A Quiet Coup in City Hall

With Darrell Clarke's Council already cutting the next mayor down to size, the real action in next month's election is on the undercard.

Inside City Council chambers. Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Inside City Council chambers. Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Half the audience is sweating before the debate even begins inside the packed, sweltering basement auditorium of Greenfield Elementary School. There are at least 400 people here, and while the crowd is perfectly civil, there’s still a bit of an edge to the mood. This is a high-stakes election; the proof of that is all around. There’s a documentary crew filming the candidates and audience, campaign volunteers are crawling all over the place, and an obligatory thickset white dude in an Eagles hoodie passes out unsourced fliers about the black candidate. All standard election-season fare in Philadelphia.

Only this debate isn’t starring the mayoral contenders. It’s a face-off between Kenyatta Johnson and Ori Feibush, who are running to represent the second district in City Council. Theirs is a battle that features all the drama — and, apparently, all the voter interest — that’s been lacking in the mayoral contest. And it’s not the only City Council race that threatens to outshine the lackluster mayoral campaign.

Yes, the big field of 17 Democrats for City Council at-large includes the typical array of hacks and legacy candidates, as well as four incumbents, but it also features a handful of highly unusual suspects: education firebrand Helen Gym, “Condo King” developer Allan Domb (who definitely isn’t in it for the paycheck), former Reading Terminal Market honcho Paul Steinke, and 30-year-old teacher Isaiah Thomas, among others. Then there’s Philadelphia 3.0, the city’s first true dark-money operation — bankrolled, all assume, by wealthy local business executives. Its target? Not the mayor’s office. “We are seeing real change in this city. Let’s create a City Council that can keep up,” the organization’s website proclaims. The Council race even seems to have awakened the city’s Republican Party from its 60-year slumber; GOP ward leaders are in open rebellion against at-large Republican incumbents David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, both of whom are fighting for their political lives.

Parallel to this electoral drama, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke is diligently at work shifting the balance of power in City Hall in City Council’s favor. “I feel real good about the fact this Council continues to grow,” he says, with a smile, in an interview.

We’re used to thinking of the mayor of Philadelphia as the city’s dominant political power. That’s not always true, of course — every mayor has had his defeats, some more than others. But in Philadelphia’s recent history, the mayor has generally set the agenda in City Hall. The Ed Rendell agenda was fiscal recovery and shock therapy for a downtown in steep decline. For John Street, it was an intense focus on long-neglected neighborhoods. For Michael Nutter, it’s been ethical government, safer streets, and a pivot to a new, more worldly Philadelphia.

Presumably, whoever wins this mayoral contest will have an agenda (fingers crossed). But will an increasingly potent City Council care what the new boss wants?

THE NOTION THAT the mayor calls the big shots in City Hall dates from the 1951 city charter, which gives the mayor broad authority to run the government and administer the budget, with minimal Council oversight. True, to do much new with government, a mayor needs Council approval, mostly to fund the initiative. But by design, the playing field has never been level between Council and the mayor. (Quick, see if you can name a Council president before John Street.)

In the half century after the charter was adopted, it was amended just once. But in the 13 years since then, the charter has been changed 42 times. That’s partly because the charter is showing its age, but the sheer volume of amendments also speaks to City Council’s growing dissatisfaction with the deal struck back in 1951. So there have been amendments mandating new budget processes for the mayor to follow, changes giving Council sway over minority contracting decisions, changes creating commissions or new government positions on jobs, youths, public-school families and disabled Philadelphians, to cite just a few examples. Then there are the charter changes that are introduced — or, in some cases, raised like political bludgeons — but never enacted, like the 2013 threat to force mayors to get Council approval before challenging union arbitration decisions. With the help of a City Hall insider, I counted at least 70 of those since 2000.

Council’s restlessness with the old balance of power could not be clearer. Consider:

Clarke felt left in the dark during school funding talks in Harrisburg? Council has hired its own lobbyist; problem solved. Nutter’s PGW deal? Not worth so much as a committee hearing. Car-driving constituents getting crabby about the Mayor’s bike-lane fetish? Boom, there’s a new law that makes mayors get Council’s blessing before they paint parallel lines on a street.

And all that looks like something of a warm-up. There’s an appetite, Clarke says, for Council vetting of cabinet-level mayoral appointees. He’s also spearheading a sweeping reorganization of major government operations, moving big city departments around like he’s perfecting a flowchart on a dry-erase board. Clarke’s proposal — he wants to streamline development by aligning a lot of related agencies in one silo — has some real merit. But that sort of wholesale reorganization of city government feels a lot more like a mayoral duty than Council’s. Still, who’s going to stop Clarke? On anything?

Well, probably not the next mayor. When asked about Council’s muscle-flexing, Lynne Abraham is the only candidate to sound the alarm. Clarke’s moves, she says, are likely meant to “tie the hands of the new mayor” and would “usurp the power not only of the next mayor, but every mayor that follows.” The other candidates register only meek objections; some make no complaints whatsoever. No wonder the Council president had more money in his campaign checking account as 2014 ended than any of the mayoral candidates.

All that speculation last year over whether Clarke would run for mayor missed a central question: Does Clarke really need to be mayor to call the shots in City Hall? “I don’t think you have to be mayor to be in a position to push forward an agenda,” Clarke says. And what if his agenda and the next mayor’s conflict? “Sometimes if you’re the mayor, maybe you think you don’t have to work with people. But anything that we push out of this particular body requires a minimum of nine votes. I think understanding that would be prudent for any mayoral candidate.”

I’VE LONG THOUGHT that one of the big reasons City Council members in Philadelphia hold onto their jobs longer — often a lot longer — than their peers in other cities is that they’re highly motivated to keep those jobs. It’s not for love of power (well, not just that). Most City Council members, if not all, badly need the paycheck that comes with their jobs. That’s actually refreshing compared to the millionaires’ club in Congress, except for this crucial caveat: A lot of those Council members have no clue — none — how they would pay the bills without their city salary. Most of the old ones are career politicians. Most of the young ones were hangers-on of one political faction or another, with pre-Council résumés at patronage agencies or politically connected nonprofits. Without this job, they’d be adrift. So a lot of Council members are allergic to taking chances and excruciatingly sensitive to public opinion in their districts (witness PGW) or the slightest bit of public pressure from special interests (witness the soda lobby’s effectiveness in blocking the sugary-drinks tax).

In contrast, there’s Allan Domb: developer, realtor to Philly’s elite, bankroller of Stephen Starr. Here is a man with many, many millions of options. And he’s running for City Council. Every day, walking around Rittenhouse Square, Domb is asked, “Have you lost your mind?”

That’s because while people like Domb have always been very good at sneering at Council, most find the idea of rolling around in the political muck to be, well, ludicrous. Which is a pretty big problem. The city’s business elite has long been chockablock with CEOs who lament City Hall’s incompetence with one hand while writing maxed-out checks to incumbents with the other.

Domb, though, doesn’t see Council as a hopeless case. When I ask him why he thinks he can actually accomplish something in City Council, of all places, Domb replies, “I view it as a big challenge, yes, but I think you have some pretty good people running it right now.” He proceeds to sketch out a modest little agenda: reduce the poverty rate from 26 percent to 20 percent, solve the decades-old tax delinquency dilemma, and something about luring multinational conglomerate 3M to Philadelphia.

Like Domb, Paul Steinke has had a long, successful career that’s had a tangible, positive impact on the city. Unlike Domb’s, Steinke’s work has been in the meta-world between government and business. This is the public/private sweet spot where so much of Philadelphia’s top civically minded talent — Paul Levy, Farah Jimenez, Amy Gutmann, John Grady, Alba Martinez and John Fry, to name just a few examples — have spent most of their careers. It’s easy to understand why: These people get to make the city a better place without suffering the hassles, indignities and relatively paltry pay of political life.

Steinke was one of the founding executives of the Center City District. He was the first executive director of the University City District. He ran, and grew, the beloved Reading Terminal Market for 13 years.

People with résumés like that don’t run for City Council. What’s the point, when they can get so much more done outside City Hall? “I do hear that from people,” Steinke says. “I think it’s reflective of a broad sense that government sometimes can be a hopeless cause, and I guess sometimes government lives up to that distinction, but not always. I cling to the ‘not always’ part. … There should be room in city government for people like me.”

In obvious ways, Helen Gym’s candidacy hardly resembles Domb’s or Steinke’s. If she wins, it’ll be because of fervid grassroots support and an assist from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, not big money from business elites. Her policy priorities would likely be strikingly different as well. But as with Domb and Steinke, it’s rather curious that Gym would want to be on Council at all. She is, of course, a fierce and effective advocate for public schools. But Gym already has a bully pulpit, and anyway, Council has no real authority over the school district (and, judging by the attitudes of many Council members, no real responsibility to city schools, either). Right?

Wrong, says Gym. “They have a lot more power and authority than too many on City Council think they have, or act like they have, and that’s partly why I’m running,” she says. Local funding accounts for more than a third of the district’s budget, all of it authorized by City Council. That gives Council the right — Gym would argue the duty — to hold the district accountable. “City Council has subpoena power. They’re able to hold hearings, to get data and testimony out there,” she says.

These candidates have a few interesting things in common. None of them need a job on Council; they haven’t shaped their lives around winning public office. But they’ve all been active in the public sphere, and they’ve all concluded that to accomplish more, they need to be in City Council. City Council!

And here’s the thing. They’re right.

IT’S POSSIBLE TO overstate this. For all the interest in the at-large Council races, Feibush is the only credible challenger taking on one of the 10 district Council members. He’s an underdog in his race, and so are Steinke, Gym and Domb in theirs. There’s no guarantee Clarke can keep Council walking in lockstep. Council’s clout has risen and fallen before.

Even so, this feels like a fundamental, perhaps enduring change in the balance of power in City Hall. Is it a change for the better, though? The automatic answer of a lot of Philadelphians will be “no.” Public opinion of Council, though better than in the past, is pretty poor. And there’s a lot to be said for a strong-mayor form of government in big cities, as opposed to in smaller communities, where strong councils are the norm. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a somewhat more muscular Council. Indeed, there could be real advantages. If Philadelphia does end up with a weak mayor next year, a potent, capable Council could be a hedge against municipal stagnation.

For that to happen, though, Council needs to grow not just more powerful, but more constructive. A lot of Council’s growing clout has come from its willingness to shoot down Mayor Nutter’s initiatives. Council is capable of more than that. It took the lead on the formation of the new Land Bank, for instance. More Council problem-solvers, please, and fewer placeholders.

This story will appear in the May 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.