Green Genes

They are the first family of Philly politics, having given us a dominant party boss (Bill Jr.), an enigmatic mayor (Bill III), and now a feisty new Council member (Bill IV). But in the Green family, the real drama has always been between fathers and sons

Philadelphia seems preternaturally disposed toward recycling famous names, as if an instinct toward honoring royalty somehow found its way into the blood even of a city made famous by revolutionaries. When Green won an at-large Council seat in November 2007, he joined two other sons and namesakes of former mayors — Frank Rizzo Jr. and Wilson Goode Jr.

In the case of Mayor Bill Green and his son, this sets up a perhaps unrealistic expectation that such electoral nepotism might actually work to our benefit. Green served just one term as mayor, from 1980 through ’83, but from the vantage that 25 years affords, his performance was sensational — at least, compared to some of the other people who’ve held the office. He turned a big budget deficit into a surplus by standing up to the city’s all-powerful unions. He faced down strikes from teachers and transportation workers. He laid off police and firefighters, going about the people’s business while cops circled City Hall in protest. Better still, while City Council got stung, literally, by an FBI investigation known as ABSCAM, federal agents didn’t even attempt to bribe the “Boy Scout.”

Green also demonstrated a remarkable penchant for pugilism. He called City Council, memorably, the “worst legislative body in the free world”; perhaps less admirably, he turned toward a bank of television cameras and left the impression he was addressing the city’s unions as if they were children, telling them, “Santa Claus has left City Hall.”

All this sets up a minefield of expectations for his son, and thus far he’s fulfilling them. Right out of the gate, Green proposed legislation that would render elected officials ineligible for the city’s lucrative early-retirement program, which enables participants to retire and keep their jobs. He co-authored a resolution to put every quasi-governmental agency through strict budget reviews, targeting patronage and waste. He plans to sponsor “paperless government,” an eco-friendly policy that could also add more than $200 million a year back into the city budget.

But the at-large Councilman’s most telling move was the attack he launched on “Councilmanic prerogative” — the unwritten rule granting each Council member absolute authority on legislation that impacts his or her district. Green promised in his campaign to blow up this long-established practice, and he made good on his promise in just his second Council session, when he introduced a bill that would prevent the city’s two proposed casinos from applying for tax abatements. This infringed on the territory of fourth-term veteran Councilman Frank DiCicco.

DiCicco and Councilman James Kenney both read long-winded speeches lecturing the newbie for his temerity. In response, Green demonstrated a tendency, like his father, to bloviate. “I do represent the public-school children of Philadelphia, who would have $60 million more over the next 10 years if casinos did not have the abatement,” he said. “I represent the people who live on trash-strewn streets because we have 1,200 fewer sanitation workers than we did 10 or 15 years ago. I represent the people in Northeast Philadelphia and Southwest that die because ambulances don’t arrive on time.”

He seemed to love each word coming out of his mouth. But whether Green was naively alienating the colleagues whose votes he needs to pass any legislation at all, or kick-starting a bold and brilliant political career, notice had been served: This new Bill Green looks a lot like his dad.

That’s especially surprising because for many years, the newly minted Councilman was convinced he’d never take part in politics — precisely because his father was Bill Green.