The two Democrats battling for Philadelphia’s 2nd City Council district seat met for their first debate Thursday night, sparring over Philadelphia Gas Works and who’s taking developer cash.
City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson faced off against challenger Ori Feibush at an elementary school in Rittenhouse Square, which is at the northern tip of a district that spans South and Southwest Philadelphia.
While the candidates were polite, even friendly to each other for most of the evening, things got tense when it came to campaign finance, redevelopment and accusations of conflicts of interest.
Feibush is a major real estate developer and, as of the most recent filing deadine, has spent more than $250,000 of his own money on his campaign. When asked by moderator Holly Otterbein of Philadelphia Magazine whether he should be taken seriously as a self-financing candidate, Feibush spun his wealth as a positive.
“Because I am willing and able to fund my campaign, I am in my pocket and no one else is and that is an incredible distinction,” he said, accusing his opponent of taking donations from developers and other interests in the city.
Johnson said he welcomes support, but listens first to his constituents.
“Projects are supported based upon people’s input — not donors,” Johnson fired back and implied that a developer running for council in a city where district representatives have a lot of control over local projects would pose a greater conflict of interest.
The two also sparred over the failed attempt to sell Philadelphia Gas Works. Feibush supports selling the utility and criticized Johnson for not helping Mayor Michael Nutter move the proposal forward. Johnson said he didn’t back the sale because his constituents oppose it, though he did voice some regret that council opted not to hold hearings on the deal.
Feibush came out strongly against Nutter’s plan to raise property taxes to support Philadelphia’s underfunded schools.
“I believe that the mayor is looking at real estate taxes wrong,” Feibush said, aruging that the city should assess land at higher values so it could collect more revenue in property taxes without raising rates.
Johnson avoided saying whether he would vote for Nutter’s plan and emphasized the need for a fair school funding formula, which he noted is up to state legislators in Harrisburg.
The candidates also offered conflicting messages about Philadelphia’s progress.
Johnson portrayed himself as being part of the positive changes that have made the city a more desireable place to live.
“The city of Philadelphia is on the right track,” he said. “We have a positive attitude and we’re going to keep this city moving forward.”
However, Feibush’s overall message was more of a warning.
“We’re no longer telling our youth or our children, ‘You guys don’t know how good you have it,'” he said. “We’re saying, ‘You guys don’t know how good it used to be.'”