Rizzo, Frank Lazzaro (23 Oct. 1920-16 July 1991), police officer
and politician, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son
of Raffaele "Ralph" Rizzo, a police officer and tailor, and Theresa
Erminio. Both of his parents were Italian immigrants. Rizzo was
raised in predominately Italian South Philadelphia, where he
attended local schools but failed to graduate from high school.
He joined the navy in 1938 and received a medical discharge just
one year later. Returning to Philadelphia, he worked in the steel
and construction industries. In 1942 he married Carmella Silvestri;
they had two children.
Rizzo joined the Philadelphia Police Department on 6 October
1943. An aggressive officer, he caught the eye of his superiors
and was promoted to acting sergeant. Assigned to a center city
district, Rizzo eventually became his own father's supervisor.
In 1952 the Democratic party took control of city hall after
decades of Republican rule. A new home rule charter was adopted,
giving city employees civil service protection. Rizzo was officially
promoted to sergeant and assigned to the highway patrol. Continuing
to ascend the promotional ladder, he became an inspector in 1959.
He entered the 1960s with a strong law and order reputation,
but he was also known for his quick use of force and poor record
in dealing with African Americans. The Democrats stayed in power,
but the city was now under the control of the Irish Catholics
and James H. J. Tate. Rizzo and Tate used each other to advance
their careers. Rizzo made quite an impression during his testimony
before Senator John McClellan's Senate Subcommittee on Crime
in Washington, D.C., in June 1962, when he made his first public
comments attacking the courts and the American Civil Liberties
Union (ACLU) for being "soft" on crime.
In 1963 Rizzo became a deputy commissioner and Tate was reelected
mayor. In August of that year Philadelphia experienced urban
riots, but unlike in other major metropolitan areas, the police
handled the situation with only one death and few injuries. Deputy
Rizzo and Commissioner Howard Leary, a low-key liberal, did not
see eye-to-eye on keeping the peace and constantly clashed. In
February 1966 Leary left to become police commissioner of New
York City. Later that year Arlen Spector was elected district
attorney, the first Republican victory in the city in fifteen
years, and he was a threat to unseat Tate as mayor. Rizzo, ever
present on the streets of Philadelphia, led his police force
in confrontations with civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protestors.
In May 1967, a year of more urban unrest throughout the country,
Rizzo was named commissioner of police, and the city council
granted Mayor Tate emergency powers. Philadelphia remained quiet
through the summer, and with Rizzo's help, Tate defeated Spector
for mayor by a small margin. On 4 April 1968 Martin Luther King,
Jr., was assassinated, but again Philadelphia remained calm.
Rizzo's reputation for law and order caught the eye of Republican
presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who was running in part
on law and order himself. Rizzo made plans to run for mayor in
1971, and the two major parties vied for the honor.
Rizzo preferred to run for mayor as a Republican but chose the
Democratic party as his best chance to win. Law and order was
becoming an issue in urban and national politics beyond Philadelphia.
While Rizzo was a unique politician, he also represented that
national trend. The Democrats needed Rizzo to hold onto the white
blue-collar voters, who were defecting to the law and order Republicans.
Rizzo won the Democratic primary, then defeated his Republican
opponent with 71 percent of the vote. Just two weeks later Rizzo
visited President Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in Washington, becoming
one of the best-known mayors in the United States.
In 1975 Rizzo ran for reelection and defeated a prominent black
independent candidate, who finished second, and the Republican
candidate, who was a distant third. Mayor Rizzo's major campaign
issue was his fulfilled promise not to raise taxes during his
first term. However, keeping this pledge forced him during his
second term to enact the largest tax increase in Philadelphia
history to that date. This tax increase was the catalyst for
a recall movement begun in 1976 by a coalition of labor unions,
black leaders, and liberal groups such as the Americans for Democratic
Action, the ACLU, and the newly created Philadelphia party. Rizzo
was a symbol of blue-collar, white ethnic pride to his supporters
and a brutal, racist police force to his detractors. The recall
effort needed more than 145,000 signatures and collected at least
211,000, but Rizzo's supporters challenged the validity of the
signatures. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court settled the issue
in a September 1976 decision that struck down the entire Philadelphia
Rizzo wanted to run again, but the Philadelphia city charter
limited the mayor to only two consecutive terms. Rizzo began
an unsuccessful campaign to change the charter. On 11 September
1980 a committee was formed to revise the Philadelphia Home Rule
Charter to allow the mayor to serve for more than two consecutive
terms, and the question was placed on the November ballot. The
vote was 85 percent against the measure. The 1980s began with
a new mayor in city hall. The incumbent decided not to run again
in 1983, and Rizzo, courted by the Republicans, ran as a Democrat.
He lost the primary to the former city managing director, W.
Wilson Goode, who defeated the Republican in the general election
to become the city's first elected black mayor. In 1987 Rizzo
ran again, this time as a Republican, but he lost the election
to Goode by less than 3 percentage points.
Rizzo, sixty-seven years of age, went into semiretirement. At
the end of 1988 he accepted a spot as a radio talk show host
on one of the local stations, and with this exposure a movement
urging his candidacy for mayor began to build. With the support
in the black community, which was plagued by the crack cocaine
epidemic, he decided to run in the Republican primary against
a popular Republican district attorney and Vietnam War hero,
Ron Castille. A third candidate split the vote, but Rizzo ran
a brutal campaign against Castille and won the primary. With
his momentum building, Rizzo died in Philadelphia just three
months before the general election. His funeral was one of the
largest in Philadelphia history. Thousands waited in the July
heat for hours to view for the last time one of Philadelphia's
most famous citizens.
Rizzo was one of the last of the powerful big city mayors. From
his first days on the police force to his last days running for
office, he was a major presence in the everyday lives of the
citizens of Philadelphia. A biographer concluded that few men
in history have been their own political party. Rizzo's admirers
followed him not because he was a Democrat or a Republican but
because he was Rizzo.
S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City
America (1993), a complete biography of Rizzo written by a Philadelphia newspaper reporter, is objective and well written. Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1972 (1973), discusses the relationship between Richard Nixon and Rizzo. Jonathan Rubinstein,
City Police (1973), is a detailed study of the Philadelphia police
and Rizzo written by an author who worked the streets with Rizzo's
beat cops. Fred Hamilton, Rizzo (1973), and Joseph R. Daughen
and Peter Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King (1977), are mostly
negative and concentrate on his political career. Extensive obituaries
are in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News.
Michael A. Cavanaugh
Michael A. Cavanaugh. "Rizzo, Frank Lazzaro";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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