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The Real Legacy of Darrell Clarke

Is the retiring City Council President a statesman … or has he been a guardian of the status quo?

When longtime Council President Darrell Clarke announced his retirement last week, he released a statement to make the public case for his legacy.

He pointed to his $400 million Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, the goal of which is to build 1,000 affordable neighborhood homes for sale, while making investments in home repair and closing costs.

He pointed to his tenure’s “Moonshot” — a $30 million public-private Poverty Action Fund, with the goal of lifting 100,000 Philadelphia residents out of poverty. (Given that Clarke has still not delivered on all but an initial oversized $10 million check for a photo op over a year ago, his use of the Moonshot model no doubt has John Glenn gyrating in his grave.)

And he pointed to a 62 percent increase in school funding under his tenure, without mention of any return on that investment.

Quickly, pundits chimed in on just what a loss Clarke’s statesmanship will be for our city. On the 6ABC public affairs show Inside Story (full disclosure: I’m a frequent panelist), there was widespread agreement as to Clarke’s impact.

“The first thing I would do is hire Darrell Clarke as a consultant, whoever becomes Council President,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner, executive director of the Urban Affairs Coalition. “We talk about wanting politicians to get things done, which means you’ve got to find that right-center in order to bring people together. He showed us how to do that in Council. After some of those early fights back in the 1980s, we have not seen those since.”

“I agree,” concurred radio talk show host Dom Giordano. “I’ve interviewed Darrell Clarke several times and I’ve not found anybody, coming from a different position, to be more reasonable. It’s a big loss.”

Really? A loss? Or … opportunity for a new type of politics?

Kindhearted revisionism

The reaction to Clarke’s retirement strikes me as kindhearted revisionism, rather than clear-eyed analysis of the type of leadership we need from elected officials if we’re ever to be a city on the move again. I get it; interpersonally, Clarke is a gentleman, and I congratulate him on his public service. Anyone willing to be in the arena — particularly here, where we regularly eat our young — deserves our gratitude and respect.

But rewriting history doesn’t serve our future. In reality, Clarke’s legacy will be that he safeguarded Philadelphia’s balkanized, transactional politics. Time and again — there are too many examples to document in full — he often played a petty inside game of power politics while city residents wondered just when their lives would get better as a result of his actions.

“The first thing I would do is hire Darrell Clarke as a consultant, whoever becomes Council President,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner

At a time when many of us rightfully wring our hands over the anti-constitutionalism exhibited by MAGA Republicans in Washington, D.C., it’s only fair to concede that, closer to home, our Council President has long governed as similarly dismissive of our modern-day version of a founding document, the Home Rule Charter, once a beacon of good governance.

Let us count the ways. First, in his embrace of councilmanic prerogative, he has stood for the proposition that we’re decidedly not one city, so much as a collection of 10 mini-Mayors, district autocrats with unfettered control of development in their respective fiefdoms.

Make no mistake, Clarke empowers the anti-democratic shenanigans of his legislative minions. At one time or another, they have all virtually cowered when their president flexes his muscles. Making our government seem even more Banana Republic-like, oftentimes Clarke’s power has emanated from comparatively pedestrian perks, like the assignment of offices or committee spots.

Most dangerous of all, Clarke has — abetted by Mayor Jim Kenney’s magical disappearing acteroded the strong Mayor system of government the reform generation starring Richardson Dilworth and Joe Clark so presciently set in motion in the mid-20th Century, when they ushered in a system that stood against cronyism and for transparency and democracy.

Clarke has been on a mission to govern, not legislate, as is his de facto constitutional mandate. He has passed regulations requiring mayors to get Council approval for painting bike lines and even went so far as to hire his own lobbyist in Harrisburg when the mayoral administration already had one on the payroll. His latest proposal — creating a Cabinet-level Chief Public Safety Director position — is, again, not within the purview of the legislative branch. (Which is why Clarke, and wannabe successor Curtis Jones, can only get it done through changing the Charter.)

Clarke’s power-grabbing ways

Need more examples of Clarke’s power-grabbing ways? How about when he led a delegation to Chester, to find out how that city had so drastically cut its murder rate? Not only did he not invite the mayor, police commissioner, or District Attorney, he doubled down on explicitly painting himself as a chief executive, saying that Council is an independent body and “doesn’t wait around for other people to act.” Strangely, an Inquirer op-ed seemed to praise Clarke for this anti-collaborative streak, leading one to wonder if we’re so desperate for leadership, even foolhardy photo ops will do in its place.

“We kept saying to each other, There can’t actually be a dismissal of a $2 billion deal with no public discussion, right? Well, wow, okay,” said Michael West, UIL’s vice president.

It’s as if Clarke, who never had the guts to run for mayor himself, having seen Kenney’s abdication, decided to serve in the role anyway. Anyone see a problem with that? The dude doesn’t even answer to all of the city. He’s a district councilperson. He has wanted the power to lead the city without being held accountable by all its citizens. Clarke’s mentor, former Mayor John Street — perhaps the greatest Council president in Philly history — has long argued that the Council president should not be a district councilmember. If the council president and the mayor are both elected citywide, the thinking goes, their interests just might more naturally align.

So what’s wrong with a more activist Council, particularly when a Mayor goes MIA? I again defer to Citizen contributor Jon Geeting, who has shown how Clarke’s system of mutual backscratching works against progressive ends:

The upshot of all this is that taking more kinds of decisions away from the mayoral administration, and putting them into the prerogative basket, could be expected to increase the scope for corruption and ensure that citywide goals for affordability, housing and jobs access, and climate change will continue to lose out in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts from a million more localized concerns. That’s the wrong direction for the city to go in at this moment when we need strong citywide leadership on so many different fronts when it comes to housing our growing population.

Why in the world, for example, is councilmanic prerogative necessary to allow or disallow a restaurant from erecting a streatery, as unanimously approved by Council? Council had originally sought to extend the pro-consumer, pro-economic growth pivot so many restaurants embraced during the pandemic, but then, as so often happens, Clarke jumped in to make sure district members could control the process and then the Kenney administration sought to regulate the hell out of the practice, and now far fewer restaurateurs are able to avail themselves of something that made irrefutably made our city better.

Finally, let’s not gloss over Clarke’s political pettiness. Perhaps his greatest sin was his shameful torpedoing of a $1.8 billion deal to sell PGW in 2015, denying then-Mayor Michael Nutter even a hearing, after promising to do so. At the time, many political observers believed he had reneged in order to deny Nutter a win so close to the end of the mayor’s second term.

To recap: A Connecticut-based utility, UIL, had reached an agreement with the Nutter administration to get our city out of the gas business — as virtually all other cities had already done. The net proceeds would have gone to relieve the city’s unfunded pension burden and thereby shoring up the city’s ever-fragile safety net, something Clarke, in other contexts, presumably supported.

The successful reign of former Mayor Ed Rendell — with Clarke’s mentor, John Street, as his partner and Council President — should remind us that what’s old can be new again.

But I remember talking to Michael West, UIL’s vice president, when, shell-shocked by Clarke’s intransigence, he pulled out of the deal. “We kept thinking we’d get our day in court,” he said. “That’s Democracy. We kept saying to each other, There can’t actually be a dismissal of a $2 billion deal with no public discussion, right? Well, wow, okay.”

Welcome to Philly politics, Mr. West. Think about the message Clarke had just sent to others who might contemplate doing business in Philly: We’re closed.

Another example comes to mind: That time Clarke oversaw the raising of the parking tax — to record levels — after a parking magnate was revealed to be among one of the reformers behind Philly 3.0, which was seeking to elect better, more transparent legislators to his sclerotic body. In Clarke’s Philadelphia, the empire always struck back.

Does it have to be this way?

I’ve asked numerous insiders, including Council members themselves, a simple question over the years: Does the Council President have a core political principle? Some high-minded belief integral to his very being? The question is usually met with knowing smiles and sotto voce colloquies on the nature of capturing and exercising power. Does it have to be this way?

There are other, more functional, models, folks. In Newark, New Jersey, dynamic Mayor Ras Baraka has worked hand-in-hand with his Council President, Lamonica McIver, who was once his student. Baraka recently replaced nearly 25,000 lead pipes throughout his city — a difference-maker in real people’s lives that would not have been possible without a partnership between the city’s legislative and executive branches.

In Scranton, Bill King became Council President this year and took office praising the job performance of Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti and pledging to meet with her weekly. “What I’m excited about working with Bill is that he was a superintendent of school districts,” Mayor Cognetti told me yesterday. “He’s been on the executive side of a governmental entity. He knows what it’s like to have a plan for the day and then some revenue doesn’t come in and your whole year totally changes. We don’t agree on everything but he comes in with an understanding of our roles and we have respectful conversations.”

Is that so hard, Philly? The successful reign of former Mayor Ed Rendell — with Clarke’s mentor, John Street, as his partner and Council President — should remind us that what’s old can be new again. Collaboration between branches of government — let alone between government and civic and business stakeholders — is possible, if there’s the political will to pursue it.

That’s what’s on the ballot in this post-Clarke and Kenney election come May: Whether Philly’s politics can emerge from the backroom into the light of day, whether transparency will reign, and whether mutual respect — from pol to pol, and pol to voter — will finally make a comeback.


Photo by Jared Piper PHL via Flickr

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