Former Pa Sen. Milton Street dead at 81

PHILADELPHIA (KYW News Radio) – Former Pennsylvania State Senator T. Milton Street Sr. has died at the age of 81. He was a fixture in city politics for more than 40 years – and often a source of amusement. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Street served as a Democrat in the State House and a Republican in the State Senate from 1981 to 1984, and ran unsuccessfully for several elected offices as a member of both parties.

He was the brother of former Philadelphia Mayor John Street and was a frequent candidate for mayor himself. Milton was an activist, a lawmaker, a colorful orator, a champion of the little guy – but above all he was a showman.

A moment from 15 years ago seems to embody his unique brand of politics: when he appeared on stage with a coffin, announcing his first run for mayor while defending himself against charges of tax evasion, he burst into the anthem “If I Can Help Somebody. “

“Much like Frank Sinatra, my uncle did it his way,” State Senator Sharif Street told KYW Newsradio.

Shenanigans were his tool of the trade, dating back to 1975, when Milton was selling hot dogs from a cart on the Temple University campus and the city council was considering a bill to limit street vending. Frank Rizzo was mayor. Former US Rep. Bob Brady was a sergeant-at-arms and recalls the extravagant disruption of a council meeting that launched Milton’s political career.

“They told me they’re going to jump over the rail, run straight at me and then stop dead. So they never hurt anyone, we had a good time and I got on TV,” Brady said.

As a community activist, Sharif says his uncle has campaigned against violence in the city and advocated for economic equality and political accessibility for small businesses, people of color, the homeless and working families.

“He was talking about a hot dog vendor who believed that ordinary people’s rights should be respected. When he took over the Rizzo administration, it was earth-shattering and transformative,” Sharif Street told KYW Newsradio.

In an announcement on Facebook on Monday, Sharif wrote: “Fighting to break down barriers, he visualized ways government could work for people in everyday life, enacting change through politics, regardless of their political affiliation.”

In 1978, Street was elected as a Democrat to the Pennsylvania House representing the 181st District in North Philadelphia.

“Lo and behold, he found that being part of the establishment would really allow him to get some things done,” said City Council President Darrell Clarke, an early supporter of activist Milton.

Two years later, Milton was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate and shortly thereafter switched affiliations with the Republican Party to give them control of the chamber.

As a Democrat, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1982 against incumbent US Representative Bill Gray. Then, in 1984, he lost his bid as the Democratic nominee for re-election to the state Senate.

Milton would never run for elective office again, but he never stopped trying, and he never stopped making the antics that brought him and his brother John to mainstream life. The two were once engaged in a fistfight on the City Council, but councilor Brian O’Neill says Milton was always a staunch supporter of his brother and looked out for him.

“He put John in front of him to make sure – Milton might have been the one making negative headlines, but John was the one rising,” O’Neill said.

John became mayor in 2000.

During the 1990s, Milton expanded his business ventures, including as a consultant for Super Ducks, a competitor to amphibious tour bus company Ride the Ducks, and through various contracts with the city and Philadelphia International Airport.

A complicated but undeniable legacy

In 2006 he was charged with corruption and tax evasion in connection with a contract with the airport. At his trial, he defended his actions in protest, claiming the federal income tax was illegal. In 2008 he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for tax evasion.

In 2007, while awaiting trial, Milton declared his candidacy for mayor. Less than a week later, however, he withdrew and instead ran unsuccessfully for a vacant seat on the city council, opposing Sharif, his brother John’s son.

Milton ran again for mayor in 2011 and 2015, losing to Michael Nutter and Jim Kenney respectively in the Democratic primary and in 2019 as an independent candidate.

In 2018 he ran for his old Senate seat, this time as a Republican, but lost to Democrat Malcolm Kenyatta.

In the end, Sharif said, many Philadelphia politicians are a “direct or indirect product of his legacy,” including himself, his father, Kenyatta, Clark.

John recently returned Milton’s support when Milton was ill. “My father has spent every day with him for the past year,” Sharif said.

“He had a personality. It was easy – what you saw was what you got. He didn’t have an on-and-off personality. He was always Milton Street.”

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