As he loped onto the opulent stage at the Academy of Music and took his place beneath the gold-and-red silk bunting, Darrell Clarke was wearing an impossibly toothy grin and, as always, an overlarge suit that hung off his lanky frame, as though he’d inherited it from an older, even taller brother. It was Inauguration Day in January. Mayor Nutter would take the oath of office in a few minutes, but first Clarke had to be confirmed as the new president of Philadelphia’s City Council, a promotion that would make him the second most powerful public official in the city—and the man best positioned to advance, or destroy, Nutter’s second-term agenda.
By the flamboyant standards of Philadelphia politicians, Clarke has been a reclusive figure, so his appearance at the podium in front of the city’s assembled officialdom had the feeling of a debut performance. He seemed awed. Compared to departing president Anna Verna, Clarke appeared youthful, perhaps even a little sophomoric. “Wow,” he said as he reached the podium. “This is truly a good morning for me.” Then Clarke turned, looked directly at his political mentor, and gave him a big thumbs-up. “John Street,” Clarke said, with genuine affection. “I would not be standing here today were it not for John Street.”
It was a public acknowledgement of the obvious. After all, it was the former mayor who first brought Clarke into city government, hiring him as a lowly Council aide more than 30 years ago. It was Street who groomed Clarke, showing him the levers of power in their North Philadelphia district. And it was Street who made Clarke his political heir, bequeathing his lieutenant his North Philadelphia Council seat when he ascended to the mayor’s office.
But Street could only give Clarke so much. He couldn’t pass along his encyclopedic knowledge of city finances, or his natural talent for political manipulation and bullying. Nor could Street transfer his deft touch for rallying much of African-American Philadelphia to his side with a carefully chosen—and occasionally divisive—phrase. So when Clarke joined Council in 1999, the media and political class figured him for the second, lesser coming of John Street. A man with the same politics, associations and inclinations, only with less attitude, less aptitude and less Afro.
But there is a problem with this neat analysis: It’s dead wrong. Despite lingering perceptions to the contrary, Clarke has turned out to be a largely independent operator who knows the city and its government as well as anyone else on the political stage today. Elected officials in Philadelphia are hardly known for having wide-ranging interests, and few have knit those interests together into a coherent philosophy. Is Clarke among them?
“I don’t think he is, I know he is,” says mega-developer Bart Blatstein, who estimates that his company, Tower Investments, has plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into Clarke’s Council district. “I would not be that bullish on North Philadelphia if not for the Councilman. He has the vision thing.”
The irony? It was Mayor Nutter, buttressed by his cadre of highly educated aides, who was supposed to be the big-picture guy. Yet when it comes to redevelopment—to the actual physical rebuilding of long-blighted neighborhoods—the Nutter administration has become mired in process and bureaucratic reshuffling. Clarke, meanwhile, has personally presided over some of the most compelling redevelopment projects in Philadelphia over the past decade, from the Temple-and-Blatstein-fueled revival of North Broad Street to the taxpayer-funded reclamation of the barren industrial Badlands east of Broad. In other words, while Nutter’s redevelopment team continues to study best practices, Clarke has emerged as a doer: a politician who is more concerned with ends than means.
All of which has made him an increasingly pivotal figure not just in the arcane maneuverings of Council, but in the growth and continuing recovery of Philadelphia as a whole. Clarke—the Street-trained practical politician whose formal education ended at a technical school—may be just the shot in the arm that Nutter and his band of Fels-trained experts need.