End of the Fumo Era for City Council
Frank DiCicco’s announcement this week that he won’t seek reelection to his long-held City Council seat marks the end of a generation of Philadelphia politicians—the Fumo era—and a real and significant changing of the guard. The battle to hold his seat would have been bruising. DiCicco would have gone down because, in his own words, he had become the “poster child” for DROP. Elected officials taking advantage of DROP represents an egregious excess by the city’s political class that is clearly understood by voters—whose own pension reserves (if any) have taken a beating—as a gigunto rip-off.
Of the other DROP-ees, Council members Jack Kelly, Anna Verna, Donna Reed Miller and Joan Krajewski have bailed, and two remain: Marian Tasco and Frank Rizzo. The careers of both will be affected by their decision to take DROP and not retire, but more on that later. The number of new Council members in this and the last election places a new generation of leaders in office and could signal a real pivot away from the behavior of our elected officials, of which DROP represents the tip of the “we can’t take any more of this” iceberg.
Fresh faces will emerge everywhere. In addition to the changing of the guard narrative, sub-narratives abound. John Dougherty has a big stake. Bob Brady’s relevance is in play. The question of whether organized political power in the African-American community can be reestablished is up for grabs. The 2015 mayoral campaign begins the day after the primary. The future of Michael Meehan and his branch of the Republican Party will be clarified. The City Council presidency is up for grabs. And Michael Nutter’s capacity to regain a critical governance role will also be tested. All of these will be significantly influenced by the Council elections.
I’ll try to evaluate these and other issues in the weeks ahead, but before doing so, let’s wander into the thicket of the Council-maniac electoral game now at the starting gate.
[SIGNUP]A tough, competitive race has already started to replace DiCicco. Vern Anastasio, his opponent in 2007, is back but looking less threatening. Former Street administration spokesman Joe Grace seemed on cruise control with his anti-DROP focus, but he has to now re-tool his message and address the ferocious attack coming on his own residency. Jeff Hornstein, an SEIU labor organizer, has a style that won’t wear well, but he could still be a factor if anyone in the labor movement cares about him. Crowned as Brady and Dougherty’s guy, Mike Squilla will have to shake the “machine candidate” image in a district that DiCicco says now “reads.” If he can raise the money and generate the heat, I’d give the edge here to Grace. And if elected, he can be counted as a strong independent voice, and an ambitious one at that.
In the 2nd District where the Cibotti-Verna family dynasty has reigned for more than a half century, the young dynamic State House member Kenyatta Johnson has the best shot. Barbara Capozzi, a longtime South Philly player, and the enigmatic Damon Roberts will make it interesting, but this seat will likely be lost to the party apparatchiks. Mark another one down as more independent.
In the 6th District, a huge fight looms. Mr. Northeast, Marty Bednarek, is lined up against Bobby Henon of the Electricians Union. Henon is a smart and thoughtful guy who will have the complete resources of his mentor John Dougherty. These are considerable, believe me. Bednarek, the former School Reform Commissioner, is a legitimate city leader who can represent Northeast Philadelphia in a way no one before him ever has. This is the most interesting race of the season. In my mind the edge goes to Heenan because in the absence of a mayoral primary driving turnout, the forces on the street will matter most.
In the 8th where Donna Miller has finally let go, most think this will be a fight between Cindy Bass and Verna Tyner. Bass is a Fattah protégé, while Tyner enjoys support from the majority of Ward leaders and is a bright, policy-oriented pol. But a dark horse looms. Mount Airy real-estate investor Howard Treatman has lined up veteran Dan Fee to run a self-financed campaign that could dwarf the others in resources. If Treatman can forge a resonating message and overcome his lack of experience, he has a real chance to win. If he does, put up another one in the independent category.
On the Republican side, all three members are stories. Kelly has opted to DROP out. Rizzo was not endorsed. Brian O’Neill faces the possibility of a tough fight with Democrat Bill Rubin in November. If Rizzo survives the primary—dubious at this point—he loses in the fall as the only DROP alum facing a contested election. The Republicans endorsed Al Taubenberger, John Giordano, Joe McColgan, David Oh and Malcolm Lazin. What made Rizzo and Kelly successful was their ability to attract Democratic votes in the fall election. Oh has already proven he can do that having barely lost to Kelly four years ago. Lazin, a high-profile leader in the LGBT community, should also demonstrate crossover appeal in a way few Republicans can. In any event, unless Rizzo sneaks back in, two new Republican Council members are on their way.
So, while predictions are always dangerous, my call two months out is Grace, Johnson, Treatman, Henon, Oh and Lazin. When the dust settles, this group, together with last election’s freshman class—Bill Green, Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Curtis Jones—will control City Council. It is also reasonable to project that one of them could well turn into a Council president front-runner, eclipsing DROP-ee Tasco, the complex Jannie Blackwell and John Street protégé Darrell Clark.
As Philadelphia politics enters a new generation, the opportunity for change is encouraging.