Does Michael Nutter Have a New Arch-Enemy?

Or will new City Council President Darrell Clarke be the mayor's partner? A primer on a shift in city power

One of the least heralded but most consequential decisions Philadelphia voters made in this month’s balloting was the selection of City Council president. True, the contest wasn’t explicitly on the ballot, but as far Mayor Nutter, John Dougherty and a lot of other powerful people were concerned, it was the race that mattered most.

City Council selects its own president, which means that to win possession of the preposterously large ceremonial chair in council chambers, you have to win over a majority of your fellows. In recent years, the seat hasn’t turned over much at all. The retiring Anna Verna has been president since 1999, when she took over for John Street. The position pays a little more, and it also can be a tremendously powerful post, not that you’d guess that if the only president you’ve seen in action is Verna, who opted to act as a convener and facilitator. Street, though, ruled with an iron fist. Virtually nothing moved through Council without his say so.

Until this month’s general election, neither of the two leading candidates for president — Marian Tasco and Darrell Clarke — had a majority locked up. But the election broke Clarke’s way: four of the six City Council newcomers selected by voters have agreed to support him, enough to give him the edge once the new council is installed in January.

So what does Clarke’s ascendance mean?

To begin with, in pure political terms it means Mayor Nutter lost another round in City Council. Nutter was full bore behind Tasco’s bid, and when it became clear she wouldn’t win, he tried to rally support for a failed last-minute campaign by Councilman Jim Kenney. Clarke, on the other hand, was backed by John Dougherty, who notches another win. For the life of me, I can’t figure out a) why Nutter picked Tasco, who is now the premier poster child for the DROP program, which Nutter opposes or b) why he continued to fight for her presidency even as council members (council members!) ran from her over the DROP issue. Nutter’s defeat is tempered, though, by the fact that two of his more reliable Council allies — Curtis Jones Jr. and Blondell Reynolds Brown — have been selected by their colleagues as majority leader and majority whip, respectively.

On a practical level, I don’t really know what to expect from a Nutter-Clarke government. Clarke, who represents North Philadelphia, made his bones as an aide in Council President John Street’s office, so he he certainly knows how the power game is played. And yet, as current majority whip, Clarke has been a reasonably conciliatory figure, willing to compromise (with fellow council members, at least) on a lot of legislation. He’s also a prolific sponsor of ordinances. Some of it has been lame and a little strange. Other bills, though, have been quite ambitious. Unlike many district council members, Clarke hasn’t limited himself to constituent services (code, really, for acting as nothing more than a glorified 311 operator), and has thrust himself into debates and city initiatives over gun control, police cameras, the property tax abatement and so on.

All of which would suggest Nutter ought to be able to work with Clarke a little bit, despite their, uh, different perspectives on John Street. And yet, as much as anyone, Clarke has been pivotal in frustrating some of Nutter’s deficit-closing tax proposals. And it’s clear that the contest for the Council presidency strained a relationship that was none too strong to begin with. So we’ll see. This isn’t an easy one to predict.

One final observation on the council leadership shuffle: for the first time, the mayor’s office, the Council presidency and both Democratic Council leadership positions are all held by African Americans. The city truly has come a long way — both demographically and in terms of tolerance — since the days of Mayor Frank Rizzo.