Bobby Henon’s Promotion Is a Big Deal

The Johnny Doc ally is Council's new majority leader. Here's why that matters.

Bobby Henon | Courtesy of City Council's Flickr

Bobby Henon | Courtesy of City Council’s Flickr

City Councilman Bobby Henon got a promotion this week: His Democratic colleagues unanimously elected him to be their new majority leader, a position on the body that is second only to Council President Darrell Clarke. You’re forgiven if you missed that, as it took place amid the happy chaos of Inauguration Day, and seemed dull in comparison to anything and everything that Mayor Jim Kenney was doing.

But it’s a significant development — one that suggests electricians union leader John Dougherty is gaining even more power in Philadelphia and that Clarke’s iron grip over Council might be loosening ever so slightly.

Henon’s victory took place after months of arm-twisting behind closed doors. He ran for majority leader against Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who had the job from 2012 to 2016. Councilman Bill Greenlee and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell also threw their hat in the ring at different points, according to several City Hall sources.

Why would you want the job of majority leader? For one thing, you get a raise. Henon’s salary went from $129,000 last year to $138,600 this week. More significantly, Henon will now be in Clarke’s inner circle and theoretically help to set Council’s priorities. Majority leaders also typically chair Council’s finance committee, which is a powerful post (though, notably, Jones never occupied that role).

Political insiders say last year’s race for majority leader was neck-and-neck, with Henon and Jones aggressively lobbying for votes for months. “It was a long year,” Henon told me Wednesday.

The fact that Henon prevailed is a good sign for a man who is rumored to be thinking about running for mayor in 2023, or for Council President once Clarke retires. It shows that Henon has significant support on Council. (Asked about those rumors, Henon said, “I like my job now.”) It’s also a big win for John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the political kingmaker, electricians union leader and No. 1 ally to Henon.

At the same time, it’s a blow to Clarke, who supported Greenlee at one point during the behind-the-scenes race for majority leader. This has only added fuel to the rumor that Council members will be less united (and that Clarke will wield less power) now that Kenney is running the city instead of former Mayor Michael Nutter. In a strange way, Nutter brought Council members together because he was a sort of common enemy. Kenney is far from that: Many of them endorsed him during the primary campaign.

Clarke’s spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. But Henon said Council is as cohesive as ever: “We are united. … I have a very good personal and professional relationship with the Council President.” Henon said his priorities as majority leader include “putting people to work in every neighborhood” and building “community schools.”

Henon’s victory is also a reminder of a simple truth: Elections have consequences. Jones began losing power on Council after his preferred mayoral candidate, state Sen. Tony Williams, was badly trounced in the primary election last spring. Conversely, Henon was well-positioned to oppose Jones because Dougherty had backed Kenney in the race.

So Henon is now a key player in Clarke’s world, Kenney’s world and Doc’s world. That’s not a bad place to be — unless, that is, the three most powerful political figures in the city have a falling-out.