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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Gone But Not Done, Ortiz Says; Departing Councilman Wants To Keep Serving

By Anthony S. Twyman
Inquirer Staff Writer

December 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

Veteran Philadelphia City Councilman Angel Ortiz will not return next year, but after 19 years on Council, don't count him out of politics.

"I want to be in public service," he said during a recent interview at his Northern Liberties home. "I want to do something in terms of public policy."

What that something is remains to be seen. Word is that Ortiz, who turned 62 yesterday, will go to work for a Center City law firm.

Ortiz, who in the early 1980s hosted a television show called Latinos in the Delaware Valley, is mum on his future plans except to say there may be law firms, foundations, public-policy institutes, even radio shows in his future.

For now, he is satisfied helping the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean drum up votes among Hispanics.

It's been a grueling year for Philadelphia's first Latino councilman.

Ortiz, who has served on Council since 1984, lost the May Democratic primary by just 1,234 votes to Juan Ramos, a former deputy managing director for labor standards in Mayor Street's administration.

Despite having the Democratic Party's endorsement, Ortiz was crippled by the revelation in 2001 that he had driven without a Pennsylvania license for 25 years. The mistake came back to haunt him as a campaign issue.

"But for that, I don't lose the election," Ortiz said.

It cost him votes among liberals in Center City and other neighborhoods that had previously been his base of support, he said.

He acknowledged that it was a major blunder. "It was just stupid," he said, adding that he just never found the time to get a Pennsylvania license after moving here from New York. He now has a Pennsylvania license.

Political losses aside, Ortiz suffered a more profound loss this year. His mother, Ramona Rivera, 82, died in September.

A factory worker who made blouses on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Rivera raised Ortiz as an only child. Tears welled in his eyes as he reminisced about her.

"She was the greatest person I ever knew," he said.

Dressed in a gray sweatshirt, light green slacks, and brown loafers with no socks, Ortiz at home is much the same as Ortiz in Council - relaxed, unpretentious and easygoing.

It is a look that belies his Columbia University law degree, his Occidental College master's degree, and his University of Puerto Rico bachelor's.

He chuckles when a visitor admires the hardwood floors in his home, a former warehouse remodeled by him and his wife, Lydia E. Hernandez-Velez, a lawyer who is a former vice president at CoreStates (now Wachovia) Bank and now state deputy secretary of banking.

As he talked about politics, Ortiz checked on his daughter Lydia Pilar Ortiz, 13, who was busy cleaning her fish tank in the family's kitchen. A second daughter, Ana Ortiz, whose age he will not reveal, is a Hollywood actress.

Later, he calls his son, Angel Omar Ortiz, 9, upstairs to show him that his picture is on the front of the sports section in Wednesday's Inquirer. His son is among a group of children being taught basketball skills by Sixers center Samuel Dalembert. The story is about the 76ers-sponsored La Liga del Barrio, the city's first Latino youth basketball league, which Ortiz founded.

"They make everything worthwhile," he says of his children.

Ortiz's passion for politics dates back many years. When he was 17, his mother sent him to live with his uncle, Juan "Pipe" Rivera, a political activist in Puerto Rico, where he stayed until he graduated from college and returned to New York, where he worked for the National Puerto Rican Forum. Later, he worked for the National Urban Coalition in Washington.

He came to Philadelphia in the mid-1970s and headed the North Philadelphia branch of Community Legal Services. After a stint as city records commissioner under Mayor W. Wilson Goode, he became an at-large councilman in 1984 with Goode's backing.

As one of Council's more liberal members, Ortiz has led many battles for civil rights.

In April, he got changes enacted in the city's system to provide municipal contracting opportunities for minorities, women and disabled people.

In the mid-1980s, he led the charge to get the city's Health Department restructured to deal with residents who have HIV and AIDS. In the late 1990s, he had legislation enacted extending health-care benefits to all city employees regardless of sexual orientation.

His law prohibiting the sale and use of assault weapons drew national attention, and his antidrug crusade in the late 1980s brought him death threats that prompted him to wear a bulletproof vest.

"I think I helped change the discourse of the city," he said. "You've got to take those issues people are afraid to discuss and bring it to light."

It is an assessment many of his fellow Council members wholeheartedly agreed with on Dec. 18, at Council's last session of the year.

"Angel, we're all going to miss you, because in many ways you've been our conscience," Councilman David Cohen said.

"You have been one of the finest public servants I have had the privilege to know during my tenure in City Council," Council President Anna C. Verna said. "Your influence will linger in these halls long after you are gone from here."

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