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Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon faces a leadership fight as he battles indictment

Council members Cherelle Parker and Curtis Jones Jr. are trying to win the support of colleagues in the majority leader race.

Two colleagues of City Councilman Bobby Henon are running against him for the post of majority leader.
Two colleagues of City Councilman Bobby Henon are running against him for the post of majority leader.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

With Tuesday’s general election behind them, City Council members are now jockeying for leadership positions, contests that carry added intrigue this year thanks to the indictment of Majority Leader Bobby Henon, two vacancies in other top posts, and several members’ ambitions of becoming mayor.

Henon, who has pleaded not guilty to federal charges in the case centered on alleged corruption within the Electricians Local 98 union, said recently that he intends to keep the chamber’s No. 2 job.

Council members Cherelle Parker and Curtis Jones Jr., however, are seeking support from Democratic colleagues to try to unseat Henon, according to Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

The retirement of Majority Whip Blondell Reynolds Brown and Deputy Whip Bill Greenlee will also leave room at the top.

The only outcome seen as a certainty in the leadership contests, which will be decided when members are sworn in for their four-year terms in January, is the reelection of Darrell L. Clarke for a third term as Council president.

Aside from the Council president, to whom the city’s Home Rule Charter gives immense power, the positions are largely symbolic. If the president has a good relationship with the leaders, they wield influence. If not, they can be easily sidelined.

“The Council president has all of the power ... and is under no obligation to include anyone if he doesn’t want to,” City Hall lobbyist John Hawkins said.

The elections, however, can illuminate the ever-shifting factions on Council and can have consequences for how the body operates. Members trying to win support from colleagues, for instance, often promise to pay them back with future favors.

The posts also come with pay raises: $2,000 to $9,000 on top of members’ $131,000 base salary.

Jones’ challenge to Henon is in a sense a redo of the 2015 leadership race, in which Henon ousted Jones as majority leader after Jones had a falling-out with Clarke.

Now Henon is the one struggling to hold on to political capital, while Jones has striven to rebuild his clout in the chamber.

Few members have openly criticized Henon, the former political director of Local 98, which spends heavily in Philadelphia and statewide races. After Henon, union boss John J. Dougherty, and six others related to the union were indicted in January, no Council member called for his resignation. At the time, however, three close allies of Clarke’s who will leave office in January — Brown, Greenlee, and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell — suggested that Henon’s role would be reconsidered.

In September, Quiñones-Sánchez became the first member to call for Henon’s resignation. On Friday, she reiterated her hope that he will be replaced as majority leader.

“My interest is to have a team that works together and respects the independence of the members,” she said.

Henon appears to have the backing of progressive Councilwoman Helen Gym, who told The Inquirer on Election Day that she considered him “a good majority leader.”

Parker, meanwhile, is an ally of Mayor Jim Kenney’s and is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate to replace him in the 2023 election.

She is also a product of the Northwest Coalition, the influential political organization led by former Councilwoman Marian Tasco and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) that could benefit her as she tries to round up votes. Both she and Councilman Derek Green are Tasco proteges.

Jones, who represents West Philadelphia, hails from the political family founded by former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who is serving a 10-year sentence on federal corruption charges. He will look for support from Councilwoman Cindy Bass, another Fattah alum.

Henon, Parker, and Jones did not respond to requests for comment.

Council’s three incoming Democratic members — Isaiah Thomas, Kathy Gilmore Richardson, and Jamie Gauthier — could play a critical role.

It’s unclear whether the other newcomer, Kendra Brooks of the progressive Working Families Party, will get to vote for majority leader or minority leader. Current rules for leadership elections do not contemplate the possibility of a third-party member, but the new Council can amend them when it convenes in January.

The freshmen face a choice that could define the start of their careers: Will one of their first votes be to elect an indicted majority leader? Will their support for one candidate anger other factions?

Thomas on Thursday declined to comment on the leadership race, saying he had expected it to be resolved without the newcomers’ involvement.

“That’s something I was hoping they would figure out," Thomas said.

The current minority leader is Brian O’Neill, one of three Republicans on Council. But with fellow GOP Councilman Al Taubenberger being unseated by Brooks, O’Neill’s only Republican colleague come January will be David Oh.

Oh, however, said Friday that he doesn’t plan to vote for O’Neill for the leadership post, and raised the possibility that there might not be one next session.

“I think that [Brooks] doesn’t want it, I don’t want it, and I suppose that [O’Neill] might want it or not, but it doesn’t matter because he won’t have the votes,” Oh said. “I don’t know that we need a minority leader because a minority leader’s job is to lead the minority party, and there isn’t a minority party. There are minority parties.”