February 5-11, 2004
Backstabbed by the mayor, City Council President Anna Verna keeps a sunny disposition (at least around the living).
On one of the coldest days in Philadelphia history, City Council President Anna Verna is spending the afternoon outside. On this particularly frigid Monday, Verna is on one of her regular walking/driving tours through her South Philly district, accompanied by a few staffers.
Right now, with the wind chill in single digits, she’s standing ankle-deep in snow and chatting with Dennis Lenon of the 2700 block of Sears Street. Actually, Verna is not so much chatting with Lenon as absorbing his effusive praise. A few years ago this entire block was ready for the wrecking ball, according to Lenon, but with Verna’s help, the houses have been totally rehabbed and are selling like hotcakes. "She did wonders for our block," Lenon gushes while enveloping the petite politician in a great bear hug. "It used to look like Beirut out here, and look at it now."
Lenon has reason to be proud. The block he calls home is no longer just a row of abandoned shells, but a real show place. The newly renovated homes are completely refinished inside and out, and several of the small rowhomes have had walls removed to make one house out of two.
"You couldn’t give away these houses a couple of years ago," Lenon says, releasing his affectionate grip on the Council president and going back to shoveling the snow off his car. "That house over there, the doublewide, just sold for $70,000. She made it happen."
The scene stinks of photo op, those scripted feel-good moments set up by a politician’s handlers when reporters and photographers are around, but it’s totally spontaneous. The stop on Sears Street was random, and Lenon, who didn’t know Verna was coming, is genuinely happy to see her.
Verna graciously deflects Lenon’s praise for saving his block, insisting that it was the civic-minded involvement of he and his neighbors that saved this tiny piece of Philadelphia. Lenon is having none of it.
"You write down that this lady right here is the best thing that ever happened to South Philly," he shouts while throwing a goodbye kiss in Verna’s direction. As Lenon goes back to the task of digging out his vehicle, Verna and her entourage pile back into her city-issued black Crown Victoria and head to their next stop.
As cold as it is out here, the temperature is downright balmy compared to the icy reception she’s been getting from some of her Council coterie lately. Last month they voted 11-6 to strip the president’s office of much of its independent power, but Verna dismisses the backstab with her usual aplomb. Insisting she’s less concerned with politics than with people, Verna goes about her usual routine, only talking about the City Council fight when pressed.
The president of Philadelphia City Council is a woman of great contrasts and contradictions. Anna Cibotti Verna somehow manages to carry herself with an almost regal grace and dignity while wallowing in the mudhole that is Philadelphia politics. She’s petrified of death and dead people, yet has spent the past half-century happily married to an undertaker. She’s a warm, compassionate 73-year-old woman with the demeanor of a kindly grandmother, but also a fierce political infighter who has been in the trenches of South Philly ward politics for longer than anyone can remember.
Those contrasts continue as now, at the twilight of a long and distinguished career, Philadelphia's first and only female council president finds herself in the fight of her political life. Further compounding the dichotomy are her opponents in this titanic struggle for power: not the monied special interests, unscrupulous business owners or shady developers that dot Philly's political landscape, but her longtime colleagues in City Council and her friend of 25 years, Mayor John F. Street.
The current chapter of As City Hall Turns seems to have begun in the spring and summer of 2001, when Verna had some tough questions regarding the mayor's newest pet project, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI). The mayor's plan for NTI simply hadn't provided enough details, Verna said at the time, to justify her introduction of a multimillion-dollar bond issue to cover the costs. Looking back on it now, Verna says she would raise the same objections.
The plush City Hall office that the president of City Council occupies these days is 2.7 miles and a world away from her childhood home on Dickinson Street. The opulent space is wood-paneled and tastefully furnished, and a secure two anterooms away from the fourth-floor hallway. Sitting behind her mahogany desk in an immaculately tailored, rose-colored business suit and matching nail polish, Verna looks a lot more like a corporate CEO than a South Philly girl who stays true to her roots.
"I just wanted to know about the program," she says, settling back in her chair as she talks about NTI. "I wasn't against the mayor's plan, and I wasn't against the plan going forward. I just didn't know what the plan was. If you recall, the newspapers at the time were also saying that the plan was vague. It's the only bill I ever held, and it turned out to be a good thing, because during that delay [the stock market rating of municipal] bonds went down. I think the delay saved the city money."
While her temporary tabling of the legislation may have saved the city money in her estimation, it didn't do much for her relationship with the mayor, who provided more specifics about his plan, but apparently didn't forget Verna's snub. Later that same spring, when City Council was required to redraw the councilmanic districts, she made herself another enemy.
By law, Council is required to redraw the city's 10 districts so that each encompasses 10 percent of the city's population, in accordance with the latest census numbers. Some districts lost thousands, even tens of thousands, of residents, while others saw modest to medium growth. Darrell Clarke's district was readjusted and picked up some residents in what had until then been Rick Mariano's Seventh District. The net result was that Mariano's district would see an overall net loss of voters, and a larger percentage of those remaining would be Latinos. According to Verna, this didn't sit well with Mariano.
"Rick Mariano still holds redistricting against me," she sighs. "Because of the city's population loss, many Council members had to make changes. Most were OK with them, but he was really angry about it. In the end, they all agreed to the redistricting changes. Mariano may have also resented the fact that I asked [City Councilman] Angel [Ortiz] for advice on our Hispanic neighborhoods and how they would be best served."
As it turns out, both the NTI and redistricting flaps came back to haunt her this election cycle. Rumors swirled around City Hall that Jannie Blackwell was making inquiries of her colleagues, asking for their support in a challenge to Verna's presidency. While Blackwell lacked the necessary votes to unseat Verna, and gave up on the idea, several other ideas emerged from those meetings. Chief among them was to drastically reduce the power of the office of the president of City Council by adopting new rules that forced Verna to cede power to the majority and minority leaders, Blackwell and Brian O'Neill, respectively. If the unprecedented rule changes were to take effect, Verna as Council President could no longer hire and fire Council staffers, make committee assignments or control the flow of legislation. Those powers, among others, would require the approval of Blackwell and O'Neill, essentially dividing the powers of the presidency among the three positions and ensuring easier passage of bills favorable to the mayor's agenda.
So now the woman whose impressive list of legislative accomplishments include sponsoring the 1995 property tax reform bill that freezes tax assessments for low income senior citizens, and spearheading Council's investigation into the city's 911 emergency response system, finds her office stripped of a good deal of its power.
Born into a typical working-class South Philly Italian-American family, Verna’s childhood was dominated by her father, William A. Cibotti. Cibotti was a neighborhood activist and South Philly favorite son who was elected to City Council. When he died in office in 1975, his daughter stepped up to fill his shoes, and was elected easily by the voters of the second councilmanic district, still mourning his loss and determined to see Cibotti’s legacy live on. They were huge shoes to fill, considering that South Philly’s unabashed love for Cibotti includes a post office and city recreation center named after him. The playground and post office are still in Verna’s district, and she chokes up a little every time she rides past.
"I grew up at 22nd and Dickinson," the Council president says in her trademark soft yet raspy voice. "Dad was a magistrate at that time, kind of a neighborhood judge. He would settle disputes and help people with documents. Our doorbell rang constantly, and we got used to a life in politics pretty quickly. Dad didn't spend as much time at home as he wanted to, and when he was home, he was still working. I remember many times when the doorbell rang at 2 or 3 in the morning and Dad would put on his clothes and go out to handle some crisis or another. I learned about the dedication and sacrifice that goes along with life as a public servant."
She also learned the value of community, she says, and how that community comes to depend on its leaders.
"I didn't move far from home," she laughs. "We still live in the neighborhood, but thank goodness the doorbell doesn't ring at 3 a.m. like it did when my father was in office."
Verna's beloved husband, Severino, or Seve as she likes to call him, is her anchor. They met at her grandfather's funeral, where the young undertaker somehow worked up the courage to ask the bereaved young woman for a date. Severino is still the owner of the Verna Funeral Home at Broad and Wharton, where he's been helping South Philadelphians meet their maker for 52 years. Severino and Anna Verna never had children, and therefore dote on each other. The couple acts more like they've been married five months than 50-plus years. They hold hands as they walk together down the street, and give each other loving smiles from across the room at functions. As much as Verna loves her husband, she secretly confesses to a bit of squeamishness when it comes to his profession.
"I found it difficult to get used to being in a funeral home," she says, leaning forward in her chair and almost whispering, as though somehow Seve might hear her. She then tells a hilarious story about one of her husband's "clients" who gave her a fright when she was alone in the funeral home with the body downstairs, and the downstairs toilet flushed. She didn't know at the time that it was one of those automatic-flush toilets, and thought the guy had to take one last bathroom break. She tells the story without a hint of embarrassment, and mentions later that her self-deprecating humor comes in handy for a city council president, especially one under fire.
"You have to have a sense of humor about some of this," she says. "You find out pretty quickly around here there's a danger in taking yourself too seriously."
The City Council infighting, until then known only to insiders and political junkies, made itself widely known in the most public forum possible, at last month’s inauguration celebration. At the opulent Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, the mayor, Council members and judges waited their turns to be sworn in by President Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson. Traditionally, the City Council session that precedes the swearing-in is a formality, with members following a script befitting the solemn ceremony. For a while, everything went without a hitch. Verna introduced the dignitaries, who accepted the crowd’s applause, and Councilwoman Joan Krajewski presented a bouquet of flowers to the mayor’s wife, Naomi Post. Blackwell was appointed temporary chair of Council because, by rule, Verna, as president, can’t preside over her own swearing-in. After the oath was administered by Massiah-Jackson, Councilman Darrell Clarke introduced the resolution calling for a vote on the new rules for City Council, and at that moment the solemn script flew out the window. Councilman Michael Nutter objected, at first asking for, then demanding a public discussion of the rule changes before adoption. Blackwell, clearly miffed, chided Nutter that the changes had already been discussed informally among Council members, and no further discussion would take place before a vote.
That's when it got ugly.
Fellow councilmen David Cohen and Frank DiCicco spoke forcefully in Nutter's defense, and reiterated his point that not enough discussion on the proposed rule changes had taken place. What's more, DiCicco insisted, he and the other members were never told who drafted the rule changes and why the changes were necessary in the first place. Mariano piped up and said that he had drafted the rule changes, at which DiCicco immediately called him a liar, and indicated that the changes were drafted at the behest of the mayor. Back and forth it went, with other Council members weighing in pro and con, voices rising and tempers barely kept in check, until Blackwell pounded the gavel on the podium and demanded a call for a vote on the rule changes that very second. The changes were adopted 11-6, with the opposition forces contained to Nutter, DiCicco, Cohen, Marian Tasco, Jim Kenney and Verna.
"I know it was seen as somewhat inappropriate, but it really was the only opportunity we had to raise the issue," says Nutter. "We got no substantive answers to our legitimate questions, mainly, who wrote the legislation, who benefits from it and why are the rule changes necessary in the first place."
Nutter, who says he never even saw a copy of Clarke's resolution, was equally upset at the attitudes of his colleagues who supported the rule changes. It's not just the fact that Verna is getting shafted here that steams Nutter and the loyal opposition, it's that the changes were adopted in closed-door meetings where neither taxpayers, nor the questions from the opposition, were welcome.
"It's an internal operation, but the public needs to be educated about these rule changes," says Tasco, who spoke up during the inauguration dustup to decry the rule changes as having nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with politics. "There were no public hearings, and there should have been, because the public will be affected."
Tasco says that the rule changes will almost certainly slow down the legislative process, since the Council president no longer has the power to automatically assign bills to the appropriate committees.
"It determines the nature of political debate," Tasco grumbles, "because now your bill, no matter how worthy it is, may never see the light of day. My predatory lending bill, which nobody denies will benefit the poor, may never have gotten out of committee if these rules were in place last year. The committees are stacked against public debate."
Both Tasco and Nutter say they tried repeatedly to get Verna's 11 Council opponents to explain why the rule changes were necessary at all, and why now. Their inquiries, they say, fell on deaf ears.
"They were nonresponsive," Nutter complains. "Even after they were forced to acknowledge that there were problems with the bill, they still didn't feel the need to answer any questions. It was like, "We already have the 11 votes, so deal with it.'"
Aside from the dilution of the powers of the office of the president, Nutter says he was particularly appalled by the rule change that would now allow the Council president to be voted out at any time by a simple majority of the membership, as opposed to serving a full four-year term.
"Why must the president serve at the pleasure of the majority?" he questions. "If a four-year term was good enough for every other Council president, including the mayor when he was Council president, why is it not good enough now?
Mention Nutter's name to Verna these days, and the smile leaves her face. Since he caused a stink at the inaugural, she says, Nutter's been getting the cold shoulder from some of his colleagues who approved of the rule changes, and she doesn't like it. It's clear from her tone that Verna doesn't just respect Nutter as a smart legislator; she's genuinely fond of him.
"Michael is guilty of doing his homework, being prepared and asking the right questions," she says. "I know a lot of people saw what happened at the inaugural, because of the feedback we've been getting."
With that, Verna produces a huge stack of faxes and e-mails from Philadelphians, which have poured into her office since then, all glowing and supportive. Some vow to stand with her and fight to the end; others express sympathy for her as a victim of political dirty tricks. One expressed "profound concern" about the change.
"People are astute," Verna says, that trademark smile finding its way back to her face. "People read the papers, and they watch the news on TV. They may not be privy to all the details, but they know something's up."
Verna then tells the story of an appearance she made at a community meeting shortly after the inaugural, where constituents waited in line for more than an hour for her, just to shake her hand and show their support. Verna's chief of staff, Bob Previdi, who has been sitting in on the conversation, chimes in.
"She's too modest," says Previdi, who was at that community meeting. "Those folks waited outside in the cold just to say, "You got a raw deal and we're going to stand by you.' I have to tell you, I've been shocked at the number of calls and faxes we've gotten. It's amazing how many people understand the issue is just a plain old political power struggle, and are backing the president. She's done nothing wrong."
Verna says she's happy to stack her record as Council president against anyone's, including the present mayor.
"I'm proud of my record," she says. "In the five years I've been president, I've never denied a pubic hearing on any issue. I'm always available to members 24 hours a day, and I share all information."
Verna says her relationship with the mayor is still amicable, despite the assertions of DiCicco and others that Street is the guiding force behind the rule changes that have stripped her of the power of the office.
"I would hope that he didn't have anything to do with it," she says, her eyes flashing. "I would like to hope that he's a better person than that. I supported him in '99, I worked for him and I campaigned for him. I was chair of his re-election committee this time around. In fact, I was cleaning out my desk the other day and came across a thank-you card from the mayor for all my hard work on his behalf. I've been his friend and supporter for many years. To think that he would then secretly do something like this behind my back is beyond me. I prefer to think that he wouldn't."
Barbara Grant, the mayor's spokesperson, says the mayor has already made it clear more than once that he's not the architect of the rule changes.
"The mayor has said that he had nothing to do with the rule changes," says Grant, "and I think the fact that the vote was 11-6 shows there was some determination by Council members to change the rules. City Council makes its own rules, the mayor doesn't."
As to the status of Street's relationship with Verna, Grant says the two are just fine.
"Mayor Street has enjoyed a long working relationship with Council President Verna, and is looking forward to continuing that relationship."
Adds Verna, "I think the mayor's speech at the inaugural was accurate. We don't always agree but in the end, but we do what we think is the best for Philadelphia. I am hopeful that we can perform our duties in City Council in an open and fair manner."
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, one of the beneficiaries of Verna's loss of power, says she still gets along fine with the Council president too, as long as they're in the same room. "When we meet, the president acts the way she's always acted," Blackwell says. "She's always been a cordial, polite person, and that hasn't changed. Now, that doesn't mean we always agree, or that afterward things aren't said, but I've never known her to be impolite to anyone."
The Verna-Blackwell relationship goes back more than 20 years, when, as a fledgling councilperson, Verna regularly sought advice from Blackwell's husband, legendary West Philly councilman and congressman Lucien Blackwell. Both women profess a long friendship, and have worked well together on various pieces of legislation over the years. Both women also profess to still being friends, although the strain on their relationship is obvious.
"Jannie was just in here on Monday," says Verna. "We still have a working relationship, although I have to admit it isn't what it was. We're certainly cordial, but not what you'd call close. That's not unusual, though. As far back as I can remember, there has always been tension on Council. You'll never get 17 people to agree on everything, and sometimes personalities clash. It ebbs and flows."
Blackwell insists that the new Council rule changes, while leaning heavily in her favor, weren't her idea. Asked whose idea they were, she refuses to say. She doesn't claim not to know, she just isn't telling.
"I'm just happy to serve and do more, so I'm happy with the additional power," says Blackwell. "I've been around here for a very long time, and it's time for me."
The rule changes, Blackwell points out, aren't etched in stone. At any time, Council members can vote to adopt the old rules, provided there are at least nine members who agree. If that happens, Blackwell says, she'll be happy to bow to the will of the majority, which is what Verna should be doing now. She also says that her preliminary inquiries last fall into the Council presidency were just that: preliminary. While not denying outright that she coveted the big chair, Blackwell says that once she realized she wouldn't get the votes, she gladly dropped the idea.
"I've been around here long enough to know that we have to do the best we can from where we are," she says. "If the situation changes, you adapt."
On that issue, Verna says that while she’s fully aware that changing the minds of three Council members could get the rules changed back at the very next session, she won’t do anything to make that happen.
"Nine members can change the rules back at any time," Verna says, "but I’m not lobbying to change it back. I believe the rule changes were unnecessary, but I have a clear conscience about my job performance and I’m willing to just wait and see what happens."
Back on her walking tour of her frozen district, Verna stops by the Reed Street Presbyterian Apartments, and is greeted like a returning hero. To the senior citizens who live here, that's exactly what she is. Three years ago, this entire block was a trash-strewn abandoned lot, which neighbors say was a magnet for vermin, of both the two- and four-legged varieties. Then Anna Verna stepped in, made some calls and got folks off their duffs. Now, the site is an apartment complex for seniors, with 89 residents in 81 beautifully appointed new apartments.
"I just love it here," says Triphena Stevenson, who doesn't like to talk about her age. "Let's just say I'm old enough to know better," she laughs at the impolite question.
Stevenson, who says she's lived her entire life in this neighborhood, can't say enough nice things about Verna.
"She's wonderful. I just love her to death," Stevenson glows. "She got us this place, and we couldn't have asked for a better building." Stevenson hesitates, as though choosing her next words carefully. "She gave us a community."
After hugging and kissing the residents who have spontaneously gathered in the lobby to say hello and pay their respects, most of whom, by the way, she addresses by name, Verna and her employees venture back out into the frigid South Philly afternoon.
Verna was re-elected in November with 84 percent of the voters in her district sending her back to Council for a seventh term. She says with their help, it won’t be her last, and laughs off talk of retirement.
"I love my job, and I love my constituents," Verna says. "That's why I stay, and I'll be here as long as they choose to elect me. We can never forget that they're the reason we chose public service, not power or personal glory."
Climbing into the front seat of the Crown Victoria, she explains that power for its own sake was never something she wanted anyway.
"That's what's wrong with politicians," she says. "They forget that we don't own our offices. The people own our offices, and that's who I report to."