Incumbents facing a major challenge in Philly’s at-large Council races

 Four Democratic incumbent  at-large Council candidates face a lot of competition in the primary election. They are (clockwise from top left) Blondell Reynolds Brown, Wilson Goode Jr., Ed Neilson and Bill Greenlee. (NewsWorks file photos)

Four Democratic incumbent at-large Council candidates face a lot of competition in the primary election. They are (clockwise from top left) Blondell Reynolds Brown, Wilson Goode Jr., Ed Neilson and Bill Greenlee. (NewsWorks file photos)

While the mayor’s race is garnering most of the attention in Philadelphia, voters also will be picking City Council members this year.

Incumbents don’t have the slam-dunk odds of a normal year.

City Council holds seven at-large seats, with two guaranteed for the “minority party,” which in Philadelphia are the Republicans.   That means, when the final May 19 primary vote tally is in for five at-large Democratic candidates, they are virtually assured of their seats in November — unless by some amazing groundswell of voters, three Republicans beat a Democrat.

Since former Councilman Jim Kenney resigned to run for mayor, four incumbents hold at-large positions.  In the past, incumbency meant an almost certain shot at re-election, but that’s not the case this year.

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Councilman Bill Greenlee said he and others running for re-election will do fine, but the departure of Kenney has brought strong challengers into the race with their sights set on that open slot.

“If Councilman Kenney had stayed Councilman Kenney, I think there probably would had been a few less candidates,” Greenlee said. “We knew that as soon as Jim decided to seek another office, we knew it would bring more people into the race. That’s just how it goes.”

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown says being an incumbent means you have something your challengers don’t — a record to run on.

“There is an advantage to being an incumbent, presuming  and if you have a strong legislative track record, which I do,” she said. “A legislative record really still matters.  Success is cumulative, and you can’t acquire it in two or three days.  You are talking about 14 years of good work, some of which is going to be in place after I’m gone.”

Brown said she is an unapologetic voice for women, children and families.

“Being a former educator, and knowing that still ranks one, two and three on anyone’s agenda, being a voice and a champion for funding of public education is something that I think distinguishes me as well,” Brown said. “I’ve come up with some good ideas about funding education, and, quite frankly, I’ve come up with some bad ideas.”

Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. drew the lowest ballot position, not a good spot when you have 16 candidates on the Democratic ballot.  But Goode believes his experience as a champion for working people and helping the economy will prevail.

“I did the working families’ forum and other forums and had a chance to exchange ideas on education  and the economy,” he said. “Unlike the other candidates, I have the opportunity to present my track record — 155 bills, 140 of which have become law.”

Ed Neilson, the newest member of City Council, won a special election to fill the unexpired term of Bill Green, who resigned to join the School Reform Commission.  A bad ballot position and his neophyte status have Neilson concerned about re-election.

“I am nervous, you always want to make certain you touch all bases and all neighborhoods.  Going citywide is much different than I’m used to being in a little House race,  cause there are only 65,000  residents in a House race,” he said. “I’ve been to every corner of the city at least twice.  I’m working my way around  doing the best I can  to make sure the voters get to know me.”

There’s also a possibility of ballot fatigue — voters will have to scroll through the top half of a ballot full of judicial candidates before finding Council at large candidates near the bottom of the ballot.  

People could just vote for a few races and forget about the at-large contest, Greenlee said.

“It’s a concern, certainly, and when I go out to meetings I talk about that,” he said. “And I talk about there’s nothing wrong with some voters starting at the bottom and working their way up. It’s a concern but it’s something out of our control.”

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell says she hopes to keep the current group together.

“The question is, given this crazy crowded ballot, what will happen. Nobody’s secure, especially the at-large people aren’t secure,” she said. “But I think we have a good council and I’d like to see everybody return.”

The other Democrats running for at-large Council seats are Wilson Alexander, Jenne Ayers, Carla Cain, Sherrie Cohen, Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, Marnie Aument-Loughery, Frank Rizzo Jr., Paul Steinke, Isaiah Thomas, Tom Wyatt.

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