Philadelphia’s next power player

    Who is Darrell Clarke?

    Though he will soon to be one of the most powerful people in Philadelphia, my guess is most citizens wouldn’t recognize his name or face.

    In January, Clarke will be elected president of Philadelphia City Council, a post that comes with enormous power.

    By making committee assignments and controlling the flow of legislation, a president can ensure some proposals get buried and others advance. He makes key staff appointments, and decides which Council members get bigger offices and budgets.

    He can exercise influence on executive branch contracts and appointments, and if he plays his cards right, can keep the presidency for decades or use it to run for mayor.

    He can cooperate with a mayor, obstruct hizonner’s agenda, or wash his hands and let the mayor work things out with individual Council members in an ongoing free-for-all.

    So who is Darrell Clarke?

    Viewed one way, he’s a creation of former Mayor John Street, an ally of electrician’s union leader John Dougherty and bad news for Mayor Michael Nutter, who supported Marian Tasco for the Council presidency.

    I’m not buying that view.

    I don’t know Clarke well, but he’s always struck me as a hardworking and serious-minded Council member. The fact that he was able to quickly negotiate enough votes to secure the presidency says something about his will and work effort.

    I don’t know what governing agenda he will bring, or what ambitions he has. But he will be his own leader, and won’t want to be perceived as Street’s clone or Dougherty’s agent.

    I spoke to Clarke briefly, and he said he won’t have much to say about the Council presidency for a bit. But he said anyone who knows him knows he makes his own decisions.

    Clarke will assume the Council presidency exactly 20 years after his mentor, John Street became Council President in 1991 (Clarke served as Street’s chief of staff and ran for his Council seat when Street ran for mayor in 1999).

    I asked Clarke how often he and Street speak these days. Maybe once every three weeks, he said, and the conversation is often about personal stuff, not government or politics.

    Still, it’s reasonable to wonder how much Clarke’s presidency will resemble Street’s.

    For those of young age or weak memory, a few notes from the President Street era:

    Street was a very hands-on, some would say heavy-handed president. He gave adversaries weak committee posts, and made sure unfriendly legislation died a quiet death.

    He built a high-powered staff of legal, technical and budgetary experts so he could scrutinize administration proposals and go toe-to-toe with the mayor when he had to.

    Street, like Clarke, had to work with a mayor who had not supported his bid for the presidency. But Street and Mayor Ed Rendell quickly developed the closest working partnership anybody can remember between a mayor and Council President.

    Street had influence over important administration decisions and contracts. Perhaps most notably, Street’s close friend and fundraiser Ron White was given great influence over city airport concessions. White was later indicted on corruption charges and died before his case was resolved.

    It will be interesting to see what staff moves Clarke makes. Many of the whiz kids of the Street era are gone and others are departing. Rick Auerbach, a veteran lawyer with an encyclopedic knowledge of city government and a gift for drafting legislation just retired. Budget guru Charles McPherson’s contract expires at the end of December.

    It will be up Clarke to build a team he can count on.

    And he’ll have to develop a working relationship with Nutter.

    One of the historic subplots here is that in the early ’90s both Nutter and Clarke were protégés of Street. Nutter was a new City Council member learning the ropes, and Clarke was a key member of Street’s staff. Nutter’s relationship with Street eventually soured badly, while Clarke remained an integral part of the Street team.

    So these two leaders have some history to overcome. But they also have a common interest in getting something done.

    Should be interesting to watch.

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