Frank L. Rizzo, the burly, tough-talking ex-police chief who won national attention as Philadelphia’s controversial “law-and-order” mayor in the 1970s, died Tuesday in the midst of his third campaign to win back the mayor’s office.
Rizzo, 70, a former Democrat who was the Republican candidate in this year’s mayoral race, suffered a massive heart attack at his downtown campaign headquarters in Philadelphia, officials said.
His death ended a stormy career in public life that began in the early ‘40s, when he joined the Philadelphia police force as a rookie motorcycle cop, and reached its high point during the socially and politically turbulent decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he served first as the city’s police commissioner and then as its mayor.
Rizzo, who switched his party registration to Republican after his defeat in his first comeback attempt as mayor in 1983, suffered the heart attack after a campaign stop in the Mt. Airy section of northwest Philadelphia, where he had courted a group of the city’s politically powerful black ministers.
He returned to his campaign headquarters in the 21st floor of a downtown office building for lunch and collapsed in the washroom, where his long-time friend, Tony Zecca, discovered him at about 1:45 p.m.
Rizzo was rushed by ambulance to Thomas Jefferson Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 2:12 p.m. after efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Philadelphians across the city, including many who opposed him politically, mourned the passing of one of the city’s most colorful and often notorious political figures.
For all the controversy that swirled about him during his political life, he still was widely respected as an embodiment of the gritty, stubborn, never-say-die spirit of Philadelphia’s blue-collar, white ethnic residents--particularly those on the largely Italian-American South Side where he grew up.
He also is given widespread credit for rescuing Philadelphia’s downtown from economic disaster while mayor, although detractors contend the revival of Center City was at the expense of Philadelphia’s decaying, crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods.
“All Philadelphians, whatever their political affiliations, will feel his passing as a tremendous loss to the city he loved so much,” said former City Attorney Edward Rendell, the Democratic nominee in this year’s mayoral contest. “Frank Rizzo was a great Philadelphian.”
Mayor W. Wilson Goode, who defeated Rizzo in the 1987 mayoral election to become Philadelphia’s first black mayor, “extended his deepest sympathy and condolences to the Rizzo family,” said mayoral Press Secretary Karen Warrington.
Public viewing of Rizzo’s body is scheduled for Thursday in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in downtown Philadelphia. Funeral services are set for Friday morning.
Rizzo’s death threw into uncertainty November’s mayoral election. Under current state law, Philadelphia Republican leaders have the power to chose a substitute candidate to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. But a federal District Court judge recently declared the law unconstitutional.
Former Dist. Atty. Ronald Castille, who lost to Rizzo in the three-way GOP mayoral primary last spring by a razor-thin margin of 1,429 votes out of a total 130,389 cast, declined to speculate on who Rizzo’s possible Republican successor may be.
“Right now is a time for everyone to sit back and honor Frank Rizzo,” he said. “Any comment or any discussion of the election is premature right now.”
Francis Lazzaro Rizzo was born on Oct. 23, 1920, to an Italian immigrant father and an Italian-American mother. He dropped out of high school in his senior year and joined the Navy in 1939 but was discharged for what he called a slight case of diabetes.
Rizzo joined the Philadelphia police force in 1943. He worked his way up through the ranks, making a name for himself locally in the ‘60s by leading police raids on brothels, gambling dens and after-hours clubs.
In 1967, in the heat of urban unrest in America, he was named head of the department. Almost immediately, he proclaimed that rioters should be stripped and forced to march naked through downtown Philadelphia.
In one unforgettable incident during the 1960s, he left a black-tie affair to go to a riot scene and arrived with a nightstick tucked into his tuxedo cummerbund.
“He was one of the best friends of the police,” said John Shaw, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s police union. “He had a charisma. He didn’t pull any punches. What you saw was what you got.”
In 1970, he ordered a raid on Philadelphia’s Black Panther headquarters, in which six suspects were handcuffed, placed against a wall and stripped naked. “Imagine the big Black Panthers with their pants down,” Rizzo was quoted as saying. Former President Richard M. Nixon asked to meet him during a visit to Philadelphia in that same year--the first of several meetings the two were to have while Nixon was in the White House.
In 1971, Rizzo resigned as police chief to make his first successful bid for mayor on the Democratic Party ticket and was reelected in 1975.
Rizzo made an unsuccessful attempt to revise the city charter so that he could serve a third consecutive term. In 1983, he lost the Democratic primary to Goode but, despite a vicious campaign, he pledged to support the black candidate. He lost again to Goode, this time as a Republican, in 1987.
Rizzo was widely accused of heightening racial polarization in Philadelphia during the ‘70s, although he claimed he never was anti-black. The city also achieved a scandalous reputation for police abuse and brutality, with the Justice Department even filing suit against him and other top city officials alleging they encouraged a climate of police brutality.
The unprecedented suit was dropped for procedural reasons but led to key reforms.
He and his wife of nearly 50 years, Carmella, had two children.
Free-lance writer Dan Finnigan in Philadelphia contributed to this story.