Clark And Dilworth Reformed Philly and Reinvigorated The City’s Vibrance
Historic Quote: “I got licked. The reason I got licked was I didn’t get enough votes. I’ve no reaction, no complaints. Just say I’m in good humor.” Pennsylvania Senator Joe Duff, the day after losing his re-election bid to Joe Clark.
Philadelphia has many political figures who had a broad impact on the city but Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth may have accomplished the most. The two men, longtime allies and boyhood friends who had run the others campaign were well-to-do Ivy-League Democrats, lawyers, and reformers in the early 1950s in a city that had been dominated by the Republican machine since the last century. But by the time they left the political scene, each had a stint at the Mayoralty, and each had a monumental impact, despite electoral defeats.
Neil Peirce dubbed the reign of Clark and Dilworth, “Philadelphia’s Modern Golden Age.” It wasn’t expected to be that way at first. When Clark decided to embark on the Philly Mayoralty in 1951, no Democrat had held the post in 67 years. Republicans were so entrenched that Lincoln Steffens dubbed it “the corrupt and contented GOP machine.” Other cities would have a running joke that as bad as they had it, things in Philly were always worse.
Republicans didn’t see Clark as a threat to change their dominance. But he shouldered a broom to symbolize a ”clean sweep” of corruption, and ran on a broader campaign of reform. And Dilworth was by his side every step of the way. Both were aided by the 1942 revision of the city’s charter which was taking hold later in the decade.
Both Clark and Dilworth grew up in fair amounts of opulence, “the good life,” as some called it. Clark’s father was a tennis champion and well-known lawyer and grandfather a financier (his great-grandparents were active in Philly’s anti-bellum movement). He attended private schools — Chestnut Hill Academy and the Middlesex School of Massachusetts where he would be valedictorian. At Harvard, he was a member of the baseball team. And at Pennsylvania Law School, he edited the Law Review. And the Clark’s were devout Republicans. Joe even sought a seat on the Republican committee in 1926 but lost. But he supported Al Smith for president in 1928.
Meanwhile, Dilworth was a Yale man who also had attended prep school in Massachusetts as a boy. He served on the football team and edited his school’s law review as well. He got his law degree and served in the Marines during World War II where he would be awarded a Purple Heart. In the meantime, he established Dilworth-Paxson law firm and became a respected presence.
Clark would later say “we couldn’t get anything done as Republicans.” So he and Dilworth organized the “Warriors.” Democrats didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms either as both geared more toward the reform element that would be far in the horizon. And they both tried their hands at elective office. Dilworth served as manager to Clark’s 1934 City Council campaign while Clark returned the favor two years later by organizing his State Senate race. The duo was unable to impact change on the outside, so decided to try from the outside. Reform was their game and they fought for a modern city charter that would, among other things, replace patronage by civil service and consolidation.
Dilworth first sought the Mayoralty in 1947. He lost, but not badly (56-44%). But he and Clark would come roaring back for the mid-terms as he and Clark would win elections for Treasurer and Controller in 1949. For Republicans, it was a prelude to what would happen two years later. Dilworth simply tried to go all the way. He ran for Governor and narrowly lost to John Fine. But in Philly, that sent his profile soaring.
And the impression he made on Democrats was such that he, not Clark was the candidate they wanted for Mayor in ’51. But Dilworth wasn’t interested. Still, local leaders were not ready to rally to Clark. “Before we proceed any further, I think I ought to tell you that less than an hour ago, I released to the press a statement of my irrevocable decision to run for Mayor. I intend to run whether or not I have your backing– even if my only supporters are me and my wife. I think our discussion should proceed on that basis.” The committee had little choice but to give Clark the nomination and he beat the Reverend Daniel Poling by 125,000 votes. Dilworth meanwhile was elected District Attorney.
In office, Clark made good on his promise to reform. The patronage system was replaced with civil service, which enabled many African-Americans to get positions that under the previous system, they would’ve passed over for. But his campaign against and police corruption may have been his biggest legacy. He won the $10,000 Philadelphia Award, the first politician to capture it since 1921.
And he began a revitalization initiative that would eventually bring wonders to the city. The legendary Pennsylvania Railroad had become a sight for soar eyes and it ran through center city neighborhoods. Called the “Chinese Wall,” Clark hired famed developer and Philly native Ernest Bacon to make plans for revitalization. He produced a work of art that brought about high rises, a transit office, storefronts, and an open air concourse. It would come to be known as Penn Center.
For public relations, Clark was among the first elected officials to use television to reach people. It was called, “Tell It To The Mayor.” All this earned him notice throughout the state. In 1956, he launched a campaign to become Senator. His opponent was incumbent Senator and former Governor James Duff. The counting went into the morning hours but when it was over, he had emerged with an 18,000 vote victory. More remarkable: The Eisenhower/Nixon ticket swept the state by 600,000 votes. The perception of Duff was that his Senate seat was an “empty chair” and that at 73, he had little interest in the job. Voters even in GOP areas agreed as Clark actually edged Duff out in Republican counties such as Bucks and Luzerne. In office, he authored the Manpower Development and Training Act and the Area Redevelopment Act.
By 1955, Dilworth was interested in going for that Mayoralty and thought he had Clark’s backing. But shortly before, he was confronted with an unexpected obstacle: Clark himself who was reconsidering his decision to seek the open Senate seat in 1956. Worse yet, Clark hadn’t even told Dilworth of his change of heart. But when Dilworth made his candidacy known and Clark backed off and looked toward ’56.
Because Clark had focused more on giving the citizens the tools for better government, when Dilworth came along, he was able to turn his attention to building the city up. That meant re-invigorating the decrepit Center City (now the heart of Philly), and preserving the Society Hill neighborhood, now on the National Register of Historic Places. He continued Clark’s goal of building housing and fumed when President Eisenhower vetoed a major housing bill. And he put the winds in motion for SEPTA, the Independence Mall, and the waterfront. He advocated a national transportation policy, spoke loudly against segregation. Dilworth was named by “Fortune” Magazine as among the top ten best Mayors in the nation.
By 1958, Dilworth had proven so popular that he could have had the Gubernatorial nomination for the asking. But he turned it down and watched as his Pittsburgh colleague and very close friend, Mayor David Lawrence won the nomination and the position. Still, Dilworth’s stock had risen to such an extent that he turned back a re-election challenge from former Minnesota Governor and Presidential candidate Harold Stassen by the largest showing in city history and made mention by the Kennedy team as a possible running-mate. Unlike Clark, Dilworth hadn’t angered him.
Meanwhile, even before he came to Washington, Clark had impact on his colleagues. But it wasn’t always positive. He got under Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s skin by complaining Johnson wasn’t pushing hard enough for Civil Rights legislation and education. And he angered Kennedy by pointing out missed votes, claiming “the Senate will pass a minimum wage increase if we can just get Sonny Boy back from the cricks and hollers long enough to report it out of committee.”But Clark helped Kennedy take Pennsylvania and the grateful President relied on Clark’s advice for implementing his agenda.
By 1962, Dilworth finally went for higher office; the Governorship. And for quite some time the position seemed so within his grasp that he could have touched it. The Republican nominee was William Scranton, who despite a famous name seemed no match for Dilworth resume wise. He had served but a single term in Congress which prompted Dilworth to dub him “an accidental Congressman.”
The campaign was acrimonious. Dilworth attacked Scranton’s background, contending “my family was here before those robber barons of his…ever showed up…those people left culm banks burning to louse up the entire county in which he lives. Some of them have been burning 30 years. When my family sold out, we didn’t move out but my opponent’s family sold out their railroad and steel interests, then moved their money out of state.” He made reference to “Ivy League Dick Nixon.”
Scranton meanwhile said Pennsylvania was left behind by the national economic boom and used President Kennedy’s constant visits to the state as evidence Democrats were fearful of losing. “They were supposed to bring him in once, now they are bringinhg him in four times. They must be worried — in fact we know they are. That is a compliment to our progress.” But Dilworth promised to focus on jobs and vowed not to raise income taxes. Instead, he called for a Constitutional revision that would enable the Legislature to raise taxes. But he was coy on specifics. “I would belong in a booby-hatch if I would say what particular taxes I would want. That would be inviting complete defeat.” Suffice it to say defeat barged through the front door. Scranton won 55-44%.
Meanwhile, Clark was up for re-election that year as well. His opponent was Congressman James Van Zandt whose platform was that on affairs both foreign and domestic, Clark was too liberal for Pennsylvania. On foreign affairs, Clark was “soft on Communism to the extent that his policies are a menace to the United States.” On domestic issues, Van Zandt cited Clark’s membership in Americans For Democratic Action, which he called an “organization of ultra-liberal extremists.” Clark said Van Zandt was “jeopardizing national security with cheap, rash political talk.” Van Zandt charged Clark with abstaining on a Senate vote to give Kennedy the authority to use force in Cuba because “a vote would have violated the ADA policy of a hands-off Cuba.” On Election Day, Clark prevailed 51-48% while Dilworth took a 10% thrashing.
By 1968, Clark faced re-election. But he almost didn’t make it to the general. By itself, Clark’s liberal views on gun control and Vietnam posed problems to western Pennsylvania voters.But when he implored voters to “knock sleazy government out of the box in western Pennsylvania,” it may have been too much to bear. As a result, Clark won his primary with just 53%.
In retirement, both Clark and Dilworth took an active role in city politics. Clark lectured at University’s and served as chairman of several boards but also served as Chair of Charles Bowser’s Independent campaign to unseat Mayor Frank Rizzo. Though both Democrats, Rizzo’s platform was an anathema to Clark’s liberal beliefs. Meanwhile, Dilworth went back to his law firm but also served as President of Philly’s school board where he led the friv to integrate the school system while, as The New York Times observed, “being praised for maintaining quality education.” He died of a brain tumor in 1974 at age 75. Clark lived another 15 years, passing in 1989 at 88.
Clark may have best captured “Dick Dilworth and I were anomalies in city politics. We both came from well–to-do families and we knew each other as kids. I like to say that we learned the American way of life together on the beaches of Southampton, Long Island before World War 1.” And they put that knowledge to work for a Philadelphia that gets stronger every day.