Clark-Joe

Philadelphia Mayor Joe Clark ushered in a new era of Democratic power in the city. 

There is confusion in the political realm these days, when it’s often hard to tell the Democans from the Republicrats. It makes me recall when I was a little boy, and the two-party system confused me.

When I got older, I realized that I made sense, and it was the politicians who were confused.

In those days, the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a Democrat, and most of the workers in the mills in our neighborhood admired him greatly. But when it came down to politics in the city of Philadelphia, many of the industrial workers were Republicans.

The mayor and all the city leadership were Republicans. In our neighborhood, and I assume in others like it, the Republican committeeman was an important guy.

From what I heard in adult conversations, if a man wanted to be a cop or a fireman, he had to get the committeeman’s approval. One of my buddies’ grandfather was a police officer, and he mentioned that the committeeman often attended roll call to silently remind the men how to vote.

Most of the sidewalks in our neighborhood were brick, going back into the 19th century. If a registered Democrat moved in, he often got notified that his sidewalk had to be expensively concreted.

Later in life, an old-timer told me about the time when he was a boy and a man who opened a store in the area was rumored to be a Democrat. He and some other boys stood and stared into the shop window, to see what a live Democrat looked like.

Our local Republican committeeman’s row house had a back yard that was accessed either from his kitchen door or from a gate in the wooden fence along the alley out back. In the little garden in that yard was a goldfish pond.

Small boys naturally wanted to observe such a wonder, and sometimes asked him for admission. But it was rumored, probably correctly, that only Republicans’ kids would be invited in.

One day, he let me in with some other boys to admire the pond. He seemed somewhat doubtful about my presence. That semi-confirmed something I often suspected: One of my parents was registered Democrat, and the other Republican.

But, which was which? One evening my father got arrested, after some slightly intoxicated silly behavior with a comrade after a union meeting, and my mother called the committeeman to accompany her to the police station and get him sent home.

Again, I detected some reluctance on the committeeman’s part. But which of my parents was of which party? I never knew.

That type of political behavior became more civilized when the Democrats began their dominance of the system in 1951, when Democrat Joseph Sill Clark, of Chestnut Hill, from a long line of bankers and financiers, was elected mayor.

He replaced Republican Barnard Samuel, an ordinary guy who lived, if my memory is correct, in a row house, and had been mayor for 10 years, the longest term of any mayor in Philadelphia history. When it became clear that an actual Democrat had been elected, the Evening Bulletin political reporters couldn’t find Samuel.

I was working in the office, and an editor told me to call Samuel’s home. His wife, Nellie, answered and admitted that he was there, but said he couldn’t come to the telephone. “He’s down the cellar doing something,” she said, and hung up.

Things became more sophisticated since then. I don’t think committeepersons today use the pavement punishment, or have fish ponds.

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

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