Charges fly in Northeast Philly council race

For three decades, Brian O’Neill has been the rarest of species in Philadelphia politics–a Republican representing a Philadelphia neighborhood in City Council. But O’Neill now faces an energetic challenge from Democrat Bill Rubin, and the race has gotten nasty.

Rubin is a veteran city election supervisor, union official and, until recently, vice chair of the city pension board. He’s gone after O’Neill with the most potent weapon anyone has found this election season in Philadelphia–the deferred retirement option plan.

The DROP program allows city officials to plan their departure four years in advance and collect a hefty lump sum payment on the way out the door.

Rubin’s TV ad begins with an announcer saying, “Brian O’Neill voted to create the DROP program, so he could pocket a half a million in cash while still collecting his six-figure salary. It’s a scam on us.”

But O’Neill isn’t in the DROP program. At a League of Women Voters debate Monday night at the Klein Branch of the Jewish Community Center, he answered the charge.

“My opponent is just spreading a lie that I’m taking DROP, have taken DROP,” O’Neill said. “I haven’t taken DROP. I’m never going to take DROP. I’ve said it publicly, every way you can say it.”

Rubin says the ad is fair because O’Neill can take DROP in the future, and hasn’t filed a written waiver that would forever exclude him from the program.

O’Neill has responded with a TV ad of his own which depicts a sinister-looking Rubin, while an announcers says, “Bill Rubin is the poster boy for everything wrong with Philadelphia politics. A patronage employee and Marge Tartaglione crony, Rubin took free trips from special interests.”

It’s true Rubin was criticized while he was on the pension board for accepting a free trip from a firm that does pension-related business, though Rubin noted that the firm got no work from the Philadelphia pension board.

But it’s not accurate that Rubin’s post as an election supervisor was a patronage position.

“I was a civil service employee with the city.” Rubin said after Monday’s debate, at which O’Neill leveled the same charge. “They issued a test, I took a test. And so he can say patronage all he wants but the truth is in the records. Again, it’s a desperate measure from a desperate man.”

At the debate, Rubin said he wouldn’t take a city car if elected, and criticized O’Neill for working at a law practice on the side. And he said O’Neill impedes development in the Northeast.

O’Neill said he’s constantly traveling in the district and standing up for neighborhoods in zoning issues.

O’Neill is well known in the district he’s represented since Reagan was president, and that’s an advantage. On the other hand, his district is 58 percent Democratic and only 33 percent Republican, an edge for Rubin.

Whatever the outcome, O’Neill is experiencing something new. His debate with Rubin this week was his first ever in nine council campaigns

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal