Phila. Democrats go with Neilson for Green's seat

Posted: March 13, 2014

Without much ado, Philadelphia's Democratic ward leaders on Tuesday unanimously chose State Rep. Ed Neilson as their candidate in the May 20 special election for a vacancy on City Council.

Since Democrats hold a 61/2-1 edge in registered voters, Neilson is practically guaranteed to fill the at-large seat that Bill Green gave up last month after Gov. Corbett appointed him as chairman of the School Reform Commission.

But there will be a contest. Lawyer Matthew Wolfe, an outspoken Republican ward leader, plans to announce his candidacy Thursday.

The 69 Democratic ward leaders met behind closed glass doors at party headquarters at Third and Spring Garden Streets for all of about 25 minutes.

While other Democrats were interested in the open seat, they "respectfully withdrew," believing they'd be better off seeking Council seats in 2015, the party chairman, U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, said afterward.

The choice of Neilson does away with a potentially messy primary fight between him and State Rep. John Sabatina Jr., the son of a powerful ward leader. Because of statewide redistricting, Neilson's Northeast Philadelphia district was dissolved and he would have had to oppose Sabatina for a House seat.

Neilson said that was not why he is running for Council. He said he had gathered 4,000 signatures to take on Sabatina, "so it's not giving up" - but had concluded Council was "a better way to serve my neighborhood and community as a whole." He said seven of 10 issues that come to him as a legislator are city issues.

A former political director for Local 98 of the electricians' union, Neilson was deputy state labor secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell. If elected, he would join Bobby Henon as alumni of the powerful union on Council. The local's contributions to Neilson's 2012 House campaign totaled more than $190,000.

"I've been out of Local 98 since 2003," Neilson said. "I bring a whole different view, a whole different array of experiences."

Wolfe said he is "not stupid" and knows the odds. But he hopes to piggyback on "nontraditional" voters he predicted would turn out May 20 to oppose the resign-to-run charter change that Council passed but that needs voter approval.

The change would undo the requirement that elected officials quit one office to run for another.

Wolfe contended that Democrats picked Neilson "not because he was the best candidate, but because it's saving the machine some resources."

GOP ward leaders pick their candidate March 19.

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Inquirer staff writer Bob Warner contributed to this article.

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