Philadelphia City Council could experience one of its largest turnovers in decades this election season. Five seats are up for grabs. That includes the influential 1st District where there is a Democratic primary race for the council seat.
The 1st District begins deep in South Philly between Broad Street and the Delaware River. It continues through Center City and Chinatown. North of the Vine Street Expressway it narrows, then snakes through Fishtown, Port Richmond and finally ends with a thin stretch of the lower Northeast.
Over the last several years, the district has been a battleground for fights over casinos, waterfront plans, and center city development.
Councilman Frank DiCicco, who has held the seat since 1995, was forced to forgo a re-election try this year because of his participation in the controversial DROP retirement incentive plan.
Voters such as east Kensington resident Jeff Carpineta have faith that this election may rid the city of its old ways.
“Bright ideas die before they even get to the floor. If the old power brokers, the old neighborhood cronies, the cast of characters that have been around for 30 years, if they say naah, I’m not really into that, then it dies,” said Carpineta. “So I see some hope there now.”
Two former councilmen from the 1st District have ended up in jail for corruption.
Three call for reforms
Three of the four candidates portray themselves as reformers. Bella Vista Civic Association President Vern Anastasio says he has always shunned any connection to Philadelphia’s entrenched politicians and ward leaders.
“Philadelphia wants a change. They don’t want politics as usual. They don’t want the machine dictating who becomes their councilperson. They want the elimination of the DROP program, and they want to make sure City Council members have term limits,” says Anastasio. “And those types of things, those good government type of measures will determine who serves not only in the 1st Council District, but in many open seats.”
Joe Grace, the former spokesman for Mayor John Street and the former head of the gun control group Ceasefire PA, has a similar message.
“I really think we need a City Council, and a councilperson in this district and 17 council members whose first thought in the morning is how to put the best interests of the city and its taxpayers first before we contemplate any other interest group,” says Grace.
Grace has picked up some big endorsements including one from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and another from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Inquirer and the Daily News both have endorsed Grace.
Union organizer and former academic Jeff Hornstein positions himself as the most progressive in the crowd. Hornstein, who worked for the Service Employees International Union, was asked about high labor costs at the Pennsylvania Convention Center during a recent candidates forum.
Thoughts on Convention Center
“Most of the people I bargain with are supporting my campaign because I understand the win-win. And that’s what we need to get to at the Convention Center, we need a win-win. We need to have a labor management structure there that works. We need to make Philly less weird,” answered Hornstein. “And one of the ways that we’re really weird is the seven unions that fight over Convention Center turf.”
Speaking of weird, two opposing political factions both support candidate Mark Squilla. He’s got the backing of electrical workers union leader John Dougherty and the incumbent DiCicco. Squilla, who works in the Auditor General’s office, is president of South Philadelphia’s Whitman Council.
Here’s how Mark Squilla answered the question about the convention center.
“We have to learn to listen to all sides. And we have to make people come together in order to be able to work. And that’s what I can bring to the table because I’ve done it in the past and I continue to do it during this campaign,” he says.
“So I have some people supporting me who I can’t even have in the same room because they don’t even like each other. But they believe in my independence and they believe in my leadership.”
When it comes to funds, Squilla has raised the most. With the money and powerful backers, he is favored to win. The victorious Democrat will face no Republican opposition in the fall.