George X. Schwartz, 1915-2010 Council maestro, Abscam figure

Posted: March 28, 2010

Former City Council President George X. Schwartz was a dominating political force in Philadelphia for two decades. Until his conviction in 1980 in the FBI Abscam corruption sting, he wielded power and smoked big cigars with equal flair.

Mr. Schwartz, 95, died Friday at home in the William Penn House near Rittenhouse Square. His son, William G. Schwartz, said his father had been hospitalized five weeks ago with pneumonia and fluid in his lungs.

As family and friends gather for his funeral today they will remember the legacy of a man who doted on family, constituents, and the city he served as a councilman and ward leader, but also the legacy that ended in one of the nation's more controversial political-corruption investigations.

Mr. Schwartz was a city councilman for 20 years. His eight years as Council president were marked by an ironfisted rule. He set the course of virtually every piece of legislation, dominated the Democratic caucus, and controlled most of the political patronage.

Mr. Schwartz's career began to unravel in a suite of the Barclay Hotel in January 1980, when he met with two men who said they represented an Arab "sheikh" purportedly interested in building a hotel in Philadelphia.

At that meeting, filmed and tape-recorded by the FBI, Mr. Schwartz agreed to use his influence to expedite the project and in return was paid $30,000.

"We got five or six members [of City Council]," Mr. Schwartz boasted to the FBI agents posing as the sheikh's representatives. "You tell me your birthday. I'll give them to you for your birthday."

Mr. Schwartz - one of more than a half-dozen local officials caught in the FBI Abscam sting - was convicted of conspiracy and extortion. The term Abscam came from the first two letters the FBI's fictitious company and the word scam.

After a long legal battle, he began serving a one-year, one-day federal prison sentence in 1985.

"I make no excuses for his conduct," former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said yesterday. She worked for Mr. Schwartz in the early 1970s, when he was Council president.

Noting all he had done for the city, she added: "It would be a pity if the only thing he would be remembered for is Abscam."

Mr. Schwartz, whose career began with a stint in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the 1950s, cut a distinguished figure with tailored suits and neatly styled, graying hair in his later years that earned him the nickname "the Silver Fox."

His power, in part, came from his deep knowledge of a key aspect of city governance - its finances.

"He demonstrated that the road to power and authority was by knowing how the budget worked," Abraham recalled.

And so Mr. Schwartz learned about every budget line and how it could help the causes he cared about most.

"He did so many good things during his political career with libraries and schools . . . the good he did lives on," said his son, William, 70, of Downingtown.

Mr. Schwartz's influence also lives on in the politicians he hired and guided along the way, including Abraham and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.).

Mr. Schwartz hired Abraham in the 1970s to do legislative and policy work for him after she lost another city job because, she recalled, she got caught in the political fracas between him, Mayor Frank Rizzo, and the head of the city's Democratic Party, Peter J. Camiel.

Brady, the party's current city chairman, started in politics in the mid-1970s under the tutelage of Mr. Schwartz, who got him a job as a sergeant-at-arms for an often unruly Council. Brady remembers buying the $1 cigars that Mr. Schwartz always seemed to have wedged in his mouth in those days.

"He was my mentor and also a good friend," Brady said yesterday. "No question, he was the smartest politician I ever met, just a sharp guy.

"He taught me one thing, the most important thing of all: Keep your word when you give it," Brady said.

Mr. Schwartz was born in New York, but he grew up in West Philadelphia, the son of a successful real estate dealer. He graduated from West Philadelphia High School in 1932, earned an undergraduate degree from Temple University in 1936, and graduated from Temple University Law School in 1940.

Mr. Schwartz was elected to the state House in 1952, but he lost the seat two years later. With the help of U.S. Rep. William J. Green Jr., he won it back in 1956.

With Green's backing again, Mr. Schwartz became a councilman in 1960 after Councilman Sammy Rose died.

He began his law career at the same time he entered politics, serving first as a committeeman from the 34th Ward in Overbrook.

By 1962, he had become ward leader for the "Fighting 34th," a staunchly Democratic organization.

He married his high school sweetheart, Jerre, who died in 1994.

Besides his son, he is survived by daughters Marjorie Dilsheimer and Susan Goodrich; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

"He was always there for us, the children, and for the grandchildren," William Schwartz said of his father. "He was always there to listen, to help solve problems." Those traits also marked his relationship with constituents.

After serving his prison sentence, Mr. Schwartz avoided politics, Brady said, though he attended several of his fund-raisers for congressional races and the 2007 mayoral campaign; the two also talked frequently, Brady said. He also continued to support Abraham.

But he did not talk about his conviction, not to family and not to friends.

In their most recent conversation, Brady said, the two discussed the city's perilous fiscal situation. "He said he thought the city would pull out of it. He said, 'It'll work itself out.' "

Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. today at Joseph Levine & Sons, 7112 N. Broad St., with interment at Montefiore Cemetery, Rockledge.

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or

Inquirer staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald contributed to this article.

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