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Frank Rizzo became a Philadelphia political icon by using populist rhetoric to rally disenchanted working-class Democrats.
Frank Rizzo

Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, Timothy J. Lombardo, University of Pennsylvania Press, 328 pages

For many Philadelphians, Frank Rizzo, the city’s late mayor, remains a political saint. One 2018 autumn weekend, Rizzo’s former home became a pilgrimage site, drawing over 40,000 people—and this was over two decades after his death. The site was an estate sale, vacant since Rizzo’s widow, Carmella, had died at 101 last summer, and admirers flocking to the upscale Chestnut Hill neighborhood hoped to purchase Rizzo’s possessions. The relics ranged from furniture and overcoats to his Rolodex address book. Although six mayors have occupied City Hall since Rizzo’s 1970s tenure, the sale showed the extent to which the cop-turned-politico still looms over Philadelphia.

For this city’s working-class denizens, Rizzo expressed their resentments, personified their values, spoke in their vernacular, and answered their prayers for “law and order.” And as Timothy J. Lombardo reveals in Blue-Collar Conservatism, Rizzo’s popularity harnessed populist impulses that turned Catholic working- and middle-class voters into a formidable electoral coalition. The book also serves as an ethnographic study, reminding us that populism thrived among blue-collar workers long before Donald Trump’s Rust Belt victories of 2016.

Lombardo’s book is not a biography—he revisits Rizzo’s life as an important backdrop for the demographic forces and economic trends reshaping postwar urban America. For an exploration of Rizzo’s imposing persona, ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio’s 1993 portrayal, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America, remains the most memorable. Although Lombardo eschews a study of Rizzo’s personality, he nonetheless captures Philadelphia as it declined, resisted, and adapted during the midcentury. A history professor at the University of South Alabama, Lombardo is also a Philadelphia native, and his lively and incisive account testifies to his command of the city’s cultural nuances.

As Lombardo documents throughout the book, Philadelphia’s residential patterns dramatically altered the city’s spatial and socioeconomic composition, especially after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, Philadelphia was also at the forefront of urban renewal, police reform, and “good government” policies. Mayor Joseph Clark, along with his successor, Richardson Dilworth, presided over this liberal renaissance as back-to-back mayors. Both patrician Democrats, Clark and Dilworth broke up the Republicans’ decades-long control of City Hall, setting an electoral precedent that still holds. They envisioned an urban rebirth aligned with Philadelphia’s liberal WASP elite.

Yet many Philadelphians challenged this progressive vision. This city of neighborhoods had long remained the “Workshop of the World,” with industries employing a large proportion of residents compared to other big cities. Although blue-collar families supported urban renewal measures that improved neighborhood aesthetics and raised property values, they resisted racial integration, from school busing to affordable housing. The city’s working-class whites—mainly Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics living in Northeast and South Philadelphia—resented municipal reformers who attempted to ameliorate neighborhood disparities. 

Frank Rizzo emerged from this urban ecosystem—a brash cop who embodied the city’s working class. The son of Calabrian immigrants, he grew up in South Philadelphia, principally an Italian enclave of two-story brick row homes, featuring aluminum awnings and Blessed Virgin Mary grottos guarding front doors. In the 11th grade, Rizzo dropped out of high school, and ultimately followed his father’s path by becoming a city cop. Standing over six feet tall, he physically reflected his intimidating disposition. “As the city’s top cop, Rizzo was fond of saying that the way to treat criminals was ‘scappo il capo,’ an Italian phrase he translated to ‘crack their heads,’” wrote Lombardo.

Rizzo quickly ascended the Philadelphia Police Department’s hierarchy, becoming police commissioner by 1967. Building on blue-collar support by labeling himself the “toughest cop in America,” he ran for mayor in 1971, and prevailed. His subsequent two mayoral terms made Philadelphia synonymous with its working-class ethos.

Contemporary profiles of Rizzo present him as a ruthless, racially insensitive mayor who harmed the city’s long-term reputation. Lombardo, however, evaluates Rizzo’s record without maligning his character, and explores how blue-collar Democrats abandoned the pillars of the New Deal, which had favored law-and-order urban policies and rejected welfare liberalism.

Was this blue-collar coalition conservative? Supporters rallied behind a restoration of their neighborhood fabric: stable homes, social cohesion, quality schools, safe streets, and jobs that sustained middle-class lives. But they also supported government intervention if it fulfilled their aspirations. The basis for blue-collar conservatism “lay in a centrist acceptance of the welfare state and government intervention in the economy like urban renewal and state funding for education, provided the beneficiaries of these programs ‘earned’ the right to government entitlements,” Lombardo argues. “Respect for ‘hard work’ was central to blue-collar conceptions of earned rights, so blue-collar whites adopted a discourse that distinguished between deserving and undeserving, between those that earned what little they had and those that expected a ‘handout’ from liberals.” As mayor, Rizzo was “one of us,” guiding the city on their preferred populist path.

By the Rizzo years, with Great Society endeavors well underway, Democrats increasingly, if not overtly, alienated this working-class Catholic base. In northern cities like Philadelphia, liberal leaders confronted the indisputable realities of urban segregation, which contributed to working-class disaffection.

The debate over public funding for parochial schools epitomized the tension between urban liberalism and working-class Catholicism. In South and Northeast Philadelphia, parents sent their children to neighborhood parochial schools, which remained largely insulated from measures reshaping the city’s public school system. But the parish schools still struggled, compelling the archdiocese to support public aid, initially with bus transportation and later through state funding. By 1968, with widespread Catholic support, Governor Raymond Shafer signed the Mullen Act, making Pennsylvania the nation’s first state to permit public funding to nonpublic schools.

Unsurprisingly, liberals saw the new state legislation as encroaching on the separation of church and state. In the early 1970s, a coalition of activists filed a federal suit to have nonpublic school aid declared unconstitutional. The debate went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against state aid to nonpublic schools. The decision further isolated Catholics—the Democratic Party was no longer their political refuge.

At the time, Pat Buchanan, who was a senior advisor to President Richard Nixon, understood the significance of Catholic marginalization. “The four issues on which I felt Nixon could take Catholic votes away from the Democratic Party of the late 1960s were social conservatism, anticommunism—the antiwar left had captured the national Democratic Party—aid for their imperiled parochial schools, and right to life,” wrote Buchanan in Nixon’s White House Wars. He especially championed a commission on private schools, writing in a 1970 memo to Nixon that his administration was “abandoning a political gold mine” by overlooking Catholics as the GOP’s future. In cities like Philadelphia, the future of parochial schools particularly affected Catholic voters. But Buchanan’s efforts with Nixon proved futile: “And so the Catholic schools that had served the ethnic communities of America since the nineteenth century, and which, in the 1950s, had 4.5 million students, continued to close.”

The plight of parochial schools joined a long list of working-class Catholic grievances. The Democrats’ well-intentioned urban initiatives, peaking in the 1960s, failed to dispel Philadelphia’s socioeconomic problems, rioting, and blue-collar indignation. By the 1970s, middle-class incomes had stagnated nationwide. For the working class, Rizzo was populism incarnate, but Lombardo shows that he still presided over a city with inescapable challenges, from population loss and shuttered factories to widespread crime and failing schools. The city’s decline only hastened the working-class Catholic exodus to Northeast Philadelphia and suburban counties. The long-term societal consequences were stark, with an intensifying divide between the city and suburbs.

In the 1980s, Rizzo attempted to recapture City Hall as a Republican, but his campaigns could not withstand Philadelphia’s transformed demographic and electoral landscape. While many “Rizzocrats,” or Reagan Democrats, remained in South and Northeast Philadelphia, much of his electoral base had already relocated to the suburbs. By the 1990s, this coalition shifted Democrats away from their ’60s progressivism. They also made Philadelphia’s surrounding counties a bellwether region for Pennsylvania, delivering the state’s electoral votes to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “By the closing decades of the twentieth century,” writes Lombardo, “their blue-collar conservatism found currency throughout the nation.” He concludes:

As a center-right, populist variant of modern conservatism with a clear class emphasis and color-blind veneer, the blue-collar conservatism that developed in the 1960s and matured in the 1970s reached its final culmination in the 1980s. The end of the twentieth century witnessed its full transformative effect on modern American political history. Philadelphia’s continued engagement with the politics of law enforcement and welfare liberalism further illustrated blue-collar conservatism’s long-term consequences and lasting legacies for the city, metropolitan America, and the nation.

In 2016, blue-collar conservatism reached its electoral apex, as Rust Belt regions delivered the presidency to Donald Trump. In Pennsylvania, along with Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, mid-sized cities had experienced many of the socioeconomic problems that had once afflicted larger cities like Philadelphia. Since the election, Trump’s shocking triumph has caused many analysts to consider the sources of working-class discontent.

This study of midcentury Philadelphia shows how a Trump-like figure can attract blue-collar voters. After all, the parallels between Rizzo and Trump are striking. Polls, for example, failed to capture support for both figures. As one Democrat told Politico in 2016, “Rizzo always outperformed his polling numbers because voters would not admit their true intentions.” Rizzo, like Trump, was also a media maestro prone to bombast, hyperbole, and gaffes. As mayor, he famously failed a lie detector test. (Before that, he’d declared, “If this machine says a man lied, he lied.”) In the late 1980s, he hosted a call-in AM radio show, with devoted listeners turning the program into a constituent service hotline. Despite the scandals, scrutiny, and scorn, his base remained loyal.

But in recent decades, this blue-collar base has largely disappeared inside Philadelphia’s city limits. In gentrified neighborhoods, young, affluent professionals reside in row homes once inhabited by multi-generational, blue-collar families. Shuttered parishes mar vacant parochial schools—both casualties of declining congregations and changed demographics. The city itself has experienced a renaissance, one that dates back to Mayor Ed Rendell’s two terms in the 1990s. Still, Philadelphia also remains America’s poorest big city, with one former working-class bastion, Kensington, considered the East Coast’s largest open-air narcotics market.

An evolving city results in new politics. Philadelphia’s current district attorney, Larry Krasner, like many elected city leaders, rejects the tough law-and-order tactics synonymous with Rizzo. A recent New Yorker profile confirmed that Krasner hopes to transform Philadelphia into a national leader in progressive law enforcement. The city’s liberal direction is also contributing to a revisionist interpretation of Rizzo’s legacy. In the coming years, a large bronze statue of the former mayor, standing near City Hall, is slated for relocation.

Of course, Lombardo affirms that Rizzo was a controversial figure. But as Blue-Collar Conservatism reminds us, we cannot understand these electoral coalitions and trends—from Rizzo’s Philadelphia to Trump’s Rust Belt—without knowing the consequential figures who helped drive them.

Charles F. McElwee III is the assistant editor of City Journal. He’s written for The American ConservativeCity JournalThe AtlanticNational Review, and The Weekly Standard, among others.