Will Philadelphia City Council Really Change?

The political stories that mattered to the city this year

Here, Philadelphia’s five most notable political stories of 2011.

1. The Mayoral Race That Wasn’t
The biggest Philadelphia political story of the year was the non-story of Mayor Nutter’s re-election. Two years ago, remember, Nutter looked so vulnerable that a few actually thought he might be the first incumbent Philadelphia mayor to lose a re-election bid in the city’s modern era. The city’s seemingly endless budget crisis—and the service cuts and tax hikes those budget deficits led to—had sucked the air out of Nutter’s first term in a hurry. His support was weak in the black community, and plenty of his allies were talking privately about how big a disappointment he’d turned out to be. But then the budget stabilized, Nutter patched up his relationships with some key players, and his critics lost their courage and decided to play it safe and not openly challenge an incumbent. You could say that Nutter skated because his would-be opponents and their backers were gutless (and you’d be partly right). But Nutter’s pass was also due to some good behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the Mayor’s part. He showed a deft political touch before the primary that had been lacking for too much of his first term. And so instead of a real campaign, we got the farce of Milton Street and Karen Brown.

2. The GOP Civil War
Partially making up for the lack of drama in the mayor’s race was the internecine warfare in the city’s perpetual also-ran party, aka the Philadelphia GOP. To make a very long story short, the party is now pretty evenly divided between an old guard—which often seems more interested in protecting its share of the patronage spoils than electoral victory—and an insurgent wing that thinks (perhaps wrongly) that the city GOP can be an actual force. Round One went to the old guard, when Karen Brown defeated John Featherman in the GOP mayoral primary. But Round Two went convincingly to the reformers, when Al Schmidt crushed incumbent Republican City Commissioner Joseph Duda, and at-large City Council candidate David Oh eked out a tight victory. For now, this ongoing civil war means little to the city’s overall political culture. But if the reformers actually win, and they somehow manage to build a legitimate party in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, it would be a momentous development.

3. Extreme Makeover, City Council Edition
This month, the 15-member City Council will feature six new faces. It’s a gigantic level of turnover for a city that often treats council seats as though they were lifetime appointments. What’s more, we have a new City Council President. Accommodating Anna Verna has retired, and in her ornate seat now sits Darrell Clarke. We could be in for something totally different in 2011; after all, three new council members elected in 2007 gave council a big jolt of energy.

Honorable Mention: School District Debacle
The slow-motion expulsion of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was excruciating to watch, politically toxic (especially for State Rep. Dwight Evans), and further damaged parents’ confidence in the city’s public school system.

Honorable Mention: Occupy Philly
It’s easy to focus on Occupy Philly’s massive misstep in making their protest all about location (Dilworth or bust, I guess) instead of message. But who can really deny that the national conversation has shifted, and that income inequality has become a topline political issue? For that, all of the Occupy protests deserve credit.