In nearly 30 years of reporting in Philadelphia, I’ve known only three City Council presidents, and only one has been a real leader.
For eleven years, South Philadelphian Anna Verna has been an indulgent den mother for her 17-member brood, avoiding controversy and taking no responsibility for corralling votes for the mayor or anyone else.
In the 1980’s Joe Coleman ruled the Council roost. But like Verna, he was a compromise choice as president, elected because he was acceptable to Council factions who would have preferred one of their own but couldn’t manage enough votes.
And like Verna, it was hard to tell what he thought about the issues of the day. He spent his time accommodating the natural leaders who emerged within Council, trying to get enough agreement among them to approve budgets and legislation.
John Street, who was Council president from 1992 to 2000, was different. He had strong opinions on key issues, a firm alliance with then-mayor Ed Rendell and no hesitation in using the powers of the presidency to reward friends, punish rivals, and control the course of legislation.
Verna, a kind and gracious person, has announced she won’t run for re-election next year, which means Council will be electing a new president.
The two yet-to-announce candidates are Darrell Clarke, a former Street staff member who represents his North Philadelphia-Center City district, and Marian Tasco, who represents Oak Lane and parts of North Philly.
Neither has shown the mastery of politics and policy that Street displayed in getting to the top, and neither is a clear favorite in a Council that lacks the sharply-defined factions it did the past.
While the election of the Council president isn’t until next January, it’s never too soon to start assembling support. There’s no Iowa Caucus or New Hampshire primary here.
It’s an insiders’ game, a straight-up vote among the 17 Council members.
Shortly after Street’s re-election to Council in 1991, he produced signed commitments from a majority of his colleagues to vote him in as president. Game over.
Clarke and Tasco have the next year to put together eight votes from the other 15 members who will be inaugurated next January, at least two of which will be Republicans, and several of whom haven’t’ been elected yet.
Verna is the fourth incumbent to decide not to run for re-election, and at least a couple of incumbents will be running in competitive races. Some candidates may solicit help from Clarke and Tasco in return for commitments to vote for them for president if they’re elected.
Let the games begin.