Features: Who Really Runs This Town?

We rank the 50 most powerful Philadelphians for the first time in five years: who’s up, who’s down, who’s new to the list — and who we’re challenging to do more

In thinking about power in Philadelphia, we came up with a simple definition: In this city, power is marked by the ability to get things done. Obviously, that leaves a lot of room for discussion—and we’ve had many, over the past few months, with those who rule the city’s politics and civic affairs. By getting things done, we mean significant stuff: bills passed, buildings built, jobs created, hospitals run. Think Willard Rouse, as an example outside of politics: a businessman who made a fundamental change in the skyline and ethos and office space of Philadelphia — that’s power. Having influence by dint of position or wealth, knowing how to cultivate the web of relationships needed to get things accomplished, and having the will to pursue a vision also play a role. We’ve pointedly left off entertainers and newscasters and sports figures; Eagles coach Andy Reid might be important to us, but he’s not, by our definition, powerful. Our list of the 50 most powerful Philadelphians — more exclusive than our Top 100 ranking in 2000 — begins on the next page.

In talking to local leaders about power, something important emerged: a desire among them to somehow jump-start the collective will of Philadelphia, to overcome our age-old inertia and cynicism to move forward together. Which is the point of editor Larry Platt’s essay, “Burying Lincoln Steffens” (page 109). The “corrupt and contented” mind-set Steffens wrote about 100 years ago looks a lot like our current one. Platt offers a challenge: that we attempt to foster a new view of ourselves, and a next step for the city.

We also make suggestions to a few prominent Philadelphians we think could be doing more with their power, as well as critique our moribund newspaper columnists for not demanding more. And we note seven Philadelphians you’ve probably never heard of who operate largely behind the scenes in pretty powerful ways. One more thing: We polled 190 local power brokers to see who they’d call back first if a list of prominent Philadelphians just happened to phone while they were at lunch. (Hint: The Mayor didn’t come in first; page 113).

1.Rebecca Rimel
president and CEO, Pew Charitable Trusts.
Rank in 2000: 6

It may seem strange, but it wasn’t so long ago that some observers were questioning Pew’s commitment to local causes. No more. Over the past several years, the trusts have been involved in some of the biggest projects in town, and it’s Rimel’s new comfort with her power — “She’s really grown into it,” says a local civic leader who’s observed her for years — that vaulted her to number one. Rimel, 54, played a starring role in getting the Barnes to move to the Parkway, saying the trusts were unlikely to continue financial support without the shift. The Barnes’s possible change of address was also one reason for Pew’s evolution from private foundation to public charity last year, which saves it millions in taxes while providing greater flexibility in giving away millions to support its chosen — and sometimes politically charged — causes.

Strength: Nobody doubts who’s running the show.

Weakness: Can a woman sustain her power in such a male-dominated city?

2.John Perzel
Speaker of the Pennsylvania House.
Rank in 2000: 5

Last year, Perzel, a 55-year-old Republican from the Northeast, outmaneuvered Mayor Street to retain control of the local Parking Authority. He also got Rendell to agree not to campaign against select Republican legislators, and he has publicly slobbered over the possibility of having the state take over the airport. If Perzel makes it happen, it would give Republicans a huge patronage network in the city (and justify his ranking over the Governor). Indeed, Perzel’s biggest troubles come from other Republicans, not Democrats. Even after the pay raise became a hot-button issue, Perzel said legislators “did what was right” in approving the double-digit increase. That wasn’t a big hit with many of the party faithful; one conservative group put up billboards and produced radio spots bashing him.

Strength: Both savvy (ask Mayor Street about that)
and hardworking.

Weakness: The legislature’s caveman caucus can only be held in check for so long.

3.Ed Rendell
Governor of Pennsylvania.
Rank in 2000: 18

Rendell, 61, has misplayed some things as governor, like the legislative pay raises and the two-part budget fiasco, and his popularity in the western part of the state is shaky as he gears up for reelection. But don’t underestimate his power in Philly, because much that happens here has the Governor’s fingerprints on it: the Food Distribution Center, funding for the Convention Center expansion, legislation for slots. His reelection next year isn’t a given if he faces ex-Steeler Lynn Swann, a Republican who could appeal to blacks, working-class whites and suburban women. Then again, he wasn’t the insider’s choice for Governor, either.

Strength: Has $9 million in the bank. There may not be a   better retail politician in the country.

Weakness: He’s for the pay raise. He’s against the pay raise. Both in the same week.

4.Stephen Starr
Rank in 2000: 84

Starr, 51, is the major factor in the Center City renaissance, starting with the Continental on 2nd Street in 1995 — something he’s never gotten proper credit for. Now he’s up to 12 chic, themed bars and restaurants in the city, many strategically placed in up-and-coming neighborhoods or to revive comatose areas. (Jones, Morimoto, and the now-closed Angelina once seemed in the middle of nowhere, but pumped nightlife into the Jewelers’ Row area.) Starr, more than any other restaurateur, has put the city on the national restaurant radar. By his own admission, he hasn’t leveraged his success into influence beyond his business interests, but he says he wants to start. (See “From the Editor,” page 26.)

Strength: Foresight.

Weakness: Addicted to success; taking on New york city might be more of a personal challenge than a wise business move.

5.David L. Cohen
executive vice president, Comcast Corporation.
Rank in 2000: 2

The man is as ubiquitous as Ben Franklin in Philadelphia, though his official role as Brian Roberts’s consigliere has taken some of his attention away from the big picture of the city. Still: ­Cohen, 50, sits on nine different boards, including that of Penn’s medical system, which he chairs; he’s an adviser to the Mayor, the Governor, and other local politicians and businessmen; he’s the first man to call if you want to get anything done in and for Philly. And with a Rolodex the size of City Hall, he pretty much has every other person on this list at his fingertips. Cohen doesn’t so much possess power in this town as define it. And he’s not shy about using it.

Strength: Usually several steps ahead of everyone else in the room.

Weakness: “He has trouble saying no,” says longtime pal Arthur Makadon (#31). “He thinks it’s flattering to be asked for help. But he takes on too many things.”