Shedding light on Council President Darrell Clarke

Darrell Clarke (right) goes over some last-minute details yesterday with Chief Clerk Michael Decker in preparation for today's City Council meeting, Clarke's first as president.
Darrell Clarke (right) goes over some last-minute details yesterday with Chief Clerk Michael Decker in preparation for today's City Council meeting, Clarke's first as president. (CLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 26, 2012

EVERYWHERE Darrell Clarke goes, there's a question that follows like a lost and hungry junkyard dog: Who is he, really?

Superficial answers are easy to come by. He's the new president of City Council. Got his first big job in politics three decades ago, working as an aide to then-Councilman John Street. Took the reins of Street's North Philadelphia district when Street ran for mayor.

But what's there, underneath the big title and job description? Answering that question, figuring out what makes the man who is now the second-most-powerful politician in the city tick, has long seemed like a fool's errand.

Few people - even in Council - have been able to shed much light on basic facts about Clarke's life, the kind of information that residents might expect to know about the person who will now have a large hand in shaping the city's future.

For instance:

* Clarke grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Strawberry Mansion at a time when gang violence was prevalent. How did he survive the tough neighborhood? What was his family like?

* Did he go to college? Clarke's biography on Council's website makes no mention. Previous news stories said he went to Community College of Philadelphia. The Committee of Seventy's website said he attended Rider University.

* When Clarke was sworn in as Council president earlier this month, he shared the stage with his daughter, Nicole, and her 1-year-old son.

Some Council members said they were surprised to learn that he had been a single father. What was that like, at a time when single fathers weren't so common?

* Street, Clarke's mentor, had a remarkable rise in power, from councilman to Council president to mayor. Does Clarke's ambition include a run for mayor in 2015?

After a month's worth of interview requests, Clarke, 59, sat down yesterday with the Daily News and addressed a variety of issues, from his upbringing to the notion that he's impossible to know.

"I lived in a community where people know me and have supported me over the years," Clarke said. "It's clear there's no way in the world they couldn't know me [because] they've been supportive of me for so many years.

"I could walk down Diamond Street right now and see people coming out of the stores, [saying] 'Hey Darrell, how's your brother?'

"They know me. You guys don't know me. You put this characterization that's just not accurate."

Fortunate son

Clarke and his brothers, Jerry and Raymond, were raised on Myrtlewood Street near Sedgley Avenue in Strawberry Mansion.

He attended Strawberry Mansion High School and graduated from Edison High School.

Clarke's father, Jerry, was a local committeeman, and his mother, Ruth, worked for the Veterans Administration Hospital.

"I had really good parents. I'm fortunate," he said.

He recalled that neighbors often sought out his father for help, because committeemen "had juice back then, pretty serious influence."

The neighborhood was a close-knit one, he said, that changed from mostly white, middle-class families to black, middle-class families.

There was gang violence, but it was over turf, not drugs. Clarke was never near any of it, said Michael Youngblood, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell's former aide, who grew up in the same neighborhood.

"Everyone in those days was running up and down alleys and jumping out of windows, but not him," Youngblood said. "There's one kid like him in every five neighborhoods. He'd just sit on the steps and read a book."

Clarke said he was moved by "national injustices" that surrounded the civil-rights movement and became involved with a group of neighborhood activists.

He said he helped form the Strawberry Mansion Community Organization in the early 1970s as the area began to lose residents and experience an "erosion around some of the character in the neighborhood."

College and politics

Clarke said he once thought he'd be able to land a scholarship for playing football - he was a solid defensive back in high school - but ended up at Community College of Philadelphia.

He left before getting an associate's degree because of faculty strikes two years in a row and ended up doing a two-year program at a tech school focused on mechanical and architectural drafting.

He was persuaded to run as a committeeman in the 32nd Ward by Andrew Rhodes, who worked with Clarke in Strawberry Mansion.

"He talked me into getting on the ballot . . . and I won," Clarke said.

Clarke's biggest break came in 1980, when Street toured Strawberry Mansion about a month into his first term on Council.

"I didn't understand why he didn't ask me or explain to me that he was coming into my neighborhood," Clarke said.

"I was a newly elected committeeperson, and he was a newly elected councilperson. He didn't think he needed to chat with me - and I thought he should."

Street - never one to shy away from an argument - had a "little spirited debate" with Clarke, then offered him a job answering phones in his office.

"It became a partnership," said Street's son, Sharif, who described Clarke as a constant presence in his childhood.

"Clarke taught my father about North Philadelphia, and my father taught him about the budget and the law."

Single dad

Nearly everyone in local politics can tell you how the story unfolded from there, how Clarke rose from Street's office aide to the guy who ran the district for Street when he became Council president in the 1990s.

Few could tell much about his family life.

Sharif Street said Clarke largely raised his daughter, Nicole Bright, alone. He never married Nicole's mother, Gloria Bright.

"He was a model parent," Street said. "Back then, you didn't have a lot of fathers raising children. But he was always good with kids."

"The most significant achievement in my life was raising my daughter," said Clarke, who clearly beamed as Nicole stood by his side on Inauguration Day.

"In my case, that was the most important responsibility I ever had, and whatever sacrifices I had to make, I made," Clarke said. "I don't even like to characterize it as sacrifices."

Mayor Clarke?

Clarke said he "absolutely" has no intention to follow in John Street's footsteps and run for mayor.

"Why would I want to do that?" he said. "I'm fine. I'm trying to be the Council president."

Street said he never heard Clarke express any interest in running for mayor.

"But I never talked about it, either," Street said. "I loved being on Council. The mayor thing came on its own.

"Clarke might not think about it today. But in the real world of politics, he could look around [in 2015] and realize there's an opportunity."

If Clarke does change his mind, don't expect him to entertain questions about whether people really know him.

"People in the press - and I say the press, because I'm not getting this from anywhere else - are attempting to discover Darrell Clarke personally and from a work perspective," he said.

"I have a 30-year, paid public-service track record. . . . I have a record of being a person who works hard."

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