Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Political Campaign

GRAY: And so, I got involved in doing the same thing that ministers have done throughout history in the black community. I got to talking about various issues, economic issues, the political system. And at that time, there was a mayor named Frank Rizzo, who ran the Philadelphia political machine. And that machine was not responsive to the needs of the African American community, and there were those in the community who were trying to bring about change. I aligned myself with them. And sometime I think I was shooting off my mouth about what was wrong, and somebody said, "Well, why don't you do something about it? Run for public office." And I said, "Okay, I will." And they said, "Run for Congress." Well, now, you've got to understand Philadelphia politics. In Philadelphia you don't run for public office unless you're given permission to. You don't enter a primary – there are no such things as open primaries in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s in Philadelphia politics. You only run when the party says, "Okay, you're our guy. You can run. Nobody else is going to run against you."

BOND: And Nix was their guy.

GRAY: And Bob Nix was their guy, had been their guy. And was Rizzo's guy.

BOND: What did you think about Nix? As I say, Nix was a power in Congress, and a power in Pennsylvania politics. What did you think about him?

GRAY: Well, I had great respect for Mr. Nix. Congressman Nix, wonderful guy. When I worked in his office, he was pretty active. Even though he had gone to Congress in a very late stage in life, in terms of age. And of course, back in those days, Congress worked on a seniority system. So you could go to Congress and sit for twenty years before you became even a subcommittee chairman. And I think Bob Nix was somewhere in the neighborhood of his late fifties when he got elected. And when I worked with him, he was in his mid-sixties. He was a good, strong person. I enjoyed my experience while I was there.

BOND: Well, he's a reliable Democrat, part of the machine in Philadelphia.

GRAY: He was the first black Congressman from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sort of like Oscar De Priest was, you know, from Chicago. And the first usually are selected by the machine. And most of the independent movement in politics in Philadelphia had gotten nowhere in elected office. There were only two black elected officials who had ever been elected independently in the history of Philadelphia politics. A guy named Hardy Williams, who at that time had become a state rep, was a state senator. He had run for mayor, got crushed, okay. Another guy named Dave Richardson. Dave had been a former gang leader, a brother from the streets, but a very principled guy, a guy with great leadership skills. And he ran and became a state rep. And so, here I was and – going to run, and they said, "No. You run for the big seat." Congress, I mean, one third of the city. Most people laughed, you know, and said, "You've got to be joking. Somebody's going to run for Congress?" I mean, you don't even run for state representative without the backing of a party.

BOND: But didn't people also say, "Listen, you're challenging this icon, this figure. You're disrupting unity among black people"? I mean, there must have been millions of arguments why you shouldn't do this.

GRAY: Well, unfortunately by that time, Congressman Nix had really reached a senior status, age-wise, and just had not had the visibility, the involvement in the community. And so, I didn't get that. That's when I began to realize that, maybe I ought to run. I did not get this uproar from "the black community" – "How dare you run against a twenty year incumbent?" I didn't. I got it nationally, from leadership in the black community, all over the nation – called up, wrote me letters. But most of it did not occur in Philadelphia. What I did get in Philadelphia was from the party people, the blacks who were a part of the Democratic Party. "How dare you – ?" But grass roots people? No, not at all. So, I basically said, "Okay, this is an opportunity to bring out some issues, take on the Democrat machine, be a part of a reform movement."

I didn't have any idea that I could win. In fact, everybody told me, "You're not going to win. All you're going to do is maybe come close, and Mr. Nix, when he retires, you might have a shot." And I think I had $50,000 – was the campaign budget. I didn't have it, that was going to be the budget, and we didn't know how we were going to raise it. I think we ended up raising maybe about $35, $40 thousand. And I was running against – I announced two months before the election, started running, you know, out on the street corners, pressing hands, coffee klatches, the whole bit. And we had no idea how we were doing. We had no, you know, paid staff. And then two weeks before the election, a news media called us up and said, according to our polling, it's a dead heat. And we said, "Oh well, we're not surprised."

We didn't even have money to do polling. And you know, we hung up the phone and dashed around the room – "Wow, this is better than anybody ever expected!" And sure enough, on election night, several of the national news media, as well as local news media, announced that I was the winner, and that I had won, based on voter analysis of exit polls. But then, when the votes were transferred downtown, suddenly, around eleven, twelve o'clock, I was losing. And I ended up behind by about twelve, fourteen hundred votes the next morning. We couldn't do a recount, because in Pennsylvania to do a recount, you have to put up a certain amount of money for each of the machines you want to open. And if they find a change, you get your money back. So it would have cost us something like $20 to $30 thousand to do a recount. I had no money, so we went out and raised a little bit of money. We did a partial recount in areas that we had some questions, and the vote margin ended up being 339 votes. And we just didn't have any more money.

BOND: Did you believe that there was some machinations that took that election away from you, that stole that election from you?

GRAY: Well, let's put it this way. Most people in this city thought I had won the election. I didn't feel so badly about it. We had run a good race, and in a real sense, I was hoping that I would run well, I would use it to articulate some issues, and apparently, they resonated. And I was surprised about how well I did. And in a real way, I was relieved, because I did not want to see Mr. Nix defeated, even though I thought he ought to be challenged. But we were really challenging something more than Bob Nix, or his record. We were challenging the concept of, "Can somebody downtown, sitting in a back room with ten or fifteen people, choose the leadership for the black community, and then bar everybody else?" That was what the black independent political movement was about in Philadelphia. And I immediately decided afterwards to plan for the next race.

BOND: And two years later you came back and you beat him. You got 58 percent of the vote.

GRAY: I came back and won two-to-one.

BOND: What happened in the two years intervening? What made the difference?

GRAY: We raised more money, we covered our polls to make sure that the count was very, very accurate. And I think people who didn't think I had a chance suddenly said, "Hey, I'm going to come out and vote for this guy." And you know, we sharpened the message, and the message was really a message about change – having, you know, strong, alert leadership that was going to be not just a voter by machine in Washington, but a leader, but also a leader back home, for the kind of progressive, political policies and inclusion that we didn't have in the Democratic Party, or anywhere in the city, for that matter. And so, my election in the primary was tantamount to victory, because in my old district if you won the Democratic primary, that's it, you can go home, you're it. And we spent the next months campaigning against the charter change that Frank Rizzo was seeking, and our campaign led that movement, and we ran up the largest majorities against changing the charter in my congressional district, which made it possible for us to basically change the political environment of Philadelphia.