Review: Frank Rizzo and White Working Class Philly in Tim Lombardo’s Blue-Collar Conservatism

Timothy J. Lombardo, Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

By Christopher Whann

71PSeHPvygLSince 1960, urban politics in America have been defined by massive changes like the civil rights movement, the related issue of “white flight” and suburbanization, deindustrialization, and economic transformation. Northeastern cities were certainly affected by these transformations, and Philadelphia was no exception. But even among the cadre of prominent big city mayors that dominated the era, Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo was larger than life.

In 1970s Philadelphia, Rizzo seemed to appear on local television news every night. Though Timothy Lombardo’s Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics is hardly a biography of Rizzo, the book is a fascinating attempt to situate Rizzo in Philadelphia’s history between the 1950s and 1970s and trace his effects on the city and region. While Rizzo has remained an icon of popular culture, his staying power has been less pronounced in politics. His character makes a cameo appearance in the Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, but he does not have a lasting legacy in reshaping Philadelphia politics, and the old style machines of large cities of the Northeast appear to be dead. Rizzo’s impact was not really organizational or structural, but it does reflect the changes in party affiliation and party factionalism that “Reagan Democrats” inaugurated in the 1980s.

Lombardo is himself a Philadelphia native. I grew up watching Philadelphia TV although I did not live in the city itself. Everyone in nearby Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware knew of Rizzo’s whereabouts and achievements, even if they did not like his politics.

Rizzo was born in 1920 and raised as a Republican in an Italian American community. He began serving in the Police Department in 1943, rising through the ranks from a new policeman up to Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner in the 1960s. During his rise through the senior leadership, he switched parties to become a Democrat as urban Republicanism in the Northeast declined. From the Civil War though the mid-1900s, Philadelphia had a strong Republican political machine, but its voters had not (and have not) elected a Republican mayor since 1948.

Rizzo was only Police Commissioner for a short time, about four years, resigning to run for mayor in the 1971 election. He handily defeated his Republican opponent, the elite, “Main Line”-rooted, Chamber of Commerce head Thacher Longstreth. No ideologue, Rizzo was defined by his Italian ethnic and cultural connections, reflected in his base of Italian-, Irish- and Polish-Americans who lived in the neighborhoods of the Greater Northeast of Philadelphia and South Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, like Polish-American Bridesburg, Italian and Irish Greater Northeast and South Philly, and large African-American communities in West and North Philadelphia. Lombardo includes some excellent maps to situate our understanding of these communities. Similarly, Lombardo does well to explain the important events that framed Rizzo’s Philadelphia and how his brand of blue-collar conservatism manifested. This helps as we follow the chronology that leads to and through Rizzo’s career.

For example, Lombardo describes the 1964 riot in the Columbia Avenue area, an African-American community near Temple University. This was a major event that brought then Deputy Commissioner Rizzo into the public eye. Two people were killed, over 300 were wounded, including 100 police officers, and 300 people were arrested. Well over a hundred businesses closed in the aftermath of the rioting and related looting. Rizzo was also a significant public figure in the 1965 events at Girard College (really an orphanage exclusively for white boys) when white Girard was being integrated.

In 1966, Commissioner Howard Leary left Philadelphia to take over leadership of the New York City Police Department. Rizzo was not appointed permanent police head at the time but ended up chief in 1967 as Edward Bell stepped down, ostensibly for health reasons.

The following year, City District Attorney Arlen Specter (who readers may remember as a Pennsylvania Senator) ran for mayor against incumbent James Tate. Rizzo’s already controversial attitudes toward policing, and his recent promotion to Commissioner, made him an electoral lightning rod. Tate was re-elected, but Rizzo became even more significant as a public figure. It became increasingly clear that, in due course, Rizzo was becoming a serious candidate for mayor.

During the era of desegregation of public institutions—schools, housing and places of employment—Philadelphia was going through many high-profile transformations. Among the most famous was the federally mandated affirmative action program, aptly named the “Philadelphia Plan.” While Philadelphia was not alone in experiencing tensions across the racial divide, it was certainly experiencing those quite vividly and in the public spotlight.

Rizzo’s time as Police Commissioner was fraught with controversy, but he did succeed in building a support base for his political career. As Lombardo aptly states, “Although Rizzo’s blue-collar populism was indelibly tied to the racial politics of equal opportunity, he actively avoided public race-baiting … Rizzo’s police work simultaneously reinforced his blue-collar identity, his law-and-order credentials, and the racial politics of both.” Rizzo’s opportunity came as he stepped down as Commissioner in 1971 and announced his run for mayor.

Frank Rizzo Statue at Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building, casting its hands out to Mayor Rizzo’s constituency.

Rizzo’s image was made even more iconic in a 1969 photo taken during unrest at the public housing project, the Tasker Homes. Rizzo had been attending a gala in a tuxedo while carrying a nightstick under his jacket. One of Rizzo’s mayoral campaign slogans, “Rizzo Means Business,” had a double meaning. It appealed to his blue-collar supporters who wanted a strong police presence, while he also solicited support from a commercial community not always supportive of the rapid changes in the city. While Rizzo’s campaign was not explicitly conservative in an ideological sense, his opponents in the 1971 primary and general election all seemed to be running to his left. Thacher Longstreth, his Republican opponent, won majorities in virtually all the African American wards while Rizzo ran up huge majorities in the white ethnic communities.

Rizzo’s first term was beset with challenges tied to the rollout of civil rights. Corruption scandals gave his opponents yet more ammunition. Rizzo was primaried for re-election, faced with a third-party opponent drawing largely from the African American community. Tom Foglietta, a strong Republican Italian-American (later a US Representative as a Democrat) threatened to unseat him, but Rizzo comfortably won re-election.

Another complicated encounter—or series of encounters—was the ongoing struggle with MOVE. MOVE was a politically idiosyncratic, African American, anti-government and “back to nature” organization. In a 1978 confrontation between MOVE and the police, an officer was killed. While a terrible tragedy, it was not obvious that MOVE had wide support in the African American community. Not until 1985, after Rizzo had been out of office and two mayors later, did the real tragedy strike. Wilson Goode, a former City Managing Director under Rizzo’s successor Bill Green, and the first African American mayor, oversaw a bombing and burning of the MOVE compound that led to the destruction of over 50 homes (most of which were not a part of the MOVE complex) leaving about 200 people homeless.

Even though Rizzo left office in 1981, he was never out of politics, and he retained very strong support in the enclaves that backed him during his mayoral runs. He had tried to change the city charter in 1978 so he could run for a consecutive third term, but the change was handily defeated. Once he was out of office, he became eligible to run again, which he tried to do as a Democrat against Goode in the 1983 primary and as a Republican in the general election in 1987. He lost both races but planned to regroup for another run in 1991 after a stint with his own radio show. He died of a heart attack before he could complete the bid.

Lombardo accomplishes several laudable goals in this work. He contends that blue-collar conservatism was not particularly driven by ideology, explaining that Rizzo was never a strictly ideological figure. Rather, Rizzo was a product of his community. An 11th grade dropout, no one would have identified him as an intellectual and he would never have presented himself as such. He was a political genius in many ways, and he was very effective at capturing, representing, and communicating the anger and anxieties of his white ethnic base. It is interesting to consider the effects that Rizzo and his counterparts have in the context of the ethno-populist politics of the 21st century, but I struggle to see how this mobilization reshaped Philadelphia politics.

Lombardo does an excellent job analyzing the nature of the civil rights movement, the impact of affirmative action (as in the Philadelphia Plan in its various iterations), desegregation/integration (through public housing and busing), and policing behavior in the residentially segregated city. Rizzo was emblematic of “law and order,” even after he left the police department. Lombardo notes that he and his followers were not opponents of the New Deal era benefits of an activist public sector (after all, the police and fire departments were public agencies and officers had great public sector jobs) but they were deeply unhappy that the perceived benefits of government were going disproportionately to African-American communities.

There’s much to consider in this provocative book. Lombardo’s epilogue discusses how the blue-collar conservatism of Rizzo certainly is an element in understanding the dynamics of President Donald Trump’s support in the declining industrial regions on the Midwest and parts of the Northeast, certainly explaining why Trump won Pennsylvania in the 2016 election. It also offers, to this writer at least, some insights into the dynamics of Vice President Joe Biden’s behavior and voting record as Delaware Senator during and beyond the Rizzo era. (Biden was first elected to local office in Delaware in 1970, the year before Rizzo was elected in Philadelphia.)

whannChristopher Whann is an Associate Professor (on leave) and the Executive Director of Regional Operations at SUNY Empire State College. He teaches business, management and public affairs.

Featured Image: Mayor Rizzo glad-hands President Gerald Ford during his visit to Philadelphia. Credit: Wikimedia.

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One thought on “Review: Frank Rizzo and White Working Class Philly in Tim Lombardo’s Blue-Collar Conservatism

  1. Taking away his statue will not erase his place in history or rectify the wrongs he may have committed in his lifetime.Removing our history,…piece by piece is not the answer and what will be left for future generations to reflect on after we are log dead? His monument needs to be placed in a less glorifying place with a plaque that describes what he stood for and believed in his era.Some of his racist and anti-gay actions were reprehensible; however,were part of the mindset and culture of his time,…that needs to be explained,not erased !”


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