Top Council Job Up For Grabs

Prez gets clout, nice chair

Posted: November 09, 2011

YOU COULDN'T tell it from the ballot yesterday, but the race is now on for the city's second-most-powerful position - City Council president. With current President Anna Verna retiring in January, the job will be open for the first time in 12 years.

It's a gig with major clout. The Council president controls substantial staff and budget, oversees the legislative process and is first in line to succeed the mayor should something happen to the chief executive.

No public vote is cast for Council president. Instead, the 17-member body decides which of them ascends to the ornate president's chair.

For months, the leading contenders have been Marian Tasco and Darrell Clarke. Both have declined to be interviewed. But as they have struggled to lock up the requisite nine votes, others, including Jim Kenney and Jannie Blackwell, have been hovering on the edges in case one of the leaders drops out.

"It's an interesting dynamic, an internal election," said political analyst Larry Ceisler. "It's up to them to decide who's going to be the best leader for their body."

Candidates have been wooing the returning Council members, as well as the six new members who take office in January, sweetening the deals with promises of committee assignments or office space. Mayor Nutter, who favors Tasco, has gotten into the mix, making calls on her behalf. Clarke boasts support from former mayor John Street and union leader John Dougherty.

Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg said the Council-president race is worth watching closely.

"At this particular moment in time, [it] is an extraordinarily important position," he added. "Nutter will be a lame-duck mayor. That elevates the importance of Council and the Council presidency, especially with a bunch of new people coming in."

Here's a look at the leading candidates.

Darrell Clarke

Clarke, 58, was schooled on Council's top job by his mentor, John Street, who served as Council president before he won the mayor's office.

Clarke began his political career in 1980, when he landed a job in Street's Council office. He then won the seat, which represents parts of North Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, Hunting Park and Francisville, in 1999, when Street became mayor.

"He's watched Council function for 30 years," Street says. "I don't know anybody who understands it better than him. He's the most effective member on Council when it comes to managing the process and reconciling differences between members."

Currently the majority whip, Clarke is known as a shrewd negotiator, helpful to friends and allies. Some think he would rule Council in a similar fashion to Street, who ran the body with an iron fist, favoring friends and punishing enemies.

"Darrell would probably involve himself more in the politics of various districts and legislation that's being introduced compared to Marian, who may be more of a passive in that regard," said Councilman Frank DiCicco. "I don't think she would go out of her way to put herself in the middle of any district Council person's agenda and not suggesting Darrell would do that in a malicious way - just the nature of the beast, if you will."

Clarke's supporters include Curtis Jones Jr. and, sources say, Jannie Blackwell and Bill Greenlee.

"The best prepared to lead should lead," Jones said.

But for some, Clarke's ties to Street and Dougherty, business manager for Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are cause for concern. Critics question whether the powerful union will get more sway over the legislative process if he is president.

Bobby Henon, Local 98's political director, who yesterday was elected to retiring Councilwoman Joan Krajewski's seat in Northeast Philadelphia, said Clarke would be his own person as president.

"Yes he worked for Street. He had the experience to take a lot of the [former] mayor's good points," Henon said.  

Marian Tasco

This isn't Marian Tasco's first time seeking the presidency. She lost to Verna in 1999 in a close battle. Now she feels it's her turn.

Tasco, 73, an old-school politician from North Carolina, has been part of Philly politics since the 1970s. Aligned with the African-American West Oak Lane political machine, Tasco became the city's first African-American city commissioner in 1983 before winning her Council seat in 1987, representing much of northwest Philadelphia.

"We had to fight really hard to get Marian into the City Commission," said Jerry Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. "The rest is history."

The six-term councilwoman and majority leader is considered a consensus builder who would likely continue the low-key style practiced by Verna. Her biggest roadblock to election is her involvement in the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan, which drew public ire after elected officials entered the program, ran for re-election and retired for a day to get six-figure pension payments, only to return to office.

Several soon-to-be Council freshmen say they would not support a DROP participant for president.

But her supporters say Tasco's DROP participation doesn't mean she wouldn't be a good president.

"I think Tasco would continue the practice of Verna that I learned to appreciate, allowing everyone to have a say and to get an opportunity to present their legislation and their views," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez.

Jim Kenney

Councilman Jim Kenney is working his magic on the sidelines as a compromise candidate, ready should Tasco and Clarke be unable to win a majority.

Kenney's been reaching out to the Republican freshmen and has patched things up with Nutter after a rough patch in their normally good relationship.

"If nobody can get there, I'm here to talk," said Kenney, who has been in office since 1992 and is known for a strong record on quality-of-life issues.

"He's a very bright guy," Stalberg said. "If you start looking for a compromise candidate at the last minute, it's possible that Jim pulls it out."

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