Photos by Neal Santos | Photo collages by Evan M. Lopez
Here's the truth: For this year's primary election, preposterously low voter turnout is not only predicted, but counted on by the city's political machinery, which expects to assert its will with minimal interference.
But this election matters, dagnabbit, and it's fascinating — not because it's supposed to be but because it really, truly is. No fewer than five City Council seats are utterly up for grabs, largely due to Council members retiring in the face of possible defeat because of their enrollment in DROP. As many as six more seats are hotly contested. Into this mix throw a battle, nearly Shakespearean in its intrigue and complexity, between Mayor Michael Nutter and various political forces over the City Council presidency; an unheard-of rebellion within the Republican Party; and an energetic attempt by reformers to throw a wrench — or, rather, themselves — into the Democratic machine in a bold attempt to thwart it. You should consider yourself lucky: All you've got to do to get in on the action is vote on Tuesday.
And if you voted in '08 — and we bet you did — and didn't move, you're registered to vote on May 17, even if you've done doodly-squat since.
Don't worry, we'll help you — but not by telling you who to vote for. This year City Paper chose not to make endorsements. When it comes to district races especially, we feel residents know their neighborhoods best; what's more, we fear that endorsing candidates can make it seem like newspapers are just part of the game. What we will do is tell you who's running and decode how your vote might fit into a bigger picture. And for each race examined here, we've also got a reason to vote that you likely hadn't thought of.
Unfortunately, we've had to limit this guide to the fiercest races (i.e., not the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 9th or 10th Council District races). But fear not! For our in-depth coverage, look for the ElectionEar category on our Naked City blog (citypaper.net/nakedcity). For discussion, head to philadelphiaspeaks.com's local politics forum. For a current list of candidates, visit phillyelection.com. And for voter information (including polling places, voting instructions and sample ballots), visit the Committee of Seventy's website, seventy.org.
Reject or endorse political theater!
Many Philadelphians seemed to think Milton Street's announcement of his candidacy for mayor was some kind of bad joke. Their skepticism was not unfounded: Street, a former state representative and state senator, is only recently out of jail on tax evasion charges and made a less-than-stellar 2007 bid for mayor. And all those folks might have found the joke in even poorer taste when Street won the endorsement of various city unions — notably the city's blue-collar municipal employees and firefighters' unions.
But we wonder if they aren't missing the punch line. Street's campaign may turn out to have amounted to little more than political theater — but what's so bad about that? It makes for a good show and, as Street has demonstrated, makes for a good platform from which to criticize the incumbent, Mayor Michael Nutter. Maybe there's a place for that. Street served his time, got his signatures and got himself on the ballot. He's not the first unlikely (and, to some, distasteful) candidate to run for mayor. Don't like him? Say so at the polls.
Join or squelch a Republican insurgency!
Republican mayoral candidate John Featherman said it himself: He can't win in November's general election, save for "an act of God." It's the Democrats' city, after all — so why should he and the other Republican candidate, Karen Brown, even run?
Because the future of the Philly GOP is at stake, that's why. Several insurgents have been attempting to overthrow the current leaders of the city's Republican Party, which they say purposefully loses elections in order to retain hundreds of patronage jobs bequeathed to them by the Democrats. These party chiefs — Michael Meehan and Vito Canuso — defend their leadership, their patronage jobs and their election losses, noting that they face an "uphill battle."
Featherman is an insurgent; Brown is not. The Republican Party has endorsed Brown, a move the insurgents see as trying very hard indeed to lose. After all, just earlier this year, Brown was a Democrat. According to the Daily News, she's also filed for bankruptcy four times; City Paper found that she violated campaign finance law twice this election season.
Brown says she switched parties because she grew disillusioned with Democrats. She thinks the city should readjust its focus to schools, development and lowering taxes. Featherman, a libertarian, wants to get rid of the Ethics Board because it's "not enforcing much of anything"; slash the budget for the Licenses & Inspections department — which he calls "corrupt" — by 25 percent; and eliminate the gross receipts tax.
Neither candidate has much of a chance against Nutter. But if voting for a lost cause doesn't get you running to the polls, remember that you're reshaping (or not) Philly's Republican Party.
Abolish or preserve our 19th-Century traditions!
Cool as the title may sound, the job of sheriff — another of the city's ancient, obscure, elected "row-offices" — is essentially a fortress of patronage with three functions: delivering legal notices, transporting prisoners and overseeing sheriff's sales. Why do we elect someone to do this? Because it was decided sometime in the mid-1800s that we should.
But while we think (insist, even) that all the races mentioned here are interesting, this one has a special twist. Three candidates — John Kromer, Jacque Whaumbush and Jewel Williams — are vying for the position formerly occupied by Sheriff John Green, who stepped down after a City Controller audit revealed accounting irregularities within his office. One of them, Kromer, is running to abolish the office altogether.
Whaumbush is a former deputy sheriff who's had less visibility during this race. Much more attention has focused on Kromer and Williams, very different candidates with very different plans. Williams, a North Philadelphia ward leader and state representative since 2000, is the hand-picked choice of the city's Democratic establishment to replace Green and has promised reforms including revamping the office's computer system and greater transparency.
Kromer, a former housing director for the city, says he'll end the office and turn its duties over to the city. In an insider's election, Kromer — with his goal of being "The Last Sheriff" — has made an unusually direct appeal to the public, accusing Williams of being beholden to the Democratic patronage machine. Whaumbush and Williams both say the office should remain an elected position.
Rally for or against the embodiment of political incumbency!
The race for city commissioner might seem like a snooze. Ten candidates — 10! — are viciously clawing for the thrilling job of keeping voter-registration records and preparing election officials. In the end, it will go to two Democrats and one Republican.
But that's not what this race is really about. Rather, it's an exciting skirmish for — or against — political incumbency!
Marge Tartaglione, Anthony Clark and Joseph Duda, who have served a combined total of more than 50 years in the office, are all seeking re-election. Voting for anyone else — Democrats Stephanie Singer, Ivy Staten, Michael Edward Bell, Bernard Talmadge and Warren Bloom, or Republicans Al Schmidt and Marie Delany — would mean taking a stand against political incumbency.
The incumbents contend that they have ushered in flawless electronic voting machines, adhered to ever-changing state guidelines, and been accessible to the public. The office's critics, on the other hand, say it wastes public dollars, has a shoddy website that lacks crucial voter information, and is corrupt. The Committee of Seventy, a watchdog group, says the office should be abolished altogether.
The front-runners are the three incumbents and two other candidates: Singer and Schmidt, who both swear they'll reform the office. Neither say they'll eliminate it, but Singer vows to use her skills as a former math professor to post more voter data online (and, in fact, has already done so in her free time). Schmidt, one of this election's GOP insurgents, says he'll fight for more funding from Harrisburg and also amp up the website.
Councilperson At-Large (Democrat)
Weed out the heavyweights from an insanely large pool of candidates!
The democratic process can be a beautiful, awe-inspiring thing — and so it is with great cheer and appreciation for the capital "D" that we salute the 14 Democratic candidates for Councilpersons At-Large, the members of Council who represent all of us. Cheer, yes, but also exasperation with trying to fairly cover so many people. We, like you, have to make choices. Of the 14 candidates, only five will be seated, and among the pool are five incumbents — Wilson Goode Jr., Bill Green, Bill Greenlee, Jim Kenney and Blondell Reynolds Brown.
Two tiers of incoming candidates — in terms of money, media and incumbent fear factor — have emerged to challenge them. Three have launched the most robust campaigns: Sherrie Cohen, a longtime liberal activist and the daughter of late Councilman David Cohen (and potentially Council's first out lesbian); Andy Toy, a neighborhood economic-development specialist (and, along with Republican David Oh, potentially the first Asian-American on Council); and Edward Nesmith, a South Philly construction company owner and ward leader.
But maybe you like underdogs. If so, Ralph Blakney, Lawrence Clark, Michael Jones, Janis Manson, Humberto Perez and Isaiah Thomas — a young man who's launched a passionate campaign — are yours for the choosing.
Councilperson At-Large (Republican)
Ride the Republican rainbow!
Where in the U.S.A. could you find a Republican primary composed of an openly gay man, a Korean-American, an Andy Reid impersonator and folks who support collective bargaining?
Right here in Philadelphia, in this year's strangely diverse and diversely strange battle for At-Large Republican Councilperson! Technically, five out of the nine candidates could win in both the primary and general elections. But because Republicans are so outnumbered in this city, only two will likely make it to City Hall, thanks to the city ordinance mandating that two at-large seats go to members of a minority party.
And both seats are as open as they've ever been. Jack Kelly, who narrowly defeated David Oh in 2007, is retiring. Frank Rizzo Jr. is under fire for having decided to take a DROP payment and seek re-election. He's lost the backing of party leaders and even the Fraternal Order of Police, which is crazy because his father was Frank Rizzo Sr., the famed (or notorious) police commissioner.
It's an opportune time to run for one of those seats, and the contest has drawn unusual numbers and energy from Republicans. Among the lesser-known candidates are finance guru Joseph McColgan, lawyer Michael Untermeyer, hospital administrator Elmer Money and Stephen Odabashian, who's made a name for himself as, well, that Andy Reid impersonator.
Among the more prominent contenders: gay activist Malcolm Lazin, State Rep. Denny O'Brien, lawyer David Oh and former mayoral candidate Al Taubenberger.
As with the GOP mayoral race, this race is partly about the future shape of the city's Republican Party. Oh is in the unique position of being backed by both party leaders and the Republican insurgents who want to overthrow them. He is also beloved by the press, unions and moderates. Rizzo is not supported by either GOP faction but has years of constituent service to boast.
Taubenberger and O'Brien — both longtime politicians — will benefit from name recognition, but Taubenberger can count on few votes from the insurgents. Lazin, meanwhile, is relying on his background as a federal prosecutor and the endorsement of party leaders — as well as the fame he's earned from staging theatrical protests outside Rizzo's office throughout the race.
1st Council District
Prove there's a difference between four middle-aged white guys!
At first glance, the four Democratic candidates vying for the 1st Council District seat look awfully alike: They're all white, male and middle-aged. Their platforms are similar, too: They all want to develop the waterfront; stave off another casino in the district; get the community more involved in urban development; and enact various reforms. Most also condemn Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and all oppose DROP for elected officials.
In the 1st District, which encompasses an area from Chinatown to Fishtown to South Philly to parts of Center City, it seems that the real difference between candidates is their endorsements — in other words, who's backing their success.
Mark Squilla and Joe Grace are both backed by the city's Democratic machine — but very dissimilar parts of it. Squilla, president of the Whitman neighborhood's civic group, has been hand-picked by Nutter and current 1st District Councilman Frank DiCicco. Conversely, Grace — once a spokesman for Mayor John Street — has won the support of former Gov. Ed Rendell. Jeff Hornstein, a longtime organizer for a janitors' union, has gotten the nod from big labor, including the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and Transport Workers Union Local 234, as well as the reform-minded group Philly for Change. Vern Anastasio, a South Philly lawyer, has failed to rack up any significant political or union endorsements, but is partly running on the claim that he's not beholden to anyone.
These endorsements reveal very different allegiances and priorities among the four candidates who, in another life, would probably be good drinking buddies.
2nd Council District
Prove that race has nothing to do with your vote!
It has been suggested from time to time that race matters in Philadelphia elections. We, in the present post-racial utopia, refuse to believe such nonsense.
Still, race might help explain the Democratic contest for the 2nd Council District seat (south of Market and west of Broad, as well as Southwest Philly and a chunk of super-South Philly east of Broad).
The district is big and, it turns out, roughly divided between black and white residents — "roughly," because blacks in fact outnumber whites. For 30 years, however, the district has been represented by Council President Anna Verna, who is white. The Democratic contest to replace her began with three white and three black candidates, and is now — with one caveat that we'll explain in a minute — down to just three: Barbara Capozzi, who is white, and Kenyatta Johnson and Tracey Gordon, both black.
But you care about the issues! On crime, trash, vacant land and gentrification in Point Breeze and Graduate Hospital, the candidates don't disagree much, but they do come from very different backgrounds. Gordon, a block captain and indefatigable community activist, is based in the Southwest. Johnson, who grew up in Point Breeze, worked for state Sen. Anthony Williams on gun issues and, at the precocious age of 34, won a seat in the state House. Capozzi, who hails from Packer Park, is a realtor of no small means, having overseen and sold several developments in her old neighborhood, including the Villas of Packer Park, home to — surprise! — Verna. Capozzi also boasts a long résumé of civic work. Johnson and Capozzi are the presumed front-runners. (Here's the previously mentioned caveat: It might be too late for Damon Roberts, who dropped out of the race, to get off the ballot.) Want to make a colorblind, issues-based decision? Call them and ask questions. They're nice.
6th Council District
Choose sides in a proxy war that seems to be about DROP, but kind of isn't!
That the powerful electrical workers' union IBEW Local 98 and its influential leader, John Dougherty, have a hand in this election is no secret — but only in the Democratic race for the 6th Council District (Northeast Philly) does the fact seem to be proclaimed from the mountaintops.
Contesting the seat held by Joan Krajewski, who's retiring, are Martin Bednarek, a banker, former School Reform Commission member and Zoning Board of Adjustment member (and Krajewski's pick); and Bobby Henon, the IBEW's political director, behind whom (not surprisingly) the union has thrown its considerable weight.
A main point of contention between the two is DROP — a strange issue in this race. Bednarek would eliminate the program, but won't promise not to vote for DROP-enrolled Tasco as Council president. Henon supports DROP for firefighters, policemen and other city professionals in a neighborhood full of them, but says he wouldn't vote for a DROP-enrolled Council president.
7th Council District
Engage in feudal warfare over your half of a maybe-unconstitutionally-gerrymandered district!
Pretend there's this white guy named Gerry running again for public office, but the thing is that the people in his district are increasingly Latino. So Gerry simply redraws his district — over and over again, cutting out a block here, adding another one there — to make sure his constituents look more like, well, Gerry, you know?
Such has been the fate of the super-gerrymandered 7th Council District, which encompasses heavily Latino parts of eastern North Philly, Kensington and the city's Centro de Oro section, as well as heavily white and black parts of Frankford in the near-Northeast — two areas pretty far from each other, but connected by a tiny, snakelike swath of the district. The district is one of the poorest, most crime-ridden and (because of the Gerry thing) most difficult to represent in the city. It has for three years now been held by Democratic Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, the only Latino on City Council.
Facing a challenge from Dan Savage, a Frankford ward leader, Quiñones-Sánchez is running on her record, which includes efforts to bring in special police pilot programs and her work on a proposal to change the way the city taxes businesses, in part by shifting the burden from smaller to larger companies. Savage's main platform seems to be replacing Quiñones-Sánchez, whom he characterizes as having failed constituents — especially, he's happy to argue, the ones who live in his neighborhood.
8th Council District
Use a splintered ticket to make your vote really count!
In the 8th Council District — stretching from the low-income, black neighborhood of Nicetown to the immensely wealthy, white Chestnut Hill — there are no landslide elections. The area's current councilperson, Donna Reed Miller, won in 2007 with merely 31 percent of the vote.
Back then, there were five Democratic candidates. Conversely, this race has seven Democrats and no Republican challenger — which means the next councilperson could get a ticket to City Hall with just 15 percent of the vote. In other words, your vote counts extra!
But how should you use it? All seven candidates — Cindy Bass, William Durham, Andrew Lofton, Greg Paulmier, Robin Tasco, Howard Treatman and Verna Tyner — agree on most of the big-deal issues. They're each calling for more community involvement, transparency within the office, no more insider development scandals (a la Germantown Settlement), job growth, good development — everything that many voters say Miller failed to achieve thus far.
Everyone but Bass says they wouldn't vote for a DROP-enrolled Council president — i.e., Marian Tasco. Treatman, Tyner, Lofton and Tasco favor Council term limits; Bass, Paulmier and Durham don't. And Bass and Tyner argue their political experience is a good thing, while the rest have touted their outsider status.
Who are they? Paulmier, a local developer, has run for this job three times already. Durham is a Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee member. Treatman is a self-financed candidate who's given $145,000 to his own campaign and serves on the board of CDC Mt. Airy USA. Tyner is a longtime Council aide who's worked for both Bill Greenlee and the late David Cohen. Lofton is a supervisor for the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition. Tasco is a tough-talking candidate who calls her foes "puppet-masters" and has accused Bass' campaign of trying to bribe her to drop out. Bass, meanwhile, has been slammed by opponents because Steven Vaughn, a former Miller aide who pleaded guilty to a play-to-pay scandal, worked for her campaign. But Bass has also been lauded for her time as an aide to Congressman Chaka Fattah, as well as for her endorsements from big shots like Mayor Nutter, state Rep. Dwight Evans and District Attorney Seth Williams. Whether that makes her a more or less attractive candidate is up to you.