The Rise of Rizzo

Frank L. Rizzo at his desk in City Hall on the first day of his first term as Mayor, January 4, 1972. (

To win re-election in 1967, Mayor James. H. J. Tate figured he needed to send a law and order message. So even before the primary polls closed in the Spring, Tate announced his choice for police commissioner: Frank L. Rizzo.

The day of Rizzo’s swearing in, Joe McGinniss, then a columnist at the Inquirer, described the 46-year-old commissioner walking through the corridors of City Hall.  “It is almost as if he had just been elected Pope” wrote McGinniss, suggesting that in Rizzo’s family “there is less honor in being President than in being commissioner of police.”

“The only thing he thinks more of than a cop is two cops.” noted McGinniss. Rizzo, “quotes J. Edgar Hoover with an much reverence as he does the Bible.”

“It might be said that he believes in speaking loudly and carrying a big stick anyway,” wrote McGinniss of Rizzo’s policing style.

After a lunch of eye roast at the Lit Brothers restaurant, Rizzo walked “quickly and chestily, back to his office. ‘I feel like a movie actor these days. All these pictures. I don’t go in for that posing stuff, but I’m getting pretty good. You see me this morning? Bowing from the waist? How about that?’”

“It is sort of fun, at least for now,” wrote McGinniss, “having Yogi Berra as commissioner of police.”

Rizzo’s “fun” with the Press, or with McGinniss, anyway, would last only a few weeks.

During the summer of 1967, riots in Newark and Detroit left 69 dead, 3,900 injured, and resulted in hundreds of devastating fires. In late July, Mayor Tate ordered, and Philadelphia City Council quickly passed, a proclamation declaring a state of limited emergency prohibiting public gatherings of groups of 12 or more. Those who disobeyed were subject to up to two years imprisonment.

On July 30th, a demonstration across from the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul resulted in 22 arrests. Rizzo insisted eight were card-carrying Communists, although he refused to confirm their identities and used the occasion to further stoke fear adding that several “agitators” from Newark and Detroit were now doing their worst in Philadelphia.

“I think it is a despicable and cowardly thing Rizzo has done” said Spencer Coxe, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, who was among those arrested.

“The trouble with Frank Rizzo,” wrote McGinniss, “is that he keeps having these delusions that he is really J. Edgar Hoover. “And, operating in that great tradition, he has decided that the best thing to do with his enemies, since he is unable to keep them all in jail, is to stand up and scream that they are Communists. . . . It is a trick that worked for Joe McCarthy until, like a greedy card sharp, he tried it once too often.”

When asked “if he thought Rizzo had the right to make such charges and then refuse to back them up,” Mayor Tate said. “If Rizzo is against Communists, I’m for Rizzo.”

“It is the kind of thing you should expect from Frank Rizzo from time to time,” observed McGinniss. “It is the way he is. Like two weeks ago when he gathered a small audience of reporters in a corridor behind a City Hall courtroom and told them, with great glee, the story of a man he had beaten up. He told how he chased the man, caught him, and finally threw him to the ground.”

“’Then I come down with the old number 12,’ Rizzo said, stomping his foot on the floor, ‘and that guy ain’t walking right today.’ Then Rizzo did an imitation of a man who cannot walk right.”

“It sounds a little gruesome,” wrote McGinniss, “but what the hell. The guy was probably a Communist, anyway.”

In September, the Bulletin published a poll that found Rizzo’s approval rating was 84 percent. “Only 3 percent disapproved of the way he was handling police affairs,” wrote biographer S. A. Paolantonio.

Three years later, when Rizzo resigned to run for Mayor on the law and order and no new taxes platform, Tate claimed he hadn’t “seen anything like this kind of popular support for a candidate since FDR.” Election day in 1971 had a remarkable turnout of 71%. Rizzo’s Republican opponent, Thacher Longstreth, carried 16 of the 17 predominantly African-American wards, but Rizzo beat Longstreth by 48,524 votes.

“He was one of us, said Eleanor Cucci, a housewife in South Philadelphia. “Everybody else in there had forgotten the little people. If he didn’t win, we would have moved out of the city.”

“Above all else,” said a Martha Brennen of Roxborough, “I knew Rizzo was going to look out for us.”

The morning after the election, Rizzo was in the shower at 8224 Provident Street when son Franny answered the telephone. It was President Richard M. Nixon, a longtime Rizzo admirer. The mayor-elect grabbed a towel.

“Frank? President Nixon, congratulations. How are you? . . . I know what you went though. I’ve been through it myself.  . . . You ran a clean campaign. I just wanted to call you and congratulate you.”

[Sources: Joe McGinniss. “The Passing Scene—A Loud Voice and a Big Stick,” Inquirer, May 22, 1967; “A Proclamation,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 28, 1967; Francis M. Lordan, “8 Card-Carrying Reds In Group That Defied Tate Ban, Rizzo Says,” Inquirer, August 16, 1967; Joe McGinniss, “The Passing Scene—The Techniques of Frank Rizzo,” Inquirer, August 18, 1967; “Rizzo Resigns to Run for Mayor of Philadelphia,” The New York Times, February 3, 1971; Don McDonough and Leonard J. McAdams, “Winner’s First Day: Nixon Call Catches Rizzo in Shower,” Inquirer, November 4, 1971; S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (Camino Books, 1993, 2003).]

More PhillyHistory posts on Frank Rizzo herehere and here.

4 replies on “The Rise of Rizzo”

Thanks for your three pieces (so far) on Rizzo, a vicious thug who cast a dark shadow over the city for decades. Though today he is treated as something of a joke, there was nothing amusing about him to those who were the victims of his violence and bigotry.

“Those who were the victims of his violence” were vicious thugs. He was an outstanding Police Commissioner and the finest Mayor this city has ever had. Not bad for a high school drop-out.

Rizzo was an important figure in American politics. His constituency and its mirror images in South Boston, Queens, NY, Macomb County, Michigan,
Gary Indiana, and parts of Camden and Gloucester Counties in New Jersey, formed an important leg in Nixon and Reagan’s electoral victories. Remember, Ronald Reagan carried South Philly and Northeast Philly in 1980 and ’84. To dismiss him as a cartoonish caricature of racism and ignorance is wrongheaded. Irish, Italian, Polish, and working class Jewish people and neighborhoods saw their values being condescended to by an arrogant elite of politicians, bureaucrats and academics. Rizzo, despite his bombast, reflected and gave voice to their concerns. If you fast forward to 2016, you see the same attitudes in Trump voters.

Tell about his racy relationship with Sally, the fan dancer. He was a brute who held women and minorities in contempt. He wound up living in Chestnut Hill, an affluent section, in a mansion. A long way from South Philadelphia row houses.

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