William H. Gray III helped empower black politicians

W. Wilson Goode , former mayor, came into power in 1983 as the city's first black mayor with the help of William H. Gray III, who played a similar role for others. RON TARVER / File Photo
W. Wilson Goode , former mayor, came into power in 1983 as the city's first black mayor with the help of William H. Gray III, who played a similar role for others. RON TARVER / File Photo
Posted: July 09, 2013

Eulogies for William H. Gray III, the minister and former congressman who died last Monday, will pay tribute to his fight against apartheid, his rise to majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, his service as head of the United Negro College Fund.

But in the Philadelphia political world, Gray may be best memorialized as the pillar of a group of independent black activists who emerged from outside the Democratic Party structure to gain unprecedented power and spawned a generation of political and civic leaders.

The so-called Northwest Coalition - named for its base in the Northwest neighborhoods of Germantown, Mount Airy, and West Oak Lane - helped elect W. Wilson Goode in 1983 as the city's first black mayor and played a role in launching the careers of dozens of politicians, many still holding office.

The cohesion and success of the coalition over four decades stands in contrast to today's much more fractured landscape - particularly among African American politicians - and no comparable organization has risen to succeed it.

J. Whyatt Mondesire, who was Gray's chief of staff for 12 years and now heads the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said circumstances have "changed dramatically" since the coalition's day.

"Today's dynamic is different. You've already succeeded at electoral politics, to an extraordinary degree," he said of independent black politics. "After you've done the first one, the bloom is gone."

To be fair to modern politicians, the conditions that birthed the coalition - when veterans of the civil rights movement faced a Democratic Party seen as calcified and unresponsive to the black community - were historic.

"It was a different era. . . . It was a set of circumstances that drew us all together," said State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who was elected in 1980 and has been the coalition's modern standard-bearer. "I don't know if it could be duplicated today."

The Northwest was an ideal breeding ground for the political movement - stable, racially and economically diverse neighborhoods that were home to educated leaders like Gray, a pastor with a Princeton University degree.

"Independent black politics had to start somewhere, and nowhere else did it flourish so strongly," Evans said.

The movement's electoral success began with David P. Richardson, the dashiki-wearing Malcolm X disciple who won a seat in the state House in 1973.

John White Jr., a founder of the coalition along with Richardson and Gray, also ran that year and lost in a state House district that was 80 percent white, City Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco said.

White won two years later, and subsequently served on Council and became the state welfare secretary.

In 1978, Gray was elected to Congress, with Tasco serving as campaign manager. Gray, Richardson, and White all ran as outsiders.

"The progressives had been shut out of the political process," Tasco said. "The party ran the process, picked the political candidates."

That base of success helped make Goode's 1983 election possible. (Gray's fund-raising prowess also didn't hurt, said lawyer George Burrell, who won an at-large seat on Council in 1987 with the coalition's backing and held prominent positions in the administrations of Goode and John F. Street.)

"A lot of candidates can't get elected because they can't raise the money," Burrell said. "In the Bill Gray days, he had the ability to raise that money and put it out on the streets on Election Day."

Modern campaign-finance laws and limits are another reason the coalition's success probably couldn't be replicated, said William "Billy" Miller V, District Attorney Seth Williams' campaign manager.

"I don't think the government will allow one man to amass that much power again," he said.

The coalition also grew by making common cause with reform-minded "tony liberals in Chestnut Hill and Center City," Mondesire said.

The coalition particularly had a strong connection to the Jewish community, bonds formed during the civil rights movement, said U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, who won a state Senate seat in 1991 with Gray's help.

Even after the coalition's candidates became part of the establishment, Gray continued to back independents, and "he wasn't looking to control people he helped get elected," Schwartz said.

Over the years, other political families emerged and emulated the coalition's success, particularly U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and his allies. Fattah now holds Gray's old seat in Congress.

But there simply isn't "consolidative [black] leadership" in Philadelphia today, Burrell said. Evans, he said, was that kind of figure until he lost his seat as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Leaders like Fattah and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), a likely mayoral candidate, "understand the responsibility" of bringing factions together, Burrell said.

"The question is whether they want to assume it," he said.

Billy Miller - whose parents, Bill and Linda Miller, were key members the 50th Ward organization that helped elect Gray to Congress in 1978 - said the coalition, "in what it was originally formed to do, is defunct."

The younger Miller was part of a group of politicians and operatives who gathered about eight years ago to recapture some of the coalition's magic with a "Northwest Renaissance."

Their efforts in 2005 helped elect LeAnna Washington to the state Senate and Cherelle L. Parker to the state House, where she now chairs the Philadelphia delegation.

"We're a second generation," Miller said. "We're not going to try to remove a Marian Tasco . . . a LeAnna Washington from office, because they're our family, doing our work for us."

Parker, who was mentored by Tasco and Evans, describes herself as a member of the "BTM generation - beneficiaries of the movement."

She, too, acknowledged living in a different time. But, she said, community-centered work - most recently, fighting in Harrisburg for education funding and against the payday lending industry - is "an extension of that movement."

"Much of the fight was to ensure, especially in the African American community, that we had a seat at the table," she said. "Now, we are the table. The issue is whether we're effective."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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