How to Recall a Philadelphia Politician: You Can’t

Turns out you really can't fight City Hall.


Illustration by Chris Whetzel

Most states and major U.S. cities have a recall process through which voters can remove an elected official from office. And this happens not infrequently: 2011 saw at least 150 recall attempts across the country, with more than 50 mayoral recall efforts. And who can forget the recall campaign in California that led to the installation of Arnold as governor there?

But in Philadelphia — the Birthplace of Freedom, the Seat of Democracy — you can’t recall anyone. Not the mayor, not members of City Council, not the district attorney. It’s quite literally impossible.

Oh, that’s not how it was supposed to be. When the reformists who wrote the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter in 1951 compiled that document, they included a recall provision: Gather enough signatures on a petition, and if the official doesn’t resign within 10 days, a recall election will be scheduled. In fact, Philadelphia’s recall provision is still technically on the books. You just can’t avail yourself of it. Why not? Because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court says so.

In 1976, a group of Philadelphians led the charge to recall then-mayor Frank Rizzo after he reneged on a campaign promise not to raise taxes. They spent millions and collected more than the required 145,000 signatures. But instead of resigning or facing a recall election, Rizzo took the case to the state Supreme Court, which decided that the recall rule violated the state constitution.

“The truly clever twist to this was that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, by holding that recall was preempted by the state constitution, prevented the recall proponents from petitioning the Supreme Court of the United States,” explains attorney Gregory Harvey, who represented the Rizzo recallers. That killed recall forever.

Most Philadelphians seem unaware of this situation. In recent years, Philadelphia’s firemen attempted to organize a recall of Mayor Michael Nutter over funding and benefits, only to hit the brick wall of the Supreme Court ruling. And there have been several small “Recall Blondell Reynolds Brown” campaigns since the Councilwoman’s 2013 admission that she broke campaign finance laws twice. Even the political watchdog Committee of Seventy didn’t know Philadelphia has no recall process until we brought it to their attention. “I am shocked,” said the group’s Ellen Kaplan. “If people violate the rules, there have to be consequences — or there is no incentive for people to follow the rules.”

And in a city where nine City Council members have broken the law over a 32-year period, clearly, our pols could use some encouragement.