How to Improve City Council

Step One: Elect new Council members. These are the options so far.

"And please, god, let me be re-elected.. Amen." Photo Credit: City Council Flickr page.

“And please, god, let me be re-elected. Amen.” Photo Credit: City Council Flickr page.

Philadelphia’s City Council is about as popular as I was in high school.

The legislative body’s approval rating stands at a sad 30 percent, according to Pew’s most recent survey. And that poll was conducted months before the local news media ripped City Council day after day for killing Mayor Nutter’s proposal to sell Philadelphia Gas Works behind closed doors. (You know you’ve screwed up when Dave Davies, perhaps the most measured reporter in town, calls you “cowardly.”)

So it seems as good a time as any for challengers to try and take out incumbent Council members — or, at least, that’s what the challengers in this year’s Council at-large race are hoping.

By our count, eight challengers are currently looking to unseat one of the five Democratic at-large Council members. That’s 13 candidates total. Of those, the five who rack up the most votes in the May 19th primary will advance to the general election (where their victory in this Democratic-dominated town is inevitable).

The lineup of Democrats running for Council at-large is, in some ways, more compelling than those running for mayor. (We’re not sure if this is cause for hope or totally depressing.) There are a few fresh-faced millennials running: Jenné Ayers, daughter of past fire commissioner Lloyd Ayers; George Matysik, a former top staffer at the hunger relief organization Philabundance; and Isaiah Thomas, an adjunct professor at Lincoln University. There are a couple business-savvy guys running: Paul Steinke, the former general manager of the Reading Terminal Market, and Tom Wyatt, a partner in the Center City law firm Dilworth Paxson. Sherrie Cohen, the daughter of late Councilman David Cohen, is in. So is Frank Rizzo, Jr., the former Councilman (and, ahem, former Republican), as well as Billy Ivery, a retired city police officer.

The race could get even more interesting from here: The firebrand Helen Gym, who co-founded Parents United for Public Education, tells us she’s thinking about going for an at-large seat. Derek Green, an aide to Councilwoman Marian Tasco, is also rumored to be considering a run.

But do any of these hopefuls stand a chance against the incumbents — Council members Blondell Reynolds Brown, Wilson Goode, Jr., Bill Greenlee, Jim Kenney and Ed Neilson — who will not only have name recognition but also the support of the city’s Democratic Party?

Just maybe.

Political insiders consider three incumbents to be at least a little vulnerable: Brown, because she was busted for raiding her own campaign fund; Neilson, because he’s only been in City Council for five months after winning a special election last year to replace former Councilman Bill Green; and Greenlee, because he keeps a low-profile.

Whether a challenger like Helen Gym or Isaiah Thomas can take out any of these incumbents depends on a few factors — perhaps the biggest being what happens inside of a coffee tin in a couple months.

Yes, a coffee tin. Per Philadelphia tradition, the order in which each candidate’s name is listed on the May ballot is determined by which bingo ball they draw out of a Horn & Hardart coffee tin provided by election officials. Those at the top of the ballot tend to get more votes than those at the bottom, particularly in unpopular races like this one that have oodles of candidates.

That means if Paul Steinke draws No. 12, it might not matter that he used to run the beloved Reading Terminal Market. And if Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown draws No. 1? It might not matter that the city’s ethics board fined her a record sum for campaign transgressions.

The candidates’ ground operations will also play a role. Historically, Brown and Greenlee have enjoyed the support of ward leaders who are able to turn out voters across the city. Neilson, meanwhile, was once a political director for the city’s powerful electricians’ union, which boasts its own impressive get-out-the-vote operation. If they want to compete, the Steinkes and the Thomases of the world will have to work hard to woo ward leaders away from the incumbents — and that will cost them precious campaign dollars.

Speaking of money, Council President Darrell Clarke held a number of fundraisers over the past several months while he was being courted to run for mayor. Clarke announced last week he won’t be going for the city’s top job, so he’s now expected to use the money he amassed to support incumbent Council members. Brown and Greenlee, in particular, are on his leadership team.

A new group of business leaders led by developer Robert Zuritsky could counter that spending, though. The organization, which has called itself “Philly Rising” (but plans a name change), is expected to announce more about itself soon. But for now, the rumor is that it will be making “independent expenditures” to support pro-business Council candidates. That means the group could spend far in excess of the city’s campaign contribution limits as long as it doesn’t coordinate with any campaign. We hear Paul Steinke and Isaiah Thomas have a good shot at reaping the benefits of some of those dollars.

And, of course, Council’s aforementioned unpopularity should also help the challengers. Expect to hear a lot from them about how Council members screwed up the proposed PGW sale.

In fact, given all the potential talking points against incumbent Council members, it’s surprising that more people aren’t running against them. Thirteen candidates may sound like a lot. But if all of those hopefuls stay in the race — and no one else gets in — that will be the third-lowest number of Democratic Council at-large candidates to run in modern history.