In the 1940s, Philadelphia was the last major city in the United States to have nearly all of its political offices occupied by Republicans. Mayor Bernard Samuel and sheriff Austin Meehan led the Republican organization and were supported by many of the city's business interests. In 1947, city voters had elected Republicans to the mayor's office and to every seat on the city council. Over the next few years, cracks in the Republican wall began to emerge as independent voters and reform-minded Republicans began to join with Democrats in opposing what they saw as shortcomings of the Republican political machine. Some in the Democratic coalition objected to making common cause with the reformers, but Democratic City Committee chairman James A. Finnegan saw it as a chance to revitalize his moribund party, saying "good government is good politics."
In 1949, that coalition scored a victory in the election for "row offices" (minor citywide offices including treasurer, coroner, and controller), and the reformers used their new platforms to expose corruption in city government. A bipartisan commission of reformers proposed a new city charter in 1950. The new scheme would shift power away from city council to a strong mayor, something they believed would produce a system that would be more efficient and less susceptible to corruption. It also included provisions for civil service reform, requiring that city jobs be filled by merit selection rather than patronage. The higher-ranking executive branch positions in city government would almost all be filled by the mayor directly without council approval, which was intended to encourage the appointment of independent experts instead of distributing jobs as reward for political service. Voters approved the charter overwhelmingly in an April 1951 referendum, setting up a showdown in November for election to the revised city government.