The other big Philadelphia political race: at-large seats on City Council

 A view from the top of the  winding stairs in Philadelphia's City Hall (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

A view from the top of the winding stairs in Philadelphia's City Hall (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

Of the 17 seats on City Council, 7 are so-called at-large members.  The citywide representatives on Philadelphia’s legislative body function a little bit differently than their district colleagues.  And the strange process of electing at-large candidates can be mystifying, especially when there are more than two dozen candidates on the ballot.

In Philadelphia, there are two types of city council members, those who represent a specific district and seven who represent everyone, the at-large seats.

Joe Grace, who now works at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce ran for both district and at-large seats.  He says the at-large job requires campaigning on issues to cut across neighborhood lines.

“When you are at-large you have to think everyday about the issues of the city as a whole. There’s several councilmen for example that do a good job at that,” said Grace. “Former councilman [Jim] Kenney when he picked out Immigration issues, LGBT issues.  Councilman Wilson Goode when he works on economic development or economic opportunity issues that effect the city as a whole.”

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And while to outsiders it might appear there is no difference between at-large and district councilmembers, that point of view is sorely mistaken.  There’s a key power that winning at large candidates will never wield.  Because of a tradition known as “councilmatic prerogative” district members have the ability to stop development in their corner of the city.  Former councilman Dan McElhatton it’s not always used wisely.

“I happen to think that councilmatic prerogative is one that shouldn’t impede development and it has in the past, but that’s more of a tradition and that goes along the lines that I’m the district councilperson it’s presumed that I know what’s happening in my community because frankly my district is by definition in 90 percent smaller than their district, which is the full city,” McElhatton said.

Democratic City Committee chairman Bob Brady, who has been everything from a Council Sergeant at Arms to his current post as a U.S. Representative says he tries to have a balanced, racially diverse council ticket.

“I’ve never put a ticket out there that is [less than] 50 percent minority for judges and whatever, and the same thing for council,” Brady said. “For that one spot we will look at all that and make sure we are going to do the right thing too.”

Brady says picking a ticket is more important for Democrats this year since Jim Kenney’s departure leaves a vacant at large seat.

There has never been an openly gay member of Philadelphia City Council, but this year there are two candidates trying to change that — Paul Steinke and Sherrie Cohen.  Steinke stepped down from being general manager of Reading Terminal Market to run for council.   Sherrie Cohen, an activist and lawyer is daughter of the late Councilman David Cohen.

Steinke says he’s running for the job because it’s time for the LGBTQ community to have their own representative, but he says to win he will have to build a larger coalition.  

“You look around other cities in the country, Philadelphia is the largest American city that is yet to elect an openly LGBT person to it’s city council,” he said. “I’ll point to a city as close as Pittsburgh right here in our state of Pennsylvania where the city council president is an openly gay man.”

The Philadelphia City Charter mandates that two of the seven at-large seats must be from the minority party, which in this city means Republicans, since Democrats have had a stranglehold on voter registration for decades.

There are seven Republicans on the primary ballot, including incumbents Dennis O’Brien and David Oh.  That means other GOP candidates such as Al Taubenberger might not have that tough of a fight in the primary, but  would have to win more votes than Oh or O’Brien to win a seat in November.  Taubenberger is optimistic since he came close before.

“I was a 163 votes short of 80,000 cast,” he said. “So you look at those numbers for three years, you know where they are and know you can do better and particularly when you look at the at-large councilpeople and you are not satisfied with what you see and you motivate yourself to run again and that’s what I’m doing.”

The competition is much steeper among the 21 Democratic at large candidates, especially since there are four incumbents from that party running for another term.

It doesn’t happen often, but it’s not unheard of for an incumbent to lose a re-election bid.

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