Jerome Whyatt Mondesire was left hung out to dry. In 1991, when his boss Philadelphia Congressman Bill Gray abruptly resigned from Congress in the middle of his term, Mondesire — who had established himself as a veritable political force in Philadelphia — was left without a job and without a direction.
So he used his considerable connections and ran for, and won, the presidency of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While he was there, he increased its membership and gave the group the political clout it had desired. But some insiders say everything he did had an asterisk next to it.
While Mondesire, known widely as Jerry, had a reputation for his ability to get stuff done, he was also feared, known for his days as a ruthless operative and a “my way or the highway” personality. He was suspended from his post with the NAACP last spring after he publicly feuded with board members over the nonprofit’s finances.
Not long after, it’s alleged that Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane orchestrated a grand jury leak about Mondesire to The Philadelphia Daily News — the very same leak that’s at the center of the criminal charges filed against her.
Mondesire died over the weekend apparently after experiencing a brain aneurysm. He was 65. The longtime Philadelphia politico is described by many as an effective leader, and a guy whose bad side you didn’t want to get on. Here’s a look at why his name has been in Philadelphia headlines for decades:
A political force
Jerry Mondesire began his political career in Philadelphia as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he covered the strip-searching of Black Panthers ordered by former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. Mondesire later went on to become an editor at the paper and eventually worked full-time on political coverage.
But he was lured away to work in that arena, rather than cover it, by the late Bill Gray, who was running for Congress in the late ’70s and needed a right-hand man. Gray’s campaign was successful, and he made Mondesire his chief of staff — giving the former journalist more power and connections.
In a way, Gray was like the Vince Fumo of northwest Philadelphia: The head of a coalition of well-connected politicos, and he aggressively ran slates of candidates that he wanted desperately to win. While Gray was away in Washington, D.C. influencing policy, it was in many ways Mondesire’s responsibility to stay in Philly and manage things at home.
Through his considerable clout, Mondesire grew close with political figures in the city like now-Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who worked under Mondesire and for Gray for years before becoming the political force she is now. He was also close with District Attorney Seth Williams, who described Mondesire this week as “like a father.”
“I had the privilege of learning from and working with Jerry for decades and came to admire him, not just for his unending dedication to our city, but for his kindness and support,” Williams said in a statement. “Jerry was a champion for social, racial and economic justice – a truly powerful force for good in our city’s many neighborhoods.”
Jay A. McCalla, a former city managing director who’s now a writer and political consultant, said that while working for Gray, Mondesire could be “a snake” who wielded a great deal of political power in local politics.
“He used his clout to scare the living daylight out of a lot of people,” McCalla said. “He was not universally loved.”
And in 1998, Democratic party boss Rep. Bob Brady told The Inquirer: “Jerry is a good friend and a bad enemy… I like the good friend part a lot better.”
Congressman Bill Gray represented Philadelphia for 12 years in Washington and served as the House majority whip before he suddenly resigned mid-way through his term in 1991. Just before he stepped down, it was reported that alleged cases of payroll padding were being investigated in his office. But Gray was never charged with a crime.
Meanwhile, Mondesire was left jobless. So the former journalist turned again to that profession and founded the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, a weekly newspaper. He was later elected to lead the 5,000-member Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.
While leading the local chapter of the NAACP, Mondesire — called “aggressive” on more occasions than one — commanded more attention to the group from the city and the media and was able to elevate its political and social profile in town.
“The NAACP has traditionally been a protest organization… but has been dormant for many years,” attorney Charles Bowser, the first black man to run for mayor of Philadelphia, said in 1998. “It has reemerged under [Mondesire’s] leadership.”
Mondesire took on recent mayoral candidate and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham on a number of occasions. Abraham, the longtime head of the city’s criminal justice system, was widely known as the “deadliest DA,” as she was largely in favor of the death penalty.
In the late 90s as head of the NAACP, Mondesire lead huge opposition to Abraham for opposing the Senate confirmation of a Common Pleas Court judge supported by the NAACP. He orchestrated marches against her and, according to The Inquirer, got other judges to boycott their own swearing-in ceremonies because Abraham would also be sworn in.
While with the NAACP in 2002, he also helped to lead a boycott of The Philadelphia Daily News after leaders accused the paper of racially biased reporting following a front page story splashed the faces of only men of color alongside the headline “Fugitives Among Us.”
“They’ve been castigating black men as the enemy for far too long,” Mondesire said at the time, according to City Paper. “But we can make a difference. We need to shut them down.”
Among Mondesire’s crowning achievements were the work he did in the realm of voter rights. In 1999, largely through his lobbying, the state’s ex-felon disenfranchisement law was overturned. He also played a critical role during the Gov. Corbett years in protesting against voter identification laws.
“He was definitely a force to be reckoned with,” said Sara Lomax-Reese, CEO and general manager of 900AM WURD, an African-American owned and operated talk radio station. “I respected what he was trying to do on behalf of the African-American community here and what he represented to the community in terms of being that kind of fierce advocate that people knew you had to answer to.”
A reputation tarnished?
Mondesire was suspended from his work with the NAACP in April of last year after he sparred publicly with three board members about the finances of their chapter of the NAACP and how it related to a nonprofit run by Mondesire called Next Generation Community Development Corp. The three board members were also suspended from their posts with the NAACP.
Then, just two months later, a story surfaced in The Philadelphia Daily News stating that Mondesire had been under investigation five years prior by the former attorney general Tom Corbett for misappropriating state funds and funneling them in order to use them for personal gain instead of for his nonprofit. Documents uncovered by reporters at City Paper showed that funds were funneled through the NAACP into Mondesire’s charity, which was defunct.
The leak showed that another grand jury investigation was underway and that now-attorney general Kathleen Kane was reviewing why charges were never filed against Mondesire and why prosecutors — Frank Fina and E. Marc Costanzo — dropped the investigation into him.
Now, Kane has been charged with leaking that secret grand jury information The Daily News despite statewide secrecy rules, and it’s alleged that she did it to embarrass political foe Fina, who’s had a rocky relationship with Kane, a Democrat, ever since she entered the statewide political scene. (More about the complicated story behind charges against Kathleen Kane and how it relates to Porngate here.)
This past spring, Mondesire vowed to sue. He told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in April that he was waiting for the conclusion of the prosecution of Kane by Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, saying “there’s never been any doubt a lawsuit will be filed, whenever the legal drama plays out.”
He didn’t live to see that through. If he had, Mondesire would have had a case. Duquesne law professor Bruce Ledewitz, who has closely followed the legal fallout surrounding Kane, said Mondesire wouldn’t have to prove he didn’t actually do the things that were alleged in the leak.
“Generally, if the law says damaging information was to be kept secret, even though you did it, leaking it could be actionable,” he said.
But Mondesire has always claimed his innocence. In The Daily News‘ first story about the investigation into him, Mondesire said he’d never even been questioned by authorities regarding how he spent state funds earmarked for programming for his nonprofit.
“It is quite stunning to see,” Mondesire said earlier this year, “the attorney general was completely oblivious to what impact her leak would have.”