Former councilman Francis Rafferty dies

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Francis Rafferty

Former Philadelphia Councilman-at-Large Francis “Fran” Rafferty has died of complications from COVID-19, according to former congressman Bob Brady, who notified PGN of Rafferty’s passing. The news was confirmed by Rafferty’s wife, Pat.

Rafferty holds a special place in the annals of Philadelphia LGBT history, but unlike that of other former councilmembers like John C. Anderson, Bill Green, Michael Nutter and now-Mayor Jim Kenney, Rafferty was never an ally. He was one of the most virulent homophobes in Philadelphia history and his open and abusive disdain for gays and people with AIDS led to one of the first unified takedowns of a politician by the collective force of the LGBT community.

Many would call Rafferty a fighter. For years Rafferty was known for fist fights on the floor of Philadelphia City Council, famously punching fellow councilman John Street on different occasions in 1979 and 1981. Both events landed Philadelphia in the national news, once with the Pittsburgh Press headline “No Brotherly Love Lost in City Council.”

Rafferty was also known for throwing the word “faggot” along with a punch, as he did in the 1979 incident with Street, calling him and Street’s brother, Milton, then a state representative, the anti-gay slur.

Throughout his years in City Council, the popular working-class former boxer was known for his virulent homophobia. This led to a concentrated effort to defeat Rafferty in one of the first significant political actions of the Philadelphia gay community. A campaign to unseat Rafferty was launched by Pride Of Philadelphia Election Committee (POPEC), Philadelphia’s first LGBT political action committee (PAC).

POPEC’s campaign to unseat Rafferty was a surprise for many across the strongly Democratic city who had not realized the power the LGBT community could wield. Rafferty had long been a popular if controversial figure in the volatile world of city politics. Yet POPEC was able to raise funds to launch a TV ad campaign titled “Say No to Rafferty” which garnered widespread support to unseat him.

Local activists assert the campaign was the first of its kind to target a homophobic politician. POPEC also lobbied former District Attorney Ed Rendell, then running for Mayor, to support the effort. Rendell could not be reached for comment for this story.

Several years prior to this campaign, Rafferty had garnered more votes than any other At-Large councilperson. Yet, as those engaged in the “Say no to Rafferty” campaign told PGN, the efforts took him down and made POPEC and the LGBT community a true political force.

In his memoir “And Then I Danced,” PGN publisher Mark Segal recounts: “Fran Rafferty was a City Councilman with strong religious beliefs. He was a blue-collar Irish Catholic who had imaginative ideas of God and AIDS. When a gay rights issue came up in Council, he’d happily yell slurs like ‘Fairies!’ up to us in the galleries.”

Segal wrote “It all came to a head when we introduced a resolution recognizing Gay Pride Month. He suggested that it be called AIDS Pride Month. This led to a televised debate on the KYW TV talk show hosted by Jerry Penacoli, ‘People Are Talking.’ Just before we went on the air, I looked over at [Rafferty] and saw what looked like malice in his eyes. I smiled and said ‘Franny’ — he had been made up by the make-up artist for the cameras — ‘you look so good in all that make up.’”

Of Rafferty’s passing, Segal said, “While I send my regards to Pat Rafferty and her family, it is difficult to forget that Rafferty was the embodiment of homophobia and AIDS-phobia in Philadelphia. He carried that flag using profanity and slurs. In my televised debate with him, his hate and fright were palpable.”

Segal added, “While he hurled epithets at me and our community, we were able to use that hate to build a coalition across many lines in Philadelphia which resulted in a historic defeat for Rafferty and a historic victory for the LGBT community. His fall marked our rise as a political force.”

Jeff Moran, a board member of POPEC who worked on the fight to unseat Rafferty, told PGN, “First, my condolences to his family. I’ve wondered if his attitudes and feelings had changed over the years, because I know that is what has happened with so many other people.”

Moran said the POPEC fight was groundbreaking and cited how the campaign to unseat Rafferty crossed over lines between gay and straight to address what many had begun to see as a problem not just for the gay community, but for the City of Philadelphia.

Moran said, “We reached out to the broader community through the advertising campaign spearheaded by my husband, Richard Bonds and through meetings with leaders of factions of the Democratic Party in neighborhoods across the city. We asked for their help and we got it — even in places we weren’t expecting. That was important groundwork with lasting impact.”

Moran said that what the LGBT community wanted was to get Rafferty and his homophobia out of any role where he could harm gay people.

The power of the LGBT bloc and political action led by Moran, Bonds, Segal and others did not go unnoticed. Nor was it dismissed. Moran noted that party leaders contacted him and Segal about “appointing Rafferty to a minor state government board or commission. They wanted to know if we’d object. Mark’s answer was no. We all just wanted him out of a position that could harm our communities, but we were not interested in getting in the way of his making a living.”

For former councilman and mayor John Street, a rapprochement was reached. He suggests that Rafferty softened over the years. Street declined to comment on their earlier conflicts, and told PGN, “Councilman Rafferty was my friend. After a ‘rocky start’ — pun intended — we developed a genuine friendship. He was perhaps the most misunderstood and under-estimated member of the many with whom I served for about two decades.”

Street noted that Rafferty was deeply religious and “was attentive and his best efforts were overshadowed by his low-key approach to his legislative duties.”

Street added, “He earned my respect and admiration as he always maintained the courage of his convictions. My prayers go out to his wife, Pat, and the entire Rafferty family.”

Not all members of City Council had such a generous response. PGN reached out to several who were in council during Rafferty’s tenure and none chose to respond. A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s office told PGN, “Respectfully, the mayor has declined commenting on the former Councilmember.”

As of August 13, no memorials for Rafferty had been announced.