At a hearing Tuesday on the Police Department, City Councilwoman Cindy Bass stole the spotlight with an impassioned speech calling for the resignation of acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter after a decades-old photo surfaced in which she was wearing a T-shirt with an apparent joke about the Rodney King police beating.
Coulter’s “recent statement attempting to explain the shirt by stating she was ‘more interested in the day-to-day street work’ than the ‘politics of policing’ is actually troubling and insulting to communities that feel disconnected from and adversarial to the police,” Bass said to applause. “The so-called politics of policing matters significantly.”
The speech took many in City Hall by surprise and helped fuel talk that Bass is positioning herself to run for mayor in 2023.
Most Philadelphians are years away from thinking about who will succeed Mayor Jim Kenney, who won the Democratic primary in May and is all but assured of securing a second term in November. But the politics of the next mayor’s race could immediately begin affecting the way Council operates.
Council holds its first full meeting after its summer break Thursday, but Tuesday’s committee hearing marked the unofficial kickoff to a new chapter for this crop of lawmakers, one that will be shaped by the ambitions of members trying to earn headlines, build alliances, and box out rivals aiming to appeal to similar constituencies.
At least six Council members are said to be mulling mayoral runs: Bass, Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. There is even speculation that Councilman Bobby Henon could rejoin the mix if the federal corruption case against him falls apart.
George Burrell, a former Council member who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1991, said that angling for a higher office can become all-consuming.
“People who aspire to be a candidate for mayor take into consideration that aspiration in every decision they make,” Burrell said. "You hope they bring objective thinking and decide what is the right thing to do — and then think: How do you maximize the political benefit or minimize the political damage? You hope that they don’t avoid doing things because it’s a political liability.”
Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode said having Council members who are hoping to move up, as Burrell was during Goode’s own administration, can be good for the city.
“People who are ambitious will do bold and courageous things to separate from the crowd,” Goode said. Even if the bold stances that future candidates take don’t immediately become reality, Goode said, they can be the beginning of progress: "An agenda that says, ‘This needs to be done,’ becomes an opportunity for people to be inspired.”
Not every member hoping to move from the Council chambers on City Hall’s fourth floor to the mayor’s office two floors down will take the plunge. Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter requires Council members to resign their seats — and the $130,000-plus salaries that come with them — to begin campaigning for another office.
Five of the six rumored mayoral contenders either did not respond to an interview request or declined to comment.
In an interview, Domb declined to say whether he was planning to run for mayor but laid out an ambitious agenda.
“My focus right now, as it’s been from the beginning, is to do now things that will help the city,” Domb said. “My goal is to create many more jobs in the city of Philadelphia. We need good-paying jobs.”
He also referred to one way in which he believes he stands out from his colleagues, a key strategy for a mayoral candidate: “I’ve been probably the loudest voice as far as fiscal responsibility, and I’m going to continue down that path."
Winning a mayoral race often involves being the most credible voice on the issue dominating that political moment. Kenney went from Council to the mayor’s office in part by using his long-standing support for immigrants and the LGBT community to tap into the rise of the city’s progressive movement. His predecessor, Michael Nutter, who also made the leap from Council, did so by successfully branding himself the anticorruption candidate in the wake of an FBI bug being discovered in former Mayor John Street’s office.
To succeed Kenney, candidates will have to be adept at reading the tea leaves early to determine what voters will care about in 2023, then stake out that ground, political consultant Maurice Floyd said.
“The right issue makes the difference. That’s what will define who the masses or the voters will really take a look at, will really say, ‘That issue touches my life,' ” said Floyd, who previously served as a city commissioner and chief of staff to the late former Councilman Lucien Blackwell.
Floyd suggested crime or gentrification could be the top priority in the next election cycle and said ambitious Council members would be wise to become leading voices on one of them.
“Having your name being mentioned as a mayoral candidate is one thing,” he said. “Voters having that ability of seeing your accomplishments is another thing.”
Although anyone can run for mayor, serving on Council has proven to be a potent resumé line. The last mayor who had never served on Council was Ed Rendell, who took over the city’s top job in 1992 after being district attorney. In the last two open mayoral elections, unsuccessful candidates in the Democratic primary included two members of Congress, two state senators, a former district attorney, and a wealthy businessman.
The most prominent Philly politician from outside Council who is rumored to be considering a mayoral run is City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. Through investigations and audits, controllers, who hold an independently elected office designed to be a fiscal watchdog on the executive branch, often provide Council members seeking attention with ammunition.
But Rhynhart’s potential candidacy complicates matters for current Council members, according to Larry Ceisler, a public affairs consultant who worked in the Goode administration.
“How do you deal when the controller makes an audit or makes policy recommendations, and Rebecca Rhynhart is on the list of potential mayoral candidates?” Ceisler said. “If you’re a city councilperson looking at running for mayor, are you going to jump on things Rhynhart does? Or are you going to poke holes in them?”
Having Council members with overlapping ambitions could also disincline them to work together, Ceisler said. At the same time, members will want to avoid being seen as a roadblock to a popular policy idea, he said.
“What happens in a body like that? Are they jockeying against each other? I don’t think so — yet,” Ceisler said. “It’s not a recipe for congeniality, put it that way, or consensus-building."
Managing all of this will be Council President Darrell Clarke, who before the 2015 election was himself a rumored mayoral candidate. He is no longer said to be interested in the job.
Due to retirements and a primary upset, three of Clarke’s closest allies — Jannie Blackwell, Bill Greenlee, and Blondell Reynolds Brown — will no longer be on Council in January. Consequently, Clarke’s hold on the chamber is also playing a role in the political calculus. Although some members are clearly angling to replace Kenney, others may try to succeed Clarke if their path to the mayor’s office seems narrow.
An administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relations with Council noted that, depending on how the November election turns out, there could be five new members next year, possibly opening a window for someone to challenge Clarke for the presidency instead of waiting for him to retire.
“All of that remains in play," the official said. "I don’t think anyone is particularly safe.”