For Philly City Council, Incumbency Doesn’t Mean What It Used To

Half of the district incumbents will face primary challenges (only two saw opponents last time). And more than 30 candidates are vying for seven at-large seats, the largest pool since peak Rizzo backlash in 1979.

city council incumbency

City Council incumbency ain’t what it used to be. Illustration by James Boyle

Earlier this year, City Councilman Allan Domb proposed a bill to stamp a 12-year cap on his and his colleagues’ time in office. Term limits for the historically calcified body could inject competition into elections long swayed by money and connections. The bill comes just as the body’s gatekeepers may feel their grip slipping. The 17-member Council has seen surprising turnover lately — the 2015 and 2011 elections sat five and six new members — and the trend could continue this month. Half of the district incumbents will face primary opponents (only two saw challengers last time), and more than 30 candidates are vying for seven at-large seats, the largest pool since peak Rizzo backlash in 1979.

At-large members Bill Greenlee and Blondell Reynolds Brown are retiring, and high-profile front-runners include Justin DiBerardinis, a former staffer for Maria Quiñones-Sánchez; Nutter admin vet Eryn Santamoor; and activists Erika Almirón, Asa Khalif and Deja Lynn Alvarez. Meanwhile, former Fairmount Park exec Jamie Gauthier and Nutter vet Lauren Vidas could cause trouble for Jannie Blackwell in the Third District and Kenyatta Johnson in the Second.

What’s behind the surge? Recent turnover means new candidates see incumbents’ victories as “less inevitable,” says Penn political science prof Marc Meredith. While the establishment remains formidable, union boss Johnny Dougherty’s corruption indictment could render support from his IBEW Local 98 toxic. (Of course, Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon, charged alongside Dougherty, is running unopposed.) It’s still true that incumbents win most of the time, Meredith notes, but he predicts that more will lose if candidate slates stay crowded. This spirit of civic engagement doesn’t feel fleeting, but maybe we should get those term limits in place, just in case.

Published as “City Council’s Musical Chairs” in the May 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.