyweight boxer while at Harvard and in the Marines. To sweeten the resume even more, he was a combat veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, and his personal life was beyond reproach.

But more important than all of this, Hill actually stood for something beyond personal ambition. Even his political foes never questioned his integrity or incorruptibility. Also, his stepfather was Richardson Dilworth, mayor of Philadelphia from 1956 to 1962 and a Silver Star hero as a World War II Marine. Dilworth and his successor, Joe Clark, ran against a six-decade, long-entrenched, corrupt Republican dynasty in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

After winning office, Dilworth and Clark initiated a series of reforms, such as the revitalization of Center City, hiring civil servants based on actual qualifications instead of political contacts, promoting racial equality, devoting more land to parks and open spaces, etc. Much of what is good about Philadelphia today can be attributed to the progressive policies of Dilworth and Clark.

Unfortunately, since they left the scene, the city has been run by a Democratic “pay to play” machine that has been every bit as corrupt as the Republicans who ruled the city in the first half of the 20th century. (Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented” in the first decade of the 1900s, and, despite the fact that some personally principled individuals, like Wilson Goode and Michael Nutter, have became mayor, they have not been able to clean up the cesspool of corruption that has dominated city government for most of the last half-century. For the most part, Democratic Party bigwigs have been more concerned with using taxpayers’ dollars to take care of their families, friends and financial backers than with providing good government.)

I first met Lou Hill when I was an idealistic Democratic committeeman on the Germantown/Mt. Airy border in the late 1960s, inspired to enter politics because of my desire to advance the agenda of the civil rights, feminist, pro-gay and antiwar movements. When I tried to speak at ward meetings, however, I found that most of those present were preoccupied with fixing parking and speeding tickets, helping drunk drivers and other violators get out of trouble by intervening with the “right people” in City Hall, etc. When I objected, 22nd Ward leader Joe Coleman, who later became the president of City Council, would order the sergeant-at-arms to shut me up.

Later I had several discussions with then-State Senator Lou Hill in his big home on Wissahickon Avenue in West Mt. Airy. In 1975 he told me he was running in the Democratic mayoral primary against then-mayor Frank Rizzo because “the people of this city deserve the kind of progressive, honest government we had under Richardson Dilworth and Joe Clark, not the kind of cronyism, back-slapping, police brutality and know-nothing bigotry they have gotten from the Rizzo administration.”

Early in the primary campaign, polls showed the race as basically even, with Hill getting the liberal and black vote and Rizzo getting the working class white vote. But the Philadelphia Inquirer’s prime political reporter, Laura Foreman, kept up a drumbeat of negative front-page articles about Hill, berating him for his alleged dullness and frequently praising Rizzo for his supposed decisiveness and charisma.

I was told at the time by members of the Hill campaign that Foreman was deliberately slanting the campaign coverage because she was having an affair with South Philly State Senator Buddy Cianfrani, who was also Rizzo’s campaign manager and who was married. They told me that they had complained vociferously to the Inquirer but that they were rebuffed and were even accused of sexism in their “slandering” of Foreman. (By the way, Rizzo would never agree to debate Hill, and he chided Hill for being a “wimp,” even though Hill had been a heavyweight boxer and combat veteran of two wars while Rizzo never wore a military uniform for his country. Hill had also been an excellent debater and a brilliant litigator. He was undefeated in 27 jury trials.)

When the votes were counted on May 20, 1975, Rizzo won by 183,672 to 151,948.

Foreman was then hired by the New York Times, but she was fired in 1977, whereupon the Times and other media outlets reported that Cianfrani and Foreman had indeed been having an affair at the same time she was covering the mayoral race. It was reported that Cianfrani had lavished tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts on Foreman.

Many political observers concluded that Foreman’s anti-Hill coverage had undoubtedly been related to Cianfrani’s “generosity.” A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, famously said at the time, “I don’t care if my reporters are sleeping with elephants, as long as they aren’t covering the circus” As a result, Philadelphians were deprived of the leadership of Lou Hill, who might have been able to reverse the decline of the city and put it back on the track of honest, progressive Dilworth/Clark government.

In 1977, Buddy Cianfrani was convicted in federal court here of racketeering and mail fraud for padding his Senate payroll with no-show jobs. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison, but after serving 27 months, he was released in 1980, whereupon he divorced his wife and married Laura Foreman. Cianfrani proceeded to become a mentor to a new generation of politicians, particularly to Congressman Bob Brady and State Senator Vince Fumo, who also wound up in federal prison for abusing his office. Cianfrani died in 2002.

Meanwhile, Lou Hill, the father of seven children, became a Common Pleas Court Judge and an environmentalist who led an exemplary life. I will always wonder what kind of shape the city would be in today if Laura Foreman had reported fairly on the 1975 campaign and if Lou Hill, a man of impeccable integrity, courage and honor, had become the mayor of Philadelphia instead of Frank Rizzo.

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