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City Council Rising

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By Ryan W. Briggs

As Mayor Michael Nutter took the stage at the Democratic National Convention the other week, some local political observers theorized that this moment in the spotlight could be Nutter's 'Dear John' letter to Philadelphia - a speech that could launch him from his hometown into the national political scene.

Today, the possibility of that happening seems less likely. The odds makers now say that if President Obama is re-elected, Nutter will not be moving into a cabinet position in Washington, at least not anytime soon.

The mayor may not be gone from Philadelphia, but he could be forgotten.

The reality is that Nutter is likely to become less and less a factor in the power game that is politics in Philadelphia.

City Council has already asserted itself as an independent force - witness Council's rejection earlier this year of the immediate implementation of the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), the citywide property reassessment program sought by the administration.  

It is sure to assert itself again - and again - as the mayor, who seems weary of losing battles at home, focuses his energy and efforts on the national scene. His fate -- prematurely, it seems - is to be a lame duck.city-council-districts_400.jpg

If that scenario plays out, Council will emerge as the power center.  And it is a Council very much changed since Nutter first took office in 2008.

Much of the old guard - the Council members who ruled when Nutter himself was a council member - is gone.

There is a new Council president, a new majority leader and six freshmen Council people, elected in 2011. In short, there has been a major realignment.  The old rules, the old alliances, the old leadership no longer hold sway.

With this new Council, which is younger and more diverse, we have hit the reset button on many of the dynamics and personalities that shaped Philadelphia politics for decades. 

Who is this new Council?  What role is it likely to play over the next three years?

We decided that this was a good time to reappraise and re-examine this legislative body. And who better to ask than the people most familiar with it - the staffers, the lobbyists and the inveterate Council watchers - who have a deep familiarity with the body and its members.

These interviews shaped this story.  Their thoughts and opinions appear below, but the conclusions are our own.  A note: We offered them anonymity in exchange for their honest appraisals and insights.

 

The Decider

Any analysis of Council has to begin with Darrell Clarke, the Council President.  Clarke, a longtime aide to John Street when he was in Council, was elected to the chamber in 1999, after Street gave up his Fifth District seat to run for mayor.

He was elected President, succeeding Anna Verna, at the beginning of this year.

Sources say Clarke has so far wielded his new position deftly.

"Clarke is certainly in the lead," said another staffer, "You're transitioning from 12 years of Anna Verna's control.  She had a very loose style of control, there was not a lot of vote marshaling, and there wasn't a lot of arm-twisting.  I don't think we've totally moved to a marshaled and tight culture, but I think Clarke is certainly exerting more control than she ever did."

Darrell Clark.jpgThere was widespread praise for Clarke's political smarts.  In a few short months, he achieved a surprisingly painless assumption to the Council Presidency over rival and Nutter ally Marian Tasco, built relationships with her former supporters, and organized legislators during the recent dustup over the AVI and School District funding,

"He has a remarkably bloodless approach to things, because you can't get too hot or you won't be able to do the job effectively," said a source close to Clarke.  Others described him as "transactional", but agreed he has not fed into potential infighting within the chamber.

While no one denied that Clarke is an effective leader, the consensus is that he is not producing many new ideas and does not have a grandiose, overarching strategy for the city. Although sources close to Council noted that he has pushed for tax reform and selling municipal assets, such as PGW, his legislation is usually scattershot and more reactive than proactive -- a trait common in Council.

"The biggest thing about Darrell is that he doesn't have a policy agenda at all.  There's no overriding issue where people say 'Clarke is all about this,'" said one source.

Others agreed, adding that Clarke's top priority has been and will always be shoring up his base by servicing constituents and developers in his home district. "I think he has more parochial approach than his mentor John Street, he's kind of like a "John Street light" on agendas.  I don't think he's quite so ambitious in terms of scale, as long as he can deliver for his district," said one source, adding, "I don't think [he has] a lot of big city wide plans, beyond the accrual of personal power." 

Clarke's role for the near future seems to be one of continuing to organize and support his colleagues in Council, but the ability to command without the ability to plan is a hollow skill.

The election of six freshmen Council members last year raised hopes that new blood would also bring an influx of new ideas, complimenting Clarke's more assertive, if not visionary, leadership.  Unfortunately, many Council staffers acknowledged that, at least thus far, the new crop has been underwhelming and most of the new ideas in the chamber are still coming from Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Bill Green, both in their second terms. 

"I don't think there's a lack of smarts or skills, but I do see a lack of aggressiveness with the new class.  I don't see anyone coming in with a pronounced agenda, unlike Councilman Green and [Sanchez]," said one staff member.

 

The Idea People

Green, one of the seven at-large Council members, and Sanchez, who represents the Seventh District, were sworn into office in 2008 along with another clutch of freshman, a group that still sets itself apart from the most recent class in both dynamism and camaraderie.

"Bill, Maria and Curtis [Jones] go to Puerto Rico every year.  There's a relationship and cohesion with that gang," said one staffer.

The Green/Sanchez duo has made headlines with their original, if not always popular, policy proposals.  Their partnership is not always a natural one.

"They have to work at it; they don't always see eye to eye, but generally they've agreed to hash out their difference.  And frankly, they're not super entrenched anywhere else, so they kind of need each other," said one source.

The alliance has produced tangible results for both Council members who are often critiqued for being better at coming up with ideas than executing them. Last year, their alliance allowed them to push amendments to the city's business taxes that exempted commercial enterprises making less than $100k a year from business licensing and the city's gross receipts tax.  The moveBill Green.jpg effectively eliminated the so-called "blogger tax", abhorred by the city's emerging tech sector, and brought tax and regulatory relief to small businesses.  Upstart business owners loved it, a plus for Sanchez's immigrant-heavy district, as well tech-savvy youths, a demographic sought after by Green, who has styled himself as an aggressive-but-bookish reformer ready to succeed Nutter. 

"Bill Green wants to be known as the "wonky guy" in Council.  I mean, he's even started walking around with a suit and a backpack.  I asked [a Green staff member] if that was a new thing and she said it was.  That's him setting himself up for a future run," said a Council staffer.

While it's no secret that Green wants to be the next Mayor, aside from nerding it up in the Council chambers, his relationship with Sanchez is one of few palpable steps he's taken towards building the political network he needs to launch himself into office or even pass more far-reaching legislative changes. Some say it's an attitude problem.

"Council right now is a bunch of lightweights and Bill Green stands head and shoulders above them, and that's why he acts like he stands head and shoulders above them. The problem is he thinks he's so much smarter than everyone else and it comes back to bite him when he does something stupid, like trying to fix the School District," said one source, referring to Green's short-lived attempt to radically increase the city's Use and Occupancy tax to fund schools.

 

The Players

There is a different set of Council members who are defining themselves as the new dealmakers and bridge builders in the chamber.  While not winning praise like Green/Sanchez for brains, the political aptitude of freshman Bobby Henon and Mark Squilla were frequently noted by individuals close to Council.

"Of this group the person coming in with the most knowledge of how to play in this environment is Bobby Henon," said one staffer, "He makes deals, understands politics and positions himself really well.  He comes in with the deepest political backing - through Johnny Doc and the union."

Henon is an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member who also served as political director of IBEW Local 98 under Dougherty.

Others saw his connection Dougherty (aka "Johnny Doc") as a potential liability Bobby Henon.jpg- but were surprised by Henon's drive and work ethic.

"I was kind of skeptical because he was Doc's guy, and that's all you heard before he started, but he's really bright in his own right and he's got a lot of energy.  He's someone to keep an eye on, he has the potential to really go far and he's a really likable guy to boot," said another source.

Praise is directed at Henon's strategies within his Sixth District in lower Northeast Philadelphia, where neighborhoods are under pressure because of housing turnover, demographic changes and a wave of rental conversions.  Not all agreed with his ideas, including a so-called "bad neighbor" map and mobile phone apps to file property complaints, but agreed that his spirit and drive to tackle these issues were undeniable. 

"He's really taken on the issue of bad neighbors and bad landlords and started to build around that problem a sort of legislative and constituent services approach to dealing with that," said a Council staffer unaffiliated with Henon's office.

Though his ideas are locally focused and mainly address surface issues, his energy and persistence have attracted other councilmembers to his pet causes, helping him win some early political victories.

Mark Squilla, who presents South Philadelphia's First District, was placed in a similar category.  Said one source, "Squilla doesn't necessarily have a deep political background, although he has been the leader of a community group working in state government and he definitely understands the landscape."

During the debate over AVI, Squilla emerged as a mediator, sponsoring a bill that would delay AVI for one year.  The agreement allayed criticisms that the city was only trying to rush through AVI to capture additional tax revenue, even though it had not yet completed an accurate reassessment of property values.

"Squilla very early on in the AVI fight staked out territory against the pro-AVI current and was right in the middle of those discussions and he likely will be again in next years conversation.  I think he impressed a lot of people with his command of the issue," said one staff member.

There were also kind words for Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., (Fourth District), who is viewed as a man who vests nearly all his efforts into getting his colleagues to like him.  "Councilman Jones had a pretty rapid rise to majority leader here because he spends most of his energy making sure people get along with him."  He was well-regarded, if not particularly well known for his legislation.

 

The Rank-and-File Democrats

Several others fell into what might be called a "rank-and-file" category.  Jim Kenney, another at-large Councilman, was described as an intelligent man who usually came down on the right side of issues, but whose recent public scraps and hot-headedness had damaged him politically. He is also a protégé of former State Sen. Vincent Fumo, now serving a jail term for a federal corruption conviction.  Without the Fumo clout behind him, one source of Kenney's power has waned.

William Greenlee, another at-large member, was regarded as a nice, goodBlondell Reynolds Brown.jpg hearted, and a hard working councilmember - if not a particularly independent thinker.  "In terms of titles, Jones is the majority leader, but really it's Greenlee.  He's Darryl's right hand guy," said one Council staffer, of Greenlee's close ties to Clarke. 

Blondell Reynolds Brown (At Large) and Marian Tasco (Ninth District) also earned the "nice" label, with perhaps less emphasis on their productivity or political allies.  One staffer commented that, "being 'nice' is great and it's helpful to build power and longevity in your career, but it doesn't necessarily - in fact it rarely, I think - connect with an aggressive agenda." 

Tasco ran and lost against Clarke for the Council Presidency, damaged mostly by her support of DROP, a controversial early pension program. A number of staffers expressed relief that she lost, saying she lacked the gumption and mental sharpness to handle the job.

Cindy Bass, another freshman, while also being well liked, failed to impress many of those within the chamber.  One staffer speculated that Bass, who represents the Northwest Philadelphia's Eighth District, had underestimated the demands of Council and had difficulty balancing work with the task of raising her three-year-old daughter.  "I think she's going to have a tough decision to make when she comes up for reelection," said one staffer.

The Council members who got the worst reviews were Kenyatta Johnson and Jannie Blackwell.

Johnson is a freshman representing the Second District, a seat held for so many years by former Council President Verna.

Numerous staffers from multiple offices identified Johnson as an aloof "do-nothing" with the habit of spending more time in Council sessions texting than listening. Said one contact: "I'm surprised Kenyatta has phoned it in as much as he has because he only won [his district seat] by 60 something votes.  He has the tightest margin of victory out of anybody.  I would have expected him to be a workhorse when he got it and he really hasn't been.  We've been here all summer long because this is the year we're going to really take on AVI, and he's the only one who actually took the summer off."

Johnson passive role on AVI could mean trouble for him because he represents a rapidly gentrifying district. "In terms of AVI, he's got Point Breeze and Graduate Hospital and he stands to hear an earful about that.  If he doesn't make it to another term, that might be just as well," said one staffer.  Others blamed poor staff choices as limiting his ability to craft wide-reaching legislation.

Many staff members were completely mystified by Blackwell, who has represented West Philadelphia's Third District since 1991.  Blackwell was criticized for her capricious approach to most issues.  "There's no sort of rationale, it's all driven by a really odd basket of relationships," said one source.  She was widely viewed as content with running a "kingdom in West Philadelphia", and disinterested in serious dialogue with other Council members.  "She falls into the category of not wanting to raise taxes or cut services, which puts her at odds with basically everyone," said a staffer.

 

The Republicans
The Republican Party, guaranteed two seats in Council by the City Charter and retaining a single district seat, is viewed as a group in disarray.  Freshman Republican Councilman-at-Large David Oh was regarded as yet another "nice" but ineffectual guy, fixated on what staffers called a "bizarre" and "vague" David Oh.jpg"Global Cities Initiative" of his own creation that staff members had little understanding or confidence in.

At-Large Councilman Dennis "Denny" O'Brien, has developed a reputation for  "talking ad nauseum about autism issues" in a legislative body that has little influence over disease research. The word is that O'Brien, a longtime state legislator representing the Northeast in Harrisburg, apparently "hates" fellow Republican Brian J. O'Neill (10th District), who has served in Council since 1980.  These rifts and peculiar obsessions seem to have effectively eliminated any hope of the Republican minority functioning as a swing-voting block.

It is easy to get hung up on the defects of the chamber, but staffers say there are many bright spots.  Though many of those interviewed didn't mind the chance to air grievances against their peers, nearly all agreed that the current City Council is, in general, more collegial -- and less senile -- than it has been in decades.  Although some noted that there are fewer heavy hitters in the body, they viewed the youth and inexperience of the body as source of potential as endless political feuds dissipate.

"I think it's on the road to being better," said one source, "Being locked in this never ending battle between Johnny Doc and the Fumocrats was not really moving us in any particular direction."

It's not a replacement for a strong mayor with a clear vision, but there are less villains and more potential for Council to become a robust and thoughtful body.

"There is a significant advantage that comes with having a majority of people who have been here for less than 10 years.  We're less married to things, and more open to bigger changes and ideas."

 

Cover Photo: Council chambers

 

One of the biggest items on Council's agenda is AVI -- the city's program to reassess all properties in Philadelphia.  Click here for a backgrounder on this controversial program that will be instituted next year.

 

 

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