The End Of An Era Joseph Coleman Dies At 78

Posted: January 03, 2001

In his 12 years as the first African-American president of Philadelphia City Council, Joseph E. Coleman, a soft-spoken chemist with a Temple law degree, presided over a sea change that transformed council from an unruly gang to a body near equal with the mayor.

Between 1980, when he became council president after the disaster of the Abscam scandal, and when he retired at the start of Mayor Rendell's first term in 1992, Coleman frustrated two mayors while dramatically expanding council's ability to critique mayoral dreams and schemes.

Coleman, who grew up in segregated Mississippi between World War I and World War II, died on Sunday, the last day of the millennium, following a lengthy illness. He was 78 and left behind a wife, a son, daughter and a large extended family.

After he left City Council in January 1992, he lived quietly with his wife, Jessie Bryant Coleman, in Mount Airy, part of the 8th Council District that he represented beginning in 1972.

But his peaceful retirement was shattered in September 1997 when his daughter Stephanie Coleman Epps was shot to death in front of her two children by a former lover. That man, Steven Hutchinson, was sentenced to death in mid-December by a Common Pleas jury. Coleman, who was suffering from the effects of diabetes, was unable to attend the trial.

"I got a call Sunday night," said City Council President Anna Verna, a long-time political ally and personal friend. "It was quite a shock. I didn't think he was that sick. Mrs. Coleman said he went peacefully. Though ever since his daughter was murdered, I don't think he was quite the same."

Reflecting on Coleman's tenure as council president, Verna said, "He could disagree with you, but he never elevated his voice. He had such a calming way about him. He is a man of real dignity. He was truly a gentle man. In his own calm way, he got a lot done."

Compared to the iron-fisted manner that George X. Schwartz, an Abscam target, used to control council in the 70s, Coleman was the anti-Schwartz.

City Councilman Thacher Longstreth once observed of the Coleman leadership style: "His concept of leadership is to let the animals roam free and that's what we do. We graze on the range wherever we see fit to do it, and he exercises no restraints over us."

But some got more and better feed. Coleman, along with fellow council members John Street, David Cohen and Lucien Blackwell, gained the sobriquet "the gang of four," from disgruntled colleagues who felt they were left out of key deliberations with the Goode administration.

Former Mayor Wilson Goode described Coleman as "my partner for eight years."

"He was a public servant who loved the people of the city and he worked hard for them. He was a man of great integrity," Goode recalled. "On a personal level, he was easy to relate to. He was not someone who you felt uncomfortable in his presence. He didn't have a standoffish persona."

And yet, Coleman was not able to advance some of Goode's key initiatives in a council that was often sharply divided.

For example, Goode espoused a plan to build a trash-to-steam plant to handle the city's growing waste stream, but Cohen adamantly opposed it. From his perch as chairman of the rules committee, Cohen bottled up Goode's plans.

Looking back, Cohen said yesterday, "President Coleman didn't attempt to censor or control the members. He allowed committee chairmen to have their own ideas. He was the first leader of a truly independent legislative body . . .And he was a beautiful person."

Council's authority expanded gradually under Coleman, Goode said. "The changes came over time. They were changes whose time had come. He had the foresight to see the need. He placed council in the position to be a strong partner in running the government and the city is better for that partnership."

Councilwoman Joan Krajewski said Coleman was "very fair and just a nice guy," but she also recalled that he was "too easy" on some members. "It's nice to be given a free hand, but council also needs a little order," she said.

When Street, who blossomed under the Coleman reign, became council president, a new level of control harkening back to the Schwartz days emerged, Cohen said. "Street weakened council terribly. Under him, it became just another agency of the administration," Cohen asserted.

In a written statement, Mayor Street said Coleman represented his constituents "with dignity and honor. As president of City Council, he provided the leadership to restore the integrity and respect of City Council in the wake of the Abscam scandal."

A funeral service will be held at 11 .m. Friday at the First Presbyterian Church of Germantown on West Chelten Avenue. A viewing will precede the service between 9 and 11 a.m.

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