A dispute over racially divisive remarks allegedly made by a city employee is threatening to raise black-Jewish tensions around the Philadelphia mayoral race.
Last week, the City of Brotherly Love’s Democratic mayor, John Street, reprimanded an African-American city official who allegedly complained last month in a city commerce department meeting that “Jewish lawyers” and “Jewish architects” were getting city contracts for an important redevelopment project at the expense of black firms. Street, who is black, condemned the remarks, saying in a statement, “I will not tolerate actions or statements that undermine our values of equality, respect and fairness.”
He declined, however, to fire the official, Hanford Jones, saying that Jones was protected as a civil service employee. That angered Street’s Republican opponent, businessman Sam Katz, who demanded that Street dismiss Jones. “When someone makes an ethnic slur or engages in racist or antisemitic remarks, it is incumbent on the mayor to draw an absolute line in the sand, not only to rebuke the person, but to terminate them,” Katz, who is Jewish, told the Forward. He said he wrote the mayor a letter to that effect.
Katz is being supported on this issue by the city’s most recognizable Jewish official, Comptroller Jonathan Saidel. “If I was mayor of Philadelphia, I’d fire [Jones] and let him sue me,” said Saidel, noting that he “might run for mayor in the future.” He added, “If a white employee makes statements about African Americans, I’d do the same thing.”
“Anyone in a position of authority who makes racial statements, ethnically divisive statements, should be fired immediately,” Saidel, a Democrat, said.
But Street’s campaign spokesman, Mark Nevins, said that the mayor had acted “swiftly and severely” to reprimand Jones and that by making the incident a political issue Katz is “looking to divide people by race and religion.”
“Sam Katz saw an opportunity to exploit an unfortunate incident and drive a wedge deeper into the situation and inflict more pain,” Nevins said.
Katz responded, “I think it is entirely appropriate for me to have concerns on things such as this.”
The director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia office, Barry Morrison, said that his group had asked the mayor to transfer Jones, who holds the position of minority business enterprise council coordinator, from his department and remove him from any authority over hiring and contracts.
Morrison nonetheless praised Street for “making the right statements and being outspoken.”
Morrison said that the incident “has the potential to stoke black-Jewish tensions” but so far had not done so significantly, an observation seconded by Katz.
“The Jewish community tends to be pretty forgiving about this stuff,” Katz said.
Jones released a statement apologizing for the remarks.