Karen Heller: The City Council race is on up in 'God's country'

Candidate Bill Rubin at Baldi Middle School. "People know me," the Democrat says.
Candidate Bill Rubin at Baldi Middle School. "People know me," the Democrat says. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 25, 2011

True, the May 17 primary was uncontested in City Council's 10th District. Brian O'Neill, the sole Republican district councilman, ran unopposed, as did the Democrat, Bill Rubin.

Rubin garnered more votes than O'Neill, but that's happened before. So you might think there's no contest. The difference, Rubin says as he offers me a tour of the Great Northeast - "God's country," he calls it - is that Democrats outnumber Republicans here by more than 20,000 votes.

The Northeast has long been considered the city's last bastion of middle-class whites, diners, tidy lawns graced with Virgin Mary statuary, and Republicans.

But the truth is that the Northeast has been trending Democratic for years.

It's just that O'Neill has represented the 10th for so long - basically forever, 31 years, more than half his life - that the perception persists.

Rubin plans to change this. "I'm going to work every living, breathing day for City Council," he says. "The trick to representing this district is to make the trains run on time." The area has changed, now 15 percent African American with burgeoning populations of Russians, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis - more Democrats. Many of the other Republican politicians who long represented the area have been replaced by Democrats or have lost power.

Turnout in November could be dismal, with a yawn of a mayor's race. In a city where Democrats outnumber GOP voters by 6-1, the nine other district races are settled. The five incumbent at-large Democratic members retained their seats. Meanwhile, the House of Meehan, a.k.a. the Republican City Committee, lies in a partial coma.

If elected, the amiable Rubin, 43, would hardly upset the status quo. He worked almost a quarter-century in the City Commissioner's Office, rising to supervisor of elections and learning the vagaries of local politics from the Czarina, Marge Tartaglione. Rubin's a union guy, past treasurer of AFSCME District Council 33, already picking up the endorsement of IBEW 98's John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty. And Rubin served as vice chairman of the Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirement.

In Philadelphia politics, this amounts to a beautiful resumé.

"People know me," says Rubin, who quit all his positions to run. "They say, 'Go talk to Bill in the neighborhood.' " He believes he needs 20,000 votes to win in November.

In a dead year, this race is going to be expensive: Both candidates figure they may spend $250,000. "I view this race the way I view all of them, as an underdog with a competitive disadvantage," says O'Neill, the term underdog sounding strange coming from a man who has held office since three weeks before ABSCAM erupted. If he's reelected for a ninth term, O'Neill will be Council's only returning Republican and its most senior member.

Rubin's plan is to micro-campaign the vast 10th, which he can break down by parish, school, union residents, and athletic leagues, having coached four sports and playing in a softball league. "The name doesn't hurt with the Russian Jewish population," says Rubin, who was educated at Father Judge and is a member of St. Albert the Great Parish. "And they're all Democrats."

The 10th is tribal, strongly union. Rubin charts off neighborhoods like a demographer. Touring Burholme, he says, "we've got a lot of Indian cabdrivers here."

O'Neill should never be counted out. He's vanquished three McAleers (two in one election cycle), and two Harry Citrinos, the son too young even to serve in Council.

"Politics is not my driving force. I'd probably be a Democrat if the Republicans were in power," O'Neill says. "I do whatever I can do to be the most effective representative. I don't come down here as a partisan, but to bring home the bacon and deliver for my constituents."

The Northeast was farmland before becoming a suburb in the city, served by the Indy 500 that is Roosevelt Boulevard. Residents consider the area different, above and apart. In the 1980s, there was even a plan to secede as Liberty County. O'Neill's job has been consumed with zoning: "One of the things I focus on as a zealot is land use and zoning. I've probably been to over 10,000 zoning cases."

Rubin wants to change zoning and incentives to attract more commercial activity. The new issue is not white flight but a tax exodus, across the county line to Bensalem, due to Philadelphia's business climate.

The 10th is remarkably free of Council candidate signs. That should change soon. "I know where the votes are. I know how the game is played," Rubin says. "If I can't win this, then I'm an idiot."


Karen Heller: Voter Registration, District 10

Democratic 55,011

Republican 34,427

Other 5,014

TOTAL 94,452

SOURCE: Philadelphia City Commissioners Office


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read the blog "Blinq" at www.philly.com/ blinq. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

 

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