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Longtime Philly GOP Councilman Brian O’Neill faces test against Democrat backed by outside group

The only Republican to hold a district seat on City Council, Brian O'Neill is facing one of the toughest contests in his 40-year career. His challenger has the backing of an independent expenditure group that helped oust another longtime incumbent, Jannie Blackwell.

Councilman Brian O'Neill at the Free Library of Philadelphia Fox Chase Branch, in Philadelphia, Monday, August 12, 2019. Councilman Brian O'Neill and Democratic challenger Judy Moore are both running for city council in the 10th District.
Councilman Brian O'Neill at the Free Library of Philadelphia Fox Chase Branch, in Philadelphia, Monday, August 12, 2019. Councilman Brian O'Neill and Democratic challenger Judy Moore are both running for city council in the 10th District.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

In 1979, a young Republican lawyer named Brian O’Neill won his first City Council race, knocking off an incumbent Democrat in a shocking upset. That same year, Judy Moore was born to a working-class family in Wissinoming.

Moore, a Democrat and hospitality industry executive, is now challenging O’Neill’s four-decade run as Northeast Philadelphia’s voice on Council in what is shaping up as the only competitive head-to-head election on this fall’s city ballot.

The threat to O’Neill comes in a year when Philly voters have already rejected several longtime incumbents, including Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who lost the Democratic primary for her West Philadelphia district to a newcomer funded by a well-heeled outside group that now has set its sights on O’Neill.

Moderate in his politics and well-known in the community, O’Neill has turned away strong challengers in the past despite Democrats’ holding a more than 2-1 voter registration advantage in his district, the 10th. But this year could be different, thanks to the involvement of Philadelphia 3.0, the controversial group that has endorsed Moore, and a possible voter backlash triggered by President Donald Trump.

"It’s particularly scary because of 3.0. No question about it,” O’Neill said. “They’re very wealthy, and they’re looking for wins. So they get a twofer with me: They get a big win, and they knock out a Republican.”

Moore is legally prohibited from coordinating with Philadelphia 3.0′s efforts to help her win because it is an independent expenditure campaign group. But she said having the aid of an outside group makes it more feasible for upstart candidates to challenge powerful incumbents.

“For an ordinary citizen to run for elected office, it’s damn near impossible," said Moore, the chief strategy officer and executive vice president at the Garces Group restaurant company. “Knowing that I have an organization like 3.0 that will invest in my race, even though I don’t know how they will invest in my race, makes me sleep a little easier at night, but it doesn’t make me work any less hard."

Fund-raising is especially difficult, she said, because many donors who are interested in giving to her campaign don’t do so out of fear that O’Neill will win and seek revenge. As a nonprofit with a political action committee — a super PAC made possible by the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court — Philadelphia 3.0 doesn’t have to reveal donors to its nonprofit arm.

O’Neill’s campaign has more than $500,000 in the bank, while Moore has raised about $100,000, according to their campaign managers. Both candidates said they have been knocking on doors in the district five nights per week.

The group has not yet reported how much it is spending on Moore’s race. This spring, it spent at least $300,000 supporting former Fairmount Park Conservancy executive director Jamie Gauthier’s successful campaign against Blackwell.

Council members make $130,000 per year, and O’Neill makes an extra $7,000 as minority party leader.

Controversial outsiders

Launched in 2014 with money from parking-garage magnates Joseph and Robert Zuritsky, Philadelphia 3.0 began as a pro-business nonpartisan group aimed primarily at changing the city’s business tax.

Led by Ali Perelman — whose family has long been prominent in Philadelphia arts, business and philanthropy — the group has grown in ambition, backing term limits and other reformist policies, and attracted new supporters.

City law requires independent-expenditure campaigns to disclose who is behind money transferred to political action committees, even if it comes from what have become known as "dark money” nonprofits like 3.0. In the June campaign finance filings, the group’s biggest donors were venture capitalists Josh Kopelman and Richard Vague. (Kopelman is chairman of The Inquirer’s board of directors.)

O’Neill said he won’t let what happened to Blackwell happen to him.

“They are Center City types, suburban types, very wealthy, and they wouldn’t know my district if they tripped over it," he said. The 10th District, which makes up much of the Far Northeast, includes Somerton, Chalfont, and Bustleton.

Jon Geeting, the group’s director of engagement, said Moore knows the district well.

“Philadelphia 3.0 is not on the ballot. Judy Moore is on the ballot," he said. “She was born and raised in the district, she has a great story to tell, and we look forward to the fall election.”

‘All of my friends and family were moving’

Sitting in the living room of her home in the Normandy neighborhood, Moore, 40, described herself as a pro-business moderate Democrat, and said that if elected she would focus on nuts-and-bolts issues important to her constituents.

Her top priorities would be increasing public education funding, improving relationships between law enforcement and neighborhoods, and working to combat the opioid crisis.

All three issues are personal for Moore. Her mother was a heroin addict, her husband is a police officer, and her kids’ experience in the public school system — and her decision to move them to Catholic schools — is what led her to run for office.

“I didn’t feel comfortable sending them to our neighborhood public schools anymore, and that upset me, because public education means a lot to me personally,” she said. “I had my oldest son when I was a senior in high school, and because of the counselors and the support system in my school … I had a really good public school experience, and they helped me focus on school and get into college.”

Moore said that experience led her to look more broadly at the what she sees as the stagnation of Northeast Philly.

“I started to see that all of our generational families that have grown up here in the Northeast that have lived in the neighborhoods, all of my friends and family, were moving for better schools and different opportunities,” she said. “I saw that the businesses here were failing or moved.”

Those realizations, she said, led her to O’Neill. “Being an elected official is a service," she said, "and shouldn’t really be a career.”

’Protecting neighborhoods’

For O’Neill, the fact that the Northeast has changed so little in recent decades is not a sign that the area is falling behind the times but a product of his efforts to maintain its character.

He prides himself on having personally intervened to stop hundreds of apartment buildings and duplexes from being built in his district in order to maintain the area’s semi-suburban feel.

“When I ran for office, development was ignoring neighbors, neighborhoods. Apartment buildings, duplexes, commercial development was just being shoved down their throat,” O’Neill, 69, said in an interview at Fox Chase Library. “This is about protecting neighborhoods, strengthening playgrounds, and making sure volunteer groups are recognized by the city."

O’Neill said the reason he has won so many times in a Democratic district is that he focuses on neighborhood issues and doesn’t pick partisan fights.

“Bipartisan is the only thing I know," he said. "I leave partisan politics when I leave my house in the morning.”

Larry Ceisler, a public affairs consultant and longtime observer of city politics, said that Moore has several dynamics working in her favor, including that women candidates have done well in recent elections and that Philly voters are moving to the left.

But even with the financial support of outsiders, he said, knocking off a longtime incumbent may be more difficult for Moore than it was for Gauthier because the Northeast hasn’t seen the same type of demographic change that Blackwell’s gentrifying West Philadelphia district has. Ceisler said Moore may need more than just an anti-incumbent narrative if she is to undercut O’Neill’s brand in Northeast Philly.

“The argument is, he’s a Republican and he’s been there a long time," Ceisler said. “I don’t know if that necessarily cuts it.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Moore campaign’s finances.