Here Comes the Son
Sharif Street quietly campaigns in the shadow of two notorious relatives.
From the May 9, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly
There's a cold, light mist in the air as Sharif Street strolls along Lehigh Avenue near 24th Street - a strip he refers to as Recovery Row because there are several drug and alcohol treatment centers within a short distance.
Only a few people are outside despite it being 3 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. But everyone who's out stops to greet Street, an at-large City Council candidate, as though he were an old friend from back in the day.
"Yo, Sharif, wassup?" a man bellows from half a block away, standing on a front porch. "We with you, man."
"Thanks, bro," Street says while waving and smiling.
He ducks into barbershops and hardware stores and other little mom-and-pop shops. Everyone is friendly with Street, the 33-year-old son of Mayor John Street. He hands campaign posters to store managers, and he shakes hands with guys getting fades. Dressed in an oversized black suit and sporting long dreads tied behind his head, he has a downtown look with a neighborhood vibe. His baby face hides behind a goatee.
Inside a dreary laundromat, Street shakes a few hands, passes out a few pamphlets and then runs into Delores Carroll, who's waiting for her wash.
"What are you going to do your father couldn't do?" she insolently asks the candidate.
Being the son of the current mayor is a blessing and a curse for the ambitious young man. On one hand, the name recognition will likely be enough to carry Sharif into office. On the other hand, Mayor Street's tenure hasn't exactly been celebrated.
Hailed as the successor to the deified Ed Rendell, Mayor Street has led an administration that's focused on neighborhoods - a worthy project but not one that gets much media attention. He demolished dilapidated homes, towed abandoned cars and banked land for future development.
But at the same time, the murder rate has soared, schools are underfunded and dangerous, and mass transit faces fare increases and massive service cuts.
In addition, Mayor Street's administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption, although the mayor himself has never been the focus of investigation.
After seven full years at the helm of the city, Mayor Street is pulling down just a 25 percent approval rating.
"John Street may have a favorability rating that rivals George Bush, but if Sharif can get the support of John Street's core base, that's his vote," says political consultant Larry Ceisler. "You have to only come in fifth [to earn one of five at-large Democratic council seats]."
"Instead of locking up these folks where they just get worse," Sharif Street responds to Delores Carroll, "I'm going to get these people help."
"We need a new transit system 'cause SEPTA ain't worth shit," Carroll retorts.
"I know," Street responds. "I'm working on it."
He hands her some literature, then leaves the laundromat.
"I can't neglect the people that would be my base," Street says outside. "And that's the neighborhoods."
Street has a plan to declare city streets state highways, which he believes could draw state funding to improve urban roadways, freeing up city money that could then be spent on mass transit.
He wants to see all state school districts equally funded, so he wants more money for the city's public schools. He wants to encourage developers to build affordable homes for low- and moderate-income citizens by making deals through the city's tax-abatement program. He wants to alter the criminal justice system so that prosecutors serve specific communities where they'll see the repeat offenders first-hand. And he wants to amend the zoning code to reduce the number of variances allowed. He wants to let residents have a say before stop-and-go joints move into their neighborhoods.
"I don't think there's a lot of expertise in Council for zoning," says Street, a real estate lawyer at Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen.
Just as he's reluctant to talk about his father, Street demurs from saying outright that he wants to represent the underprivileged in Philadelphia. But he clearly does.
"We have a similar concern about the issues," says Milton Street, Sharif's uncle, a former state senator and representative who's also running for an at-large Council seat. "But I'm more confrontational, radical, outside the box."
The flamboyant Milton Street says he was looking forward to working alongside Sharif in the same way that Milton and Sharif's father fought the system in the late 1970s and '80s.
"It was my hope that we'd have that same type of effect. I'd be the tree-shaker, and he'd pick up the fruit," says Milton. "But he has some people around him who would prefer I not advise him."
Milton, of course, was recently indicted on federal corruption charges. He was arrested for not paying old parking tickets in New Jersey. And he held a spectacular public rally for his short-lived mayoral run at which he crooned gospel while leaning over a coffin in front of City Hall.
"Cues like name recognition will help Sharif Street in a crowded field of candidates," says Michael Hagen, director of Temple University's Institute for Public Affairs. "Milton? That connection probably doesn't serve him that well."
At the Liddonfield Homes in Northeast Philadelphia, Sharif Street and a band of supporters meander through the rows of ramshackle low-rise public housing, banging on doors and greeting the neighbors. Street, who sometimes has a deer-in-the-headlights look, is ebullient as he shakes hands, surprising residents who've never seen politicians in their 'hood.
He enters the pristine home of Marilyn, a 70-year-old 35-year Liddonfield resident who declines to give her last name. The two casually converse about their children and the city.
"He looks sincere," she says as Street waves goodbye. "I just hope it's true."
In 2002 Marilyn's car was towed from in front of her home as part of Mayor Street's blight program. Authorities thought the car had been abandoned. The city fined her nearly $1,000, and she's been making payments ever since. She still hasn't gotten her car back, and she's pretty angry with the mayor.
"That's two different people even though they're related," Marilyn says. "I shouldn't judge him by his father."