Frank Rizzo

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For his son, member of the Philadelphia City Council, see Frank L. Rizzo, Jr..
For his the Jerky Boys character Frank Rizzo, see The Jerky Boys.
Frank Rizzo
Frank Rizzo 1972.jpg
Rizzo in 1972
93rd Mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In office
January 3, 1972 – January 7, 1980
Preceded by James Tate
Succeeded by Bill Green, III
Commissioner of the
Philadelphia Police Department
In office
April 10, 1967 – February 2, 1971
Preceded by Edward Bell
Succeeded by Joseph O'Neil
Personal details
Born Francis Lazarro Rizzo
(1920-10-23)October 23, 1920
Died July 16, 1991(1991-07-16) (aged 70)
Resting place Holy Sepulchre Cemetery
Political party Democratic (while in office)
Other political
Republican (1986–1991)
Spouse(s) Carmella Silvestri
Children Frank L. Rizzo, Jr.
Joanna Rizzo Mastronardo
Frank Rizzo
Philadelphia Police Department
(1920-10-23)October 23, 1920 – July 16, 1991(1991-07-16) (aged 70)
Allegiance United States
Years of service 1943-1971
Rank Police Commissioner
Appointed 1967
Other work Mayor of Philadelphia
Statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo that stands in front of the Municipal Services Building in Center City Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Francis Lazarro "Frank" Rizzo, Sr. (October 23, 1920 – July 16, 1991) was an American police officer and politician. He served two terms as mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from January 1972 to January 1980; he was Police Commissioner for four years prior to that.

Police Commissioner[edit]

Rizzo joined the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1940s, rising through the ranks to become police commissioner in 1967.[1] He served in that role during the turbulent years of 1967 to 1971, garnering a reputation as a tough, hands-on commissioner.

One of the most well-known actions taken by Rizzo's police officers were the raids on the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panther Party on August 31, 1970. The raids took place just after the Black Panthers had declared war on police officers nationwide,[2] and one week before the Panthers planned to convene a "People's Revolutionary Convention" at Temple University. The officers performed a strip search on the arrested Black Panther members in front of the news cameras after a Fairmount Park Police Officer was just brutally murdered. The picture ran on the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News, and was seen around the world.[3][4][5] Rizzo did not order the raids, as he was home asleep at the time. He did defend the officers afterwards, as it was his custom to give officers the benefit of the doubt.

In many respects, Rizzo was not a typical commissioner. He sometimes quarreled with the city's mayor, James H. J. Tate. He was boisterous and brooding, particularly to media. A biography of Rizzo, with an introduction written by future police commissioner John Timoney, recounted: "Of one group of anti-police demonstrators, he is reported to have said, 'When I'm finished with them, I'll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.'" A female reporter who covered the Rizzo years, Andrea Mitchell (now of NBC News), recounted routine brutish behavior as part of a broad pattern of bravado.[6]

Rizzo resigned in 1971 to run for mayor.[7]

Relationship with African Americans and police riots[edit]

Rizzo's relationship with Philadelphia's African-American community was volatile, with the PPD under Rizzo often having a bad reputation in the city's African-American community. During his tenure as a division captain and as commissioner, critics often charged him with racially motivated targeting of activities in African-American neighborhoods. Rizzo's looming presence during the Columbia Avenue Riots is credited by many for keeping the lid on widespread looting and violence during that protest/riot.

Rizzo was personally responsible for the promotion of several African-American officers during his tenure as commissioner. While he was deputy police commissioner, practices that kept African American officers from patrol cars were ended, a practice that Philadelphia's first African-American police captain James Reaves had accused the department of keeping white only.[8] It was during Rizzo's tenure as deputy commissioner in which officers assigned to the city's African American neighborhoods worked out of patrol cars in teams of one white and one black officer per car in an attempt to reduce friction between the citizens and police.[9] As commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, Rizzo had one of the largest percentages of African American officers among large U.S. police departments, with African Americans comprising 20% of the department's officers in 1968, at a time when other police departments had little if any success in recruiting African-American officers.[10] Rizzo was known for his loyalty to the department.

Rizzo's handling of the first MOVE incident in 1978 is often cited to support claims of racism.[citation needed] The radical group lived in squalid conditions, with infestations of rats encroaching on adjacent properties. When the members of the group refused to let in inspectors from the city and agents from social services as ordered by the courts, Rizzo evicted them through police action. Though disputed by MOVE members,[citation needed] Officer James Ramp was killed by gunfire erupting from the MOVE compound. The standoff was resolved without further loss of life and the members of MOVE were arrested. One member, Delbert Africa, was beaten while leaving the MOVE house with his hands up in surrender. He was unarmed. The beating was captured by local news cameras. It became symbolic for claims of police brutality and racial bias against the Mayor and his police department.

Mayor of Philadelphia[edit]

The mural on the left shows Frank Rizzo in the Italian Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Election to first term[edit]

Rizzo was functioning as mayor before his election. Toward the end of the term of Mayor James Tate, Tate publicly announced, on television and other media, that he was going to retire and that he was naming Frank Rizzo as "de facto" mayor of Philadelphia. In interviews on local television news programs, he was asked if this was legal and Tate laughed and said that he was retiring. It was not until the following mayoral election that Rizzo actually ran for mayor. In 1971, Rizzo faced three opponents for the 1971 Democratic mayoral nomination: Congressman William J. Green, a former Democratic city chairman; State Representative (later State Senator) Hardy Williams, and former City Councilman David Cohen (later a long serving councilman at large, from 1980 to his death in 2005). Cohen withdrew from the race and endorsed Green. Rizzo then won over Green and Williams.

In the November election, Rizzo defeated former (and future) Councilman at Large and Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce President W. Thacher Longstreth. Rizzo, unlike his opponents, did not issue campaign position papers; he felt his slogan "Firm but Fair" explained his view of his role. Immediately following Rizzo's death in July 1991, Longstreth broke down and cried at the news of the death of his friend, Frank Rizzo.

First term[edit]

From the start of his first term in office, Rizzo faced many political problems. The Evening Bulletin interviewed former Mayor and School Board President Richardson Dilworth about allegations he made in the San Francisco Chronicle that Rizzo had used the police for political espionage; Dilworth's elaboration of these previously obscure charges launched a new and enduring feud between two of Philadelphia's most charismatic politicians.

Grateful for the positive publicity that local media had given him as police commissioner, Rizzo gave jobs to about two dozen local reporters. This apparent quid pro quo caused suspicion about Rizzo's previously good press, and, more importantly, removed Rizzo's most enthusiastic supporters from the media. The change in ownership of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News also meant a shift in media coverage. The two newspapers had previously been owned by the Annenberg family, and both had given Commissioner Rizzo broad and favorable coverage. But the papers were sold to Knight Newspapers, later to become Knight-Ridder Newspapers. By the time of Rizzo's first term, the staff of the old Inquirer, a tame publication friendly to Rizzo, was largely replaced by younger journalists and one of the most aggressive young editors of his generation, Eugene Roberts, formerly National Editor of The New York Times. Roberts and his staff emphasized investigative reporting and the Rizzo Administration, among other local institutions, was the subject of many critical stories.

Two months after being sworn in, Rizzo endorsed Richard Nixon, a Republican, for re-election. In return for Rizzo's support, the victorious Nixon administration granted more federal funding to Philadelphia. However, Rizzo alienated many Democrats by his support of a candidate of the opposing party. The Democratic city committee, especially, viewed Rizzo's support of Nixon as a betrayal. Democratic Party Chairman Peter Camiel and many Democrats on the city council were also displeased with Rizzo's endorsement.

Lie detector scandal[edit]

Rizzo's debacles with the media continued for some time into his term. He was known for frequently holding press conferences, where he discussed various relevant and irrelevant matters, often in colorful language and a bombastic attitude. In one incident, after Rizzo was accused by Democratic Party Chairman Peter Camiel of offering Camiel patronage jobs in exchange for permitting Rizzo to choose the candidates for district attorney and city comptroller, Rizzo retorted that Camiel was a liar. One reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News asked Rizzo if he would submit to a polygraph test in order to prove that Camiel was lying. Rizzo agreed, as did Camiel. Rizzo was extremely confident that the test would come out in his favor. "If this machine says a man lied, he lied", Rizzo said famously before taking the test. However, the polygraph test revealed that Rizzo appeared to be lying about offering Camiel the positions in return for choosing candidates, and Camiel appeared to be truthful. The scandal was widely reported and politically ruinous to Rizzo's career; it ended any hope Rizzo had of becoming governor. This scandal also ended Rizzo's close relationship with the press; he discontinued his press conferences for nearly two years, preferring to rebuild public support on a personal basis.

Election to second term[edit]

Just wait after November you'll have a front row seat because I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.

— Rizzo, during his 1975 reelection campaign[11]

In the 1975 Democratic primary, Rizzo defeated State Senator Louis G. Hill, Dilworth's nephew, who was supported by Camiel. In the November election, Rizzo defeated independent candidate Charles Bowser, a leading African-American attorney and former City Councilman at Large; and Thomas M. Foglietta, who later represented a large portion of the city in Congress.

Second term developments[edit]

It was during his tenure as mayor that African-American community activist and future Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode sued the city in federal court, alleging racial discrimination within the ranks of the police and fire departments. The fire department was headed by Joseph Rizzo, the mayor's brother. The suit led to the adoption of the controversial "Philadelphia Plan", calling for affirmative action in civil service hiring and promotions.

An interesting feature of Rizzo's mayoralty was the establishment, with his complete approval, of a publicly funded "Anti-Defamation Agency" to combat pejorative jokes sometimes told about Philadelphia. The agency's most publicized action was a boycott of S.O.S. Soap Pads, after a television commercial aired nationwide in the summer of 1972 which included a disparaging reference to the city. The manufacturer withdrew the offending commercial.

During Rizzo's terms as mayor, construction started on The Gallery at Market East shopping mall and the Center City Commuter Connection, a railroad commuter tunnel with a station right underneath the mall, although Rizzo was not an economic development-oriented mayor.

The Philadelphia Gas Works, known locally as PGW, had been managed by a private company. During Rizzo's tenure, it was taken over by the city. PGW then implemented senior citizens discounts, generous municipal labor contracts and the expansion of patronage hiring. Formerly considered one of the best-managed municipal utilities in the country, it later became a long-running fiscal and management embarrassment to the city.

During Rizzo's second term, two reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer, William K. Marimow and Jon Neuman, began a long series about incidents of police brutality that allegedly had been covered up by the police department. The series won a Pulitzer Prize for the Inquirer.

Tax increase and recall attempt[edit]

In his successful 1975 mayoral campaign, Rizzo campaigned under the slogan, "He held the line on taxes." Then, almost immediately after the election, he got the City Council to increase the city's wage tax from 3.31% to 4.31%, one of the highest in the nation. The juxtaposition of the campaign slogan, which had dominated the airwaves, mailboxes, and telephone polls of the city for months, with the record tax increase infuriated Rizzo's opponents and led fiscal conservatives to join them.

The Philadelphia city charter contained a provision for a recall if 25% of the registered voters signed recall petitions. Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal activist group that had played a key role in moving Philadelphia from Republican to Democratic control in the late 1940s and early 1950s,[citation needed] took the lead in gathering the needed signatures. The committee to recall Rizzo methodically organized the wards of the city, and shocked political professionals by gathering well over the 250,000 signatures required.

The campaign to recall Rizzo attracted many thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Polls showed Rizzo losing by a wide margin. Rizzo's allies counterattacked by challenging the validity of the signatures. They also challenged the constitutionality of the recall procedure itself. Then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, by a one vote margin, declared the Charter's recall provision to be unconstitutional. The decision was written by Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix, elected to the Supreme Court with Rizzo's support in 1971.

Rizzo opponents, while greatly disheartened, elected Ed Rendell as District Attorney in 1977, and organized a campaign to elect anti-Rizzo Democratic committee persons and elected officials in the 1978 primaries.

Attempt for third consecutive term[edit]

Rizzo, facing Philadelphia's two consecutive-term limit, got the city council to place a charter change question on the ballot that would have allowed him to run for a third consecutive term in 1979.

The proposed charter change had a significant effect on Philadelphia politics. In a record turnout for a Philadelphia municipal election, Philadelphians voted two to one against the change, thus blocking Rizzo from running in 1979. [1] In that election, Republican gubernatorial nominee Dick Thornburgh won a much larger than normal percentage of the black vote (for a Republican) and won the governorship against a heavily favored Democratic opponent. The anti-charter change organization that was built would support a partially successful "Clean Sweep" ticket for municipal offices in 1979, including former Congressman William J. Green, who was elected mayor. Rizzo played off racial themes during his campaign and made appearances only in predominantly white parts of the city. Reporter Robert R. Frump, who covered the campaign for The Philadelphia Inquirer, recalled that Rizzo would frequently say, with long pauses in the last part of his sentences,"My opponents are saying 'Vote Black! I mind!" He denied that this statement was intended to rouse the white vote, but the referendum, according to Frump and other writers of the time, was waged very much along racial lines.

Post-mayoral career[edit]

Between 1983 and 1986, Rizzo served as a security consultant at The Philadelphia Gas Works—controversially, as he held this post while drawing his city pension—and hosted one of Philadelphia's most popular radio talk shows, a tradition later emulated by his son, Republican City Councilman Frank Rizzo, Jr. During his time at PGW, he saved the utility over 3 million dollars by curbing the theft of gas.

Rizzo had been a Republican until the Dilworth Administration, then a Democrat while mayor, even while supporting Richard Nixon; he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1983, losing to Wilson Goode. In 1986, he switched to the Republican Party, and ran as a Republican in the mayoral election of 1987, and set out to do so again in 1991.

In 1991, Rizzo won the Republican primary against former Philadelphia District Attorney (and later chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court) Ron Castille, in a hardball campaign where Rizzo made accusations about Castille's drinking habits and his veracity. Rizzo's win brought some rumblings of a last political hurrah, with Rizzo vowing to break stereotypes associated with his political legacy, and vowing specifically to campaign in black neighborhoods (which, in fact, he did).[citation needed]On the Friday before his death, he walked through the largely black West Philadelphia 52nd Street neighborhood with community leaders.

For the November contest against the Democratic candidate, former District Attorney (and later two-term Pennsylvania governor) Ed Rendell, there were also expectations that Rizzo would again employ hardball tactics. On July 16, 1991, Rizzo died of a massive heart attack shortly after his primary victory. He was pronounced dead at 2:12 p.m. EDT at Thomas Jefferson Hospital.

Joseph M. Egan, Jr. replaced Rizzo as the Republican nominee. Rendell went on to win the November election and serve two terms as mayor.

Funeral and memorials[edit]

Rizzo's funeral was large, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets of the motorcade from the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul to the cemetery. He was interred at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. There was no funeral larger than Rizzo's in the history of Philadelphia. People lined the streets five deep from the Cathedral to the cemetery in Cheltenham.

A statue of Mayor Rizzo waving one of his arms in greeting, created by Zeno Frudakis, stands in front of Philadelphia's Municipal Services Building. The 10-foot-high statue was paid for by contributions from Rizzo's family, friends, and supporters. Also, in his stronghold neighborhood of South Philadelphia, where he received a great deal of Italian-American support, a mural portrait of Rizzo is located on the 9th Street Italian Market.


The Cop Who Would Be King, by Philadelphia Bulletin journalists Joseph R. Daughen & Peter Binzen, is widely considered the most authoritative account of Frank Rizzo's rise to power. Sal Paolantonio's book Rizzo: The Last Big Man In Big City America is the current definitive biography; More critical comments on Rizzo's tenure as police commissioner and mayor are found in Andrea Mitchell's book Talking Back. Phyllis Kaniss' book, The Media and the Mayor's Race, is an analysis of local journalistic coverage of the campaign, detailing Rizzo's last political campaign up until his death; it contains details on the political hardball he played against Castille, and planned to play against Rendell.[12]

Political Impact[edit]

Rizzo had a tremendous impact on Philadelphia politics. An extremely polarizing figure, Philadelphians were either extreme supporters or detractors. A Democrat, Rizzo's politics were primarily in the conservative wing of the Democratic party. His political appeal, however, transcended political parties. His switch from the Democratic party to the Republican party spawned a political term, "Rizzocrats"—people who would follow Rizzo regardless of party affiliation.

Rizzo had a controversial relationship with the media. He sparred with beat reporters, including Andrea Mitchell, who was one of the first female urban beat reporters, and yet hired several into city posts after his re-election in 1975. His relationship with local television news anchor Larry Kane was especially noted. Both Mitchell, in her book Talking Back, and Kane, in his book Larry Kane's Philadelphia, said that when they heard about Rizzo's death, they broke down and cried.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Board Under Fire On Rights Issue". The Meriden Journal. April 13, 1967. Retrieved February 12, 2012. 
  2. ^ "Frank Rizzo, The Last Big Man in Big City America pt. 1"
  3. ^ "Philly Cops: A History of Brutality in Blue". Revolutionary Worker. July 4, 1999. Archived from the original on 2004-07-09. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  4. ^ Bolling, D."He's Seen It All", August 22, 2002
  5. ^ 85th Birthday Celebration for Elwood P. Smith
  6. ^ Mitchell, A., Me and Frank, September 7, 2005.
  7. ^ "Philadelphia Police Commissioner Rizzo To Make Race For Mayor". The Observer-Reporter. February 3, 1971. Retrieved February 12, 2012. 
  8. ^ Black Cops James N. Reaves
  9. ^ "Doing No Good". Time. September 4, 1964. Retrieved 2010-05-04. 
  10. ^ "The Thin Blue Line". Time. July 19, 1968. Retrieved 2010-05-03. 
  11. ^ "The Nation: Thoughts of Chairman Rizzo". Time. October 24, 1977. Retrieved May 2, 2010. 
  12. ^ The Media and the Mayor's Race / Indiana University Press

External links[edit]

Police appointments
Preceded by
Edward Bell
Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department
Succeeded by
Joseph O'Neil
Political offices
Preceded by
James Tate
Mayor of Philadelphia
Succeeded by
Bill Green, III