Monica Yant Kinney: With 53 candidates on the ballot, will Philadelphia voters still get played?

City Councilman Frank DiCicco is one of five Council veterans who decided to vacate the premises - unheard of in an electoral body whose members typically exit only in handcuffs or a hearse. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
City Councilman Frank DiCicco is one of five Council veterans who decided to vacate the premises - unheard of in an electoral body whose members typically exit only in handcuffs or a hearse. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 11, 2011

Back in March, on the day City Councilman Frank DiCicco announced that he would abandon his reelection bid, he gathered reporters in his office to discuss the past and future of Philadelphia politics.

While DiCicco lamented being driven from office over the sleazy, but legal, money grab known as the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (or DROP), I noticed a collection of yellowed clippings and editorial cartoons on the wall behind his desk. Among the criticisms was a 2009 column of mine with the headline "DROP: As in 'dead, politically.' "

I write so often about entrenchment and entitlement in this town where old habits die hard and keep on voting, I'd forgotten the piece. In it, one of the city's most astute political observers dreamed aloud about the 2011 Council elections.

What this city needs, declared political consultant Neil Oxman, is a new revolution: 17 real people running on an independent ticket to 'Kick the bums out.'

With 53 candidates on the ballot in the May 17 primary, it's worth asking whether we're witnessing that revolution or a passable fake.

Just 12 of the 53 candidates are incumbents; five Council veterans decided to vacate the premises - unheard of in an electoral body whose members typically exit only in handcuffs or a hearse.

Are these newcomers true reformers, or just a new-to-you collection of party/labor hacks finally getting a chance to do whatever they're told while earning six figures working 29 weeks a year?

Will Philadelphians wake up next Wednesday giddy about their role in the supposedly once-in-a-lifetime recasting of City Council? Or will they study the winners, remember the satirical political film Wag the Dog, realize that none of the candidates talked about heavy-duty problems like pension reform or public education, and conclude that, once again, voters were played?

Governing at The Palm

Aware that the First District is rapidly changing, DiCicco nonetheless endorsed more of the same. He coldly dismissed engaging challengers like Joe Grace and Jeff Hornstein, instead supporting Mark Squilla - anointed by Democratic Party boss Bob Brady and union kingmaker John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty.

"When I look at Mark," DiCicco told me approvingly, "I see myself."

Imagine what voters could have seen if Michael Nutter was more of a finisher. For a man who promised a "new day, new way" in City Hall, the mayor punted on a chance to make Billy Penn's head spin.

Nutter could have used some of his remaining political capital to draft his own slate of Council candidates - community activists, small-business owners, teachers, retirees, maybe even a fiery incumbent or two, real people committed to serving the city, not special interests.

Instead, the mayor endorsed only establishment challengers and reliable stalwarts with ties to VIPs. Thinking Philadelphia could be different is so 2008. As a wise colleague notes, Nutter is the establishment now.

"There's no sense of adventure with these candidates," grouses Chris Mottola, a Republican political strategist. "Everybody who's going to get elected to City Council will know the same people who make decisions at lunch at The Palm."

Doin' it for themselves

Mottola likes Republican at-large candidate Malcolm Lazin, and Oxman's crossing fingers for his old friend Grace as well as Marty Bednarek and Andy Toy. But neither political pro expects many surprises. Both fear record low turnout will signal voters have given up.

"This election is not about ending nepotism, it's not about term limits, it's not about changing the culture of City Hall," Oxman declares.

"It's about the same 200 people running the city for themselves and their friends. And none of them want things to change."

Well, maybe one. Jim Kenney, a Fumocrat elected in 1991, has long complained that Council members can't achieve much on their own. But Oxman praises the insider for remaining so riled up that he tries.

"He's the angriest and the most passionate," Oxman says, "because he knows how bad it is."


Monica Yant Kinney: Interactive Voters' Guide

For your guide to the May 17 primary, including Philadelphia's races for mayor and all seats on City Council, go to www.philly.com/voterguide


Reach me at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read me at philly.com/blinq. Connect on Facebook and Twitter at philly.com/kinney.

 

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