Darrell Clarke Is Not Michael Nutter

New City Council president Darrell Clarke is many things the Mayor isn’t. And for anyone interested in Philadelphia’s continued revival, that could be very good news.

 

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.

IN THE WEEKS AFTER CLARKE WAS ELEVATED to Council president, a collective “Who is this guy?” poured forth from the local media. Clarke hasn’t exactly dodged the press in his career, but he’s been careful and circumspect, and he just doesn’t have the temperament to grandstand, or to casually divulge much about his personal life. Some of his Council colleagues, for instance, were surprised to discover on Inauguration Day that Clarke, who’s 59, has a grandson (by way of his only child, a daughter who’s a doctor). Pretty quickly, a meme started to spread that Clarke was a cipher.

Not in North Philly. There, it couldn’t be clearer that the man has roots and is a known quantity. “Mr. President, Mr. President,” says Helen Brown, a longtime North Philadelphia community activist, as Clarke stops by her office for an unannounced visit. All of a sudden she bends down and pulls up his pant leg: “I want to see if he’s out here today with these people and his socks pulled down.” She’d recently spotted his socks riding low, and she was worried it was a habit. “Now that you are the prez, you got to look the part! Is that a new suit, too?” Everywhere Clarke takes me, this sort of thing happens: Older African-American women embrace him, their faces glowing with pride. It makes sense. Clarke has lived in the district his entire life. These women have witnessed his ascent firsthand. Clarke and his two brothers were raised in a two-story Strawberry Mansion rowhome. The block is in better shape today than some, but the neighborhood as a whole is one of the most stricken in Philadelphia, a wasted shadow of what it was when the Council president was growing up.

His mother was a government employee at Veterans Affairs. His dad worked at the long-gone Freihofer’s bakery when Clarke was little, then at Virnelson’s Bakery, where he was also a union officer. “Old-school, traditional parents,” says Clarke. “Mother nurtured you, father made sure you stayed in line.” Not that Clarke always walked the line. A recent Daily News profile of the new Council president included a recollection from an old friend who described him as the kind of boy who would sit on the steps and read a book while the other neighborhood kids were jumping out of windows. That sure would help explain how Clarke got to where he is today, but it’s “totally inaccurate,” Clarke says. “I’d like to think I was the kid sitting there reading the book, but that’s just not reality. Let me put it out there that I was the kid doing what every other kid at 30th and Norris did: Jumping through windows, off the roof, whatever, I was doing it.”

He was a gifted athlete, and a good enough defensive back for Strawberry Mansion and Edison Highs that he thought he had a shot at a football scholarship. That never materialized, though, and after his studies at Philadelphia Community College were aborted by two consecutive faculty strikes in the 1970s, Clarke attended a now-defunct technical institute. That was it for his formal education. But his informal education—in politics, in power, and in the intricacies of redevelopment—was just beginning.

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?”

IT WILL BE A SHAME IF CLARKE is content to make Council’s trains run on time. He’s got the ability, the experience and the perspective to be a player of citywide significance. The rambling Fifth Councilmanic District, where he has lived his whole life, contains a big slice of dynamic Center City, a host of neighborhoods on the rebound, and mile after mile of modern-day slums. In other words, it’s a great place to see both Philadelphia’s incredible potential and its intractable problems.

About a month after Inauguration Day, Clarke took me on a tour of the changing North Philadelphia landscape in his city-issued Crown Victoria. As he pulled out of City Hall and headed north on Broad Street into his district, we passed the expanded Convention Center and the school district headquarters that opened in 2005. We drove by the Inquirer building, now owned by Bart Blatstein. A half-block further north, we passed the old State Office Building at Broad and Spring Garden—another Blatstein­ overhaul­-in-progress. Further north are Marc Vetri’s Osteria, on the ground floor of a loft complex, and the shuttered Wilkie Chevrolet Buick dealership, now the site of another new Vetri restaurant and one from Stephen Starr. We pass all of that and more before the Crown Victoria even reaches Temple University, ground zero of North Philly’s redevelopment boom.

But these headline-worthy projects aren’t what Clarke wants to show me. He turns off Broad and begins pointing out a host of smaller-scale housing and retail developments—ones constructed largely by public agencies or community nonprofits that Clarke has nurtured for years. We poke our heads into classrooms at Project H.O.M.E.’s magnificent Honickman Learning Center for low-income residents. We drive past handsome publicly funded low-cost twins in Strawberry Mansion, blocks from where Clarke grew up.

But just as I begin to suspect that Clarke’s vision for redeveloping North Philadelphia is limited to taxpayer subsidies and charity, he sketches out his broader strategy. These nonprofits and government agencies, Clarke contends, have done just enough to make North Philadelphia an inviting environment for private investment.

Clarke isn’t an unreformed New Deal ­liberal. He has resisted tax hikes in the city, and he knows perfectly well there isn’t enough public money to rebuild his entire district. But he contends that targeted public funds, spent wisely, can improve a blighted neighborhood enough for a Blatstein to see the value in investing, or for a Temple to consider expanding.

“My premise is, you take these distressed areas and infuse some government subsidy so that the private market starts to perceive them as viable communities,” Clarke says. That might well mean gentrification down the road, the Council president acknowledges, which is why he has no qualms about asking developers and well-funded institutions that want to do business in North Philadelphia to also provide some sort of consideration for long-term residents.

In the case of a $147 million mixed-use Temple project at Broad and Cecil B. Moore, the community bonus (or community payoff, depending on your perspective) was 250 four-year scholarships, reserved exclusively for North Philadelphia residents. It’s the sort of arrangement that makes good-government types cringe: Shouldn’t a development proceed or not on its own merits? But Clarke is proud of the deal he negotiated, seeing it as an arrangement that benefits both his longtime residents and the institution powering so much of North Philadelphia’s revitalization.

All of which suggests Clarke is a hybrid: a pol who excels at old-school deal-making­ even as he embraces cutting-edge redevelopment­ strategies. He is, in other words, a streetwise wonk.

THE SAME COULD HAVE BEEN SAID about Council president John Street. Stylistically, though, the low-key Clarke is worlds apart from his old boss. Whether he can be as effective—and Street was perhaps the most accomplished Council president in the city’s recent history—will likely depend on the relationship he forges with Mayor Nutter.

The Mayor fought hard last year to keep Clarke out of the president’s chair. No doubt he feared Street’s influence, or that of John Dougherty, the electricians union boss who backed Clarke’s bid. (Nutter didn’t respond when asked through his press office why he sided against Clarke.) Nutter and Clarke have since made nice, meeting frequently and publicly offering to support some of each other’s initiatives. Philadelphians should hope the détente continues. The city can make rapid progress when a mayor and a strong Council president are on the same page, as Ed Rendell and Street demonstrated. For his part, when asked about Nutter’s opposition to his presidential bid, Clarke says he tries “not to personalize it, but I am human,” and acknowledges that like Street, he has “a long memory.”

Nutter should remember that, and go to whatever lengths are necessary to stay on Clarke’s good side. The new Council president could become the Mayor’s greatest and most unlikely ally—but just as easily become Nutter’s most potent adversary.

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