What happens if Philly loses its mayor

    Yesterday I (and the Daily News’ Catherine Lucey) wrote about the possibility that Mayor Nutter might leave his job for a cabinet post in a second Obama administration. Not likely maybe, but possible.

    Today’s topic: What happens to the mayor’s office if Nutter bails.

    The common understanding in the city’s political community is that the president of City Council takes over, which puts current Council President Darrell Clarke in an interesting position. More on that in a moment.

    But the succession is actually a little more complicated. It was addressed in the city charter and subsequently modified by a court decision, and the result is three possibilities, depending on when the vacancy occurs:

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    1. If the mayor leaves before October, 2013, the office will be filled in the November, 2013 municipal election, with the President of City Council filling in until then.

    2. If he leaves later than 30 days before the November, 2013 election and before the end of 2014, the Council President is mayor until the end of the term, which is January, 2016.

    3. If the mayor departs in 2015, the last year of the current term, “a Mayor shall be chosen by the Council by a majority vote of all its members.” (City Charter, Section 3-500).

    What does Darrell want?

    Any of these scenarios would put Clarke in the catbird’s seat, likely giving him termporary custody of the office and allowing him to run for mayor as an incumbent.

    There’s a lot of buzz in city hall that Clarke, less than a year into his first term as Council President, isn’t interested in being mayor.

    That may be true, but the idea has a way of growing on people.

    I can remember hearing a city councilman of growing influence named John Street say he couldn’t see running for mayor. He became Council President in 1992, and eventually a two-term mayor.

    Clarke could also take on the rest of Nutter’s term without committing to run for re-election, waiting to see how the whole thing feels.

    It’s my observation covering this town for a lot of years that the path to immortality for a Philadelphia politician runs through the mayor’s office.

    We may or may not remember who served us in Congress. And a former Council member’s name may be on a recreation center somewhere. But anybody who held the mayor’s office will get recognized on the street and hailed in restaurants until he (or someday, she) departs the scene.

    The one who done it

    We’ve had one mayoral abdication since the charter was adopted in 1951. It was Richardson Dilworth, the father of the city’s reform movement.

    The patrician Dilworth left the mayor’s office in 1962 to run for governor (he lost), and City Council President James Tate, a classic rowhouse ward politician became mayor. Tate was re-elected to two four-year terms in 1963 and 1967, making him the longest-serving mayor in the modern era of Philadelphia politics.

    Tate’s 1967 re-election battle was particularly memorable. He narrowly beat an up-and-coming Republican named Arlen Specter, who managed to do all right for himself after the loss.

    A lot of people believe Tate won because he promised to re-appoint tough-talking Frank Rizzo as police commissioner, and Specter wouldn’t. Rizzo kept the job, and became a two-term mayor himself in the 1970’s.

    Will Nutter and Clarke write the next chapter in mayor succession history?

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