To say that former Philadelphia NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire died Sunday at the age of 65 doesn’t begin to capture the moment.
Mondesire was a force and presence in Philadelphia politics and social movements for decades, and his impact far preceded his tenure at the NAACP.
He was admired by many, reviled by some, and both admired and reviled by others, including his closest friends, in the course of a given week.
He had an ego as big as the cowboy hat that became his trademark, and he was never afraid to think and act on a large scale.
More than a few Philadelphia politicians owe their careers, or a piece of them, to Mondesire. And there are more than a few whose careers never went anywhere because of him, too.
Enforcer for a reform movement
Back in the 1980s, Mondesire was the key political operative in the Democratic political machine run by the late Congressman Bill Gray. Gray, who died in 2013, was himself a one-of-a-kind leader, and the movement that grew up around him promoted independent black political candidates and progressive whites for office.
John White, a former City Councilman and state welfare secretary, remembers Mondesire as a big-picture strategist, and a guy who could be as tough as he needed to be.
He recalled Mondesire working elections when the Gray crowd, which came to be known as the Northwest Coalition, was working to elect African-Americans to City Council who didn’t come up through the traditional, white-dominated party machine.
“Back in the day, Jerry played serious hard ball,” White told me in a phone interview. “He was very hard on ward leaders who, shall I say, did not want to exercise the independent thought we were advocating back then, and he could be very, very harsh.”
I asked White how Mondesire would get ward leaders to change their behavior.
“I can’t say that publicly,” White said, laughing so hard he had to stop and catch his breath.
Mondesire would hand out the Gray organization’s Election Day “street money” to ward leaders, and used that leverage to considerable effect.
In 1990, when the organization was really humming, Mondesire threw its support in a four-way state Senate primary to a first-time candidate named Allyson Schwartz. They beat a field that included a veteran Democratic ward leader, and Schwartz went on to serve in Harrisburg and Washington.
A new day
Things changed for Mondesire in 1991 when Gray abruptly resigned his seat. Mondesire was bitter, not just because he lost a great job and political clout, but because he felt Gray had misled his staff about his intentions. The rift never healed.
Mondesire reinvented himself as a newspaper publisher, launching a weekly, the Sunday Sun, and soon enough came to head the Philly NAACP.
He didn’t have Gray’s street money on Election Day, but the paper and the NAACP game him a powerful voice. And he had a host of connections and relationships and years of political experience.
So his support was still sought after.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who’s run for significant office in Philadelphia who’s not at some point passed through the doors of Jerry Mondesire and sought him out,” White said.
He still influenced political careers, threw his weight behind candidates and causes, and locked horns with a variety of foes.
He waged a particularly bitter feud with U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. When Fattah was planning to run for mayor in 2007, Mondesire posted a website attacking his reputation and threatened to challenge him for his congressional seat.
And through it all, he was a regular source for reporters, myself among them. A former newspaper man, Mondesire knew what we needed – real information and real color, and he didn’t mind gossiping. He usually had an agenda, but he was always fun to talk to.
No way to end a career
In recent years, Mondesire was tainted by charges of financial mismanagement by some on the NAACP board, including people he’d worked with for years. The dispute led to a court battle, and the national NAACP eventually suspended Mondesire and the warring board members from the organization.
There were stories charging Mondesire had misused NAACP funds and state grants. He always denied them, and he was never charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
But his old friend and ally City Councilwoman Marian Tasco said it took its toll.
“I’m sure it had a serious impact on him,” Tasco told me. “Jerry was a very proud individual and he had a good track record in dealing with issues affecting people in this city, particularly African-Americans, and I think it sort of triggered the decline in his health.”
Tasco said Mondesire was on kidney dialysis when he was hospitalized. The Inquirer quoted a family friend as saying he suffered a brain aneurysm Friday.
Mondesire has been pretty quiet since the NAACP controversy erupted, but I have a feeling that if he’d stayed healthy, that wouldn’t have lasted.
I know one thing — a few hundred politicians, journalists, and political junkies are trading some great Jerry Mondesire stories this week.
P.S.: There are a number of interesting reflections on Mondesire’s career areound this week. I particularly recommend this one from the Daily News’ Stu Bykofsky.