APART FROM THOSE FEW MOMENTS ONSTAGE at the Academy of Music, Clarke has gently downplayed the influence John Street has had on his career. When I ask him about the former mayor, he allows that Street taught him the value of logging long hours. But when pressed on what else he learned, Clarke gets a little frustrated. “I will be 96 years old, and in some people’s minds I’ll still be a John Street protégé,” he says.
When Street was mayor, Clarke frequently carried his water in Council. But Clarke’s clout didn’t diminish when Street left office; it grew. In recent years he has become an indispensable player on Council, one who’s usually right in the middle of the horse-trading. “He may not give the rah-rah speech, but where it counts, in the proverbial smoke-filled room where the dealing gets done, he’s the guy,” says Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., the new majority leader.
Clarke’s also a remarkably prolific legislator, offering bills at almost every Council session. And more often than not, the ordinances are actually his ideas, not something cooked up by his staff or copied near-verbatim from initiatives in other towns. Consider the consolidation of the Fairmount Park Commission and the city’s Recreation Department. Clarke—who championed the notion as a way to save money and improve services—was inspired by a strange sight he witnessed one morning at a rec center at 33rd and Diamond.
“A guy’s out there cutting the grass, and he’s in the middle of the field, and then he stops,” Clarke says. The Councilman asked him why he didn’t finish the job, and the contractor responded that half the field was run by the Park Commission, half by the Recreation Department. Struck by the absurd inefficiency of it all, Clarke eventually forced through one of the biggest government consolidations in the city’s recent history.
But there are other Clarke bills and initiatives that can only be considered turkeys. Some have been quixotic and expensive, like failed city lawsuits against the state as Philadelphia has struggled with gun violence. Others have been overreactions to gentrification or the expanding residential presence of Temple students in North Philly.
And for all his success behind closed doors, Clarke’s occasional missteps with the press and his distaste for high-profile political socializing suggest he has some work to do before he can effectively wield the full power of the City Council president’s office.
“He’s always preferred to be a quiet, behind-the-scenes player,” says J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia NAACP. “The question is, does he want to be a political player now? Or does he just want to be a technocrat who runs City Council’s apparatus?”