Who Really Runs This Town?: Under the Radar

introducing some local power brokers you’ve probably never heard of

John Hawkins
A smooth operator and a wonk’s wonk — the guy proposed to his wife at City Hall — who has worked as a legislative aide for Councilman Jim Kenney and State Senator Vince Fumo and as research director for the Committee of Seventy. Hawkins, 33, recently joined S.R. Wojdak & Associates, which sounds like a private detective agency in Krakow but is actually a high-­powered lobbying firm representing everyone from the Eagles to Wal-Mart to the University of Pennsylvania. Almost always described by political insiders with some synonym for “really, really smart,” Hawkins has long been considered a comer in Democratic circles.

Bill Hankowsky
A year ago, when real estate developer Liberty Property Trust almost got the state legislature to designate the proposed Comcast Center in Center City a tax-free zone, most people assumed VP David L. Cohen was the driving force. Maybe. But Hankowsky, 54, who became CEO of Liberty in 2003, after Willard Rouse’s death, and worked as Mayor Rendell’s peripatetic economic development czar (he was instrumental in bringing Kvaerner to the Navy Yard), is one of those annoying business leaders able to get what he wants without leaving a trail of tears, dead bodies or fingerprints. Case in point: Even after the legislature killed the tax-free designation for the Comcast Tower, the project still got $43 million in aid.

Betsy Cohen
A woman who makes carpenter ants look like layabouts. Though not talked about much in political circles, Cohen, 64, has long been an inspiration to ambitious businesswomen in town. She has co-founded a commercial law firm, created a shipping business in Hong Kong, started a leasing company in Brazil, and founded Jefferson Bank. Today, she serves as chairperson and CEO of RAIT, a real estate investment trust; chairs the Bancorp Bank, a virtual bank serving small and mid-sized businesses; and sits on numerous boards.  

Peter Luukko
With Ed Snider dividing his time between Philadelphia and his home in California, Luukko, 46, who became president and COO of Comcast-Spectacor this summer, now oversees the day-to-day operations of a sprawling business that controls the Flyers, the Sixers, the Spectrum and the Wachovia Center. He has also been instrumental in expanding the company far beyond its Philadelphia core, spearheading acquisitions into concessions and ticketing, and managing events for nearly 50 venues around the country; he had a hand in bringing the NBA All-Star Game and the X Games to Philly, as well as helping the city pull off the 2000 GOP national convention. One reason Pat Croce’s 2001 attempt to become Snider’s heir apparent didn’t work out was that he would have leapfrogged Luukko, whose upward prospects appear secure.

Walter D’Alessio
When you’re talking about large-scale local real estate transactions, D’Alessio’s power appears to have no boundaries. As head of the Redevelopment Authority and then the chair of PIDC, D’Alessio shaped the city’s landscape by matching up vacant parcels with developers. His legacy stretches back to before the Rizzo years and out along every major development project undertaken in the city since, including the Market East commuter tunnel, the Gallery, multiple stadium deals, the Navy Yard, and land deals with Penn and Drexel. D’Alessio has also helped launch the careers of many protégés: Charles Pizzi, Nick DeBenedictis, Fred DiBona. Today, even at 71, he “still has skin in the game,” says a younger power broker. Now his graying network of Rizzocrats controls much of the waterfront and Penn’s Landing.

Ira Lubert
Ira Lubert, 55, a soft-spoken investor who has raised $2 billion in seven years for his Independence Capital funds, is the antithesis of your typical flashy dot-com venture capitalist. So is his success: “His is the rare fund with a genuine national reputation,” says a local ­venture-­capital insider. Lubert has put about $500 million of the state’s largest private real estate fund to work making over Center City, including building the Sheraton Rittenhouse Square and converting the Victory Building into condos. And over the past three years, he’s diversified beyond his real estate specialty, investing in life science and biotechnology ventures, many of them local.
Brett Mandel
Armed with little more than a desk, a telephone, a computer, and a windowless office at the Pennsylvania Economy League, 36-year-old Brett Mandel has spent the past year and a half fighting the hearts-and-minds side of the war to cut the wage and business privilege taxes. For those who’ve made donations to his Philadelphia Forward lobby, the former Jonathan Saidel aide has been a bargain, a one-man public relations army issuing endless barrages of anti-tax e-mails, pamphlets, faxes, quotes and opinion pieces; he also thinks up such stunts as inviting online visitors to pummel a cartoon taxman and offering the business privilege tax for auction on eBay. In the process, he has royally pissed off some members of City Council who were perturbed to see their regular meetings stalked by the feisty author of Minor Players, Major Dreams, the story of Mandel’s minor league baseball odyssey. The new Council session will reveal whether Mandel can tone down the rhetoric and broker a compromise.