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New Blood: The Empire Strikes Back

Will the new City Council represent a shift toward reform and problem-solving—or will the new boss be the same as the old boss?

Late last year, after the debacle that was the aborted PGW sale, we decided to start profiling the new voices that were looking to remake the legislative body that has long been the shame of our city. I laid out the reasons why Council was an embarrassment here and here. And I introduced you to the candidates we thought had the best chance to challenge the status quo here.

politics_1Well, the results are in, and, at first blush, it’s tempting to agree with the Inquirer’s verdict that Election Day gave us a “democratic disruption of Philadelphia’s legislature.” After all, three of the five Democrats nominated for, and virtually assured, at-large Council seats are newcomers—Derek Green, Allan Domb and Helen Gym; and two incumbents were jettisoned—Wilson Goode, Jr. and Ed Neilson. And Republican Terry Tracy stands a good chance in November of displacing one of the Republicans on Council, either David Oh or Dennis O’Brien.

Is this what change feels like? Is City Council reforming itself? Not so fast. There will be some new names on Council, but the jury is out as to whether there will be any new thinking. Political insiders have replaced political insiders and the status quo would seem to be as safe as ever.

The results this time around came on the heels of a similar reordering four years ago, when outrage over DROP was at its zenith. DROP, you’ll recall, is short for “Deferred Retirement Option Plan.” It’s a public employee retirement program, never intended for elected officials, that many Council members nonetheless availed themselves of, “retiring” for a day in order to collect a six-figure lump sum payment…only to come back to work the moment the big check had cleared. Conventional wisdom held that outrage over DROP had something to do with the 2011 turnover on Council that sent the likes of Frank Rizzo, Jr., Frank DiCicco and Joan Krajewski packing.

So, is this what change feels like? Is City Council reforming itself? Not so fast, grasshopper. Upon closer inspection, despite the new names on Council, the jury is out as to whether there will be any new thinking. Yes, Election Day provided a couple of hopeful developments, but political insiders have largely replaced political insiders. The status quo would seem to be as safe as ever. We may be experiencing change in name only.

Four years ago, most of the new faces were actually direct political descendants of the usual suspects. Donna Reed Miller’s seat went to longtime Chaka Fattah aide, Cindy Bass. DiCicco’s seat went to Mark Squilla, Johnny Doc and Bob Brady’s handpicked candidate. Meanwhile, another Johnny Doc guy, electrician’s union political director Bobby Henon (who has turned out to be an able legislator), was rewarded with Krajewski’s seat. Not an outsider among them.

This year, two outsider voices won the primary and should secure Council seats: the ideological odd couple of Allan Domb and Helen Gym. Both could be important voices in challenging Council President Darrell Clarke and speaking truth to power.

On the campaign trail, Domb’s emphasis on ideas and his focus on economic growth—not to mention his status as a self-funder—positioned him as a true independent voice. Gym is trickier. As a citizen activist, she often spoke truth to power. But as a candidate, she was partial to demagoguery, questioning the motives of those with whom she disagreed rather than debating them on the merits. But now all eyes will be on her: Will she continue to be a firebrand bomb thrower, or will she stand for principle and govern constructively? She’s certainly smart enough to figure it all out.

They’ll be an interesting pair to watch. “I was talking to one friend who said, ‘A month in, Allan Domb will want to kill himself,’” says political observer Larry Ceisler. “‘And all her colleagues will want to kill Helen Gym.’”

Other than Domb, Gym, and potentially Tracy (though how much impact can a Republican have?), the “change” we got this time around was mostly more of the same. Derek Green, the biggest at-large vote getter, is the consummate insider, having been outgoing Councilwoman Marian Tasco’s longtime legislative aide. Tasco, who pocketed $478,057 upon one of those sham DROP retirements in 2011, is an impressive power player. She not only helped to anoint Green, but also steered her Ninth District seat to another former aide, State Rep. Cherelle Parker. (Parker was convicted of a DUI in 2011, when she was seen driving the wrong way on a one-way street in Germantown. (Is it me, or should driving sober the right way on a one-way street kinda be a prerequisite for a lawmaker? Is that asking too much?)

Finally, I’m all for incumbents being thrown out, but it was the least entrenched of them—Goode and Neilson, another Johnny Doc acolyte—who were tossed. In particular, Goode didn’t deserve to lose. He’s consistently tried to give voice to the voiceless, without demonizing those who disagreed with him. Here’s hoping Gym will inherit that mantle.

There was reason to be hopeful this year given the impressive crop of candidates who put their lives and livelihoods on the line in service of Philadelphia. Paul Steinke, Isaiah Thomas and Tom Wyatt were all strong at-large candidates with real ideas who came up short. (All were endorsed by the Philadelphia 3.0 PAC.) Had even one more of them broken through, maybe I’d feel better that Council is on its way to becoming a more dynamic and constructive player.

Domb’s emphasis on ideas and his focus on economic positioned him as a true independent voice. Now all eyes will be on Gym: Will she continue to be a firebrand bomb thrower, or will she stand for principle and govern constructively?

Instead, Darrell Clarke’s hold on power remains as secure as ever. The true power in standing up to Clarke resides not in the at-large seats but in the district seats. Thanks to the obscenity of Councilmanic Prerogative, district councilmembers have more leverage; because they control development in their districts, they need Clarke less. It’s great that so many qualified candidates ran for at-large seats, but we need more who are willing to step up and take on district incumbents.

That Clarke and Mayor-in-waiting Jim Kenney have a good relationship offers little consolation. Yes, it means that they’ll work together to get things done. But it doesn’t mean they’ll try and get the right things done. Kenney has made the case that he wants to hearken back to the partnership forged by then-Mayor Ed Rendell and then-Council President John Street in the early nineties. There’s one big difference: Rendell and Street both harbored grand political ambitions. Rendell wanted to be governor and then—who knows?—maybe Vice President. Street longed to be mayor. Both knew they had to get stuff done together in order for each to ultimately get what he wanted.

But there are no such political payoffs here. We already know that Clarke wants the power of being mayor without actually having to run for the office. (Those pesky voters…) And it’s doubtful that there’s a higher office in Kenney’s future, eight years down the road. Moreover, both Clarke and Kenney have proven to be risk-averse politicians. And so, in the absence of a Council that pushes them, the only reason they’d collaborate on tackling the big transformative issues—schools, poverty, pensions, taxes—is that it would be the right thing to do for the common good.

This being Philly, that sounds unlikely — but only if we let it be. Yes, turnout was once again shamefully low, but at least, in anticipation of this election, a number of PACS and civic groups emerged—Philadelphia 3.0, The 5th Square, and Philly Set Go among them. They may have had limited impact this time, but at least their presence said to the entrenched political class: Were watching you. If such civic groups are committed to playing the long game, maybe a shift toward making Council more responsive and locally patriotic is in the offing.

The key will be what happens next. We have a tendency to only pay attention to this stuff in the run-up to elections. We need to be as passionate about governing as we are about the sports page-like drama of who wins at the polls. Now is when the hard work of ongoing civic engagement comes in. We should be putting pressure on Council to do big things the moment the new lot of them are sworn in. That’s what we’ll be doing right here, throwing out ideas and urging you to join us in trying to make Darrell Clarke and his legislative body better.

 

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