For months, Mayor W. Wilson Goode avoided -- some said miraculously -- any political fallout from his handling of a confrontation with the radical group MOVE. His standing in the polls remained astonishingly high, his political position so strong that few dared attack him.
But that has begun to change in the three weeks since a Goode-appointed commission began hearings on the incident, in which 11 MOVE members -- including four children -- died and 61 homes were destroyed by fire. Critics have come out of the closet.
"The jackals are out," one civic leader said.
"This is a time when people see the mayor down, and they've started kicking him," said Neil Oxman, Goode's media adviser.
A poll conducted last week by WCAU-TV found that public support for the mayor's handling of the MOVE confrontation had dropped 12 percent since the hearings began. Half of Philadelphia-area residents polled continued to support Goode in the controversy, but the poll represented the first falloff in support since May.
Even some of Goode's staunchest allies concede that the inquiry has hurt him. "There is no question that he has been damaged," said state Rep. Dwight Evans, a longtime Goode supporter. "My sense is questions about his handling of MOVE won't go away. I think he'll survive it, but it will always be something he is known for."
The big casualty of the hearings has been the mayor's reputation as a strong, effective, honest administrator.
"He has been hurt badly because his testimony stretched his credibility to a breaking point," said former mayor William Green, who brought Goode to prominence by hiring him as city managing director.
"The big problem is that there wasn't anyone seemingly in charge," said John Street, a black city councilman and former Goode supporter. "People voted for Wilson Goode because they thought he was a competent manager, a strong leader who would hit the ground running. They weren't awed by his oratorical talents. What MOVE has done is cause people to take a second look at the mayor, and say, 'Maybe he isn't such a great administrator.' "
Goode, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper, faces reelection in two years -- nearly a lifetime in the age of electronic politics -- and Goode allies claim that the mayor, who is a Democrat, remains the city's most popular politician.
But there are worrisome events on his horizon. After the commission finishes its hearings this month, it is expected to issue a report that could damage the mayor further. Meanwhile, bills from the MOVE tragedy mount: The city says it has spent $10 million to rebuild destroyed and damaged houses, and some critics estimate that the cost may reach $30 million.
A police-corruption scandal also may come into play. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday that James J. Martin, the Goode administration's former deputy police commissioner, has become an informant and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is checking allegations that he bought his job as the No. 2 man in a department that has had 27 officers convicted of corruption in the last 18 months.
The MOVE hearings, broadcast live on public television and radio, have given Philadelphians a remarkable look inside the operation of their city government. They have shown witness after witness describing a city government paralyzed by a small radical group and Goode in open conflict with top officials over what happened before -- and while -- police dropped a bomb on the MOVE row house.
Goode testified for two days before the 11-member panel. Critics cite the following as particularly damaging to him:
*The "hands-off" policy: In 1978, one policeman was killed and several other officers injured during a confrontation with MOVE that shaped the attitude of city officials toward the group. When Goode became mayor in 1984, he adopted a hands-off policy toward MOVE, he said, because he did not want to risk "pushing any button that would result in any loss of innocent life." Goode testified that the policy was a carryover from the Green administration -- an allegation Green vehemently denied.
Under the policy, city officials did nothing as MOVE members harassed neighbors, violated city health and zoning codes and built a steel-reinforced bunker of railroad ties and tree trunks atop their row house. "I made a decision to wait and hoped that it would disappear," Goode testified.
*Planning: Although the MOVE situation festered for 18 months, testimony showed that planning for the final assault May 13 was hurried, haphazard and based on incorrect information. Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor was not told until May 7 to prepare for the assault. The only record of a written plan that the commission has discovered is two 3-by-5-inch scribbled notes that Leo Brooks, then city managing director, later found in a pair of his trousers.
Brooks, the police commissioner's superior, was out of town at his daughter's college graduation while Sambor developed the plan. He said he learned May 12 while he was driving home through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel that the neighborhood around the MOVE row house had been evacuated.
Goode told the commission he was only remotely involved in planning and did not know details of Sambor's intentions. Sambor testified that he briefed Goode twice on details of the plan, which he called "the most conservative, controlled, disciplined and safe operation which we could devise."
*The assault: A shootout broke out shortly after MOVE was ordered to evacuate at dawn. Police fired 10,000 rounds of bullets, poured 600,000 pounds of water on the row house, blew up a porch and tried to punch holes in the house's walls with explosives in hopes of pumping tear gas inside.
Goode testified that he did not know of plans to use explosives, that police had been directed to fire only into the air and that he told Sambor no officers who had been involved in the 1978 MOVE confrontation should take part in the assault. Sambor denied each point.
The legal basis for the eviction was shaky, Goode said. Because of the "hands-off" policy, the city had only five warrants for four of the 13 people in the house when the assault began.
*The bomb: Sambor became obsessed with the bunker on the MOVE compound and decided to dislodge it and blow a hole in the top by dropping a bomb from a helicopter. Sambor and Brooks testified that Goode approved the plan. Goode said he knew nothing of a helicopter.
Within 20 minutes after the bomb was dropped at 5:27 p.m., fire spread to adjoining buildings. At that point, Goode said, "I gave my first order of the day -- put the fire out."
Goode said he thought the order had been carried out when, on a live television report from the scene, he saw water being sprayed. He said he later decided that what he saw may have been "snow" on the screen. The order was not carried out for 90 minutes. By that time, flames had engulfed the neighborhood.
Using ratings data, the commission staff estimated that 600,000 persons saw Goode's testimony, which was broadcast on commercial as well as public television. Due to an extended strike, the city's two major newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, published Wednesday for the first time since the hearings began.
"The true test for Goode will come when the Inquirer returns from strike," state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a Democrat, said as the walkout ended. "They've been very tolerant and supportive of the mayor . . . . If they shift, he is in big trouble."
The Inquirer's first editorial comment came yesterday under an ominous headline: "MOVE panel slides open windows on incompetence."
Testimony, it said, portrayed Goode as "a mayor who didn't want the details, an activist chief executive sudddenly opting for the sidelines, a commander who watched, and even cried, as the tragedy unfolded, but was unable to get the firehoses turned on a fire that was consuming a neighborhood."