For Philadelphia City Council, 2020 was a year of unfinished beginnings.
January saw the introduction of an intriguing group of freshmen lawmakers, including Council’s first millennial and the only third-party member in recent history. But in March, the coronavirus pandemic forced Council to start meeting remotely and temporarily limit its agenda to the emergency at hand.
Widespread protests against police brutality soon brought a renewed sense of urgency for many lawmakers, who are now vowing to pursue ambitious policies to address racial inequities in 2021. Last year was also the first of Mayor Jim Kenney’s second term, prompting some members to begin positioning themselves to succeed him.
Council on Thursday will hold its first meeting of the year. From establishing a public bank to enacting aggressive affordable housing requirements to “defunding” the police, members are entering 2021 with bold and sometimes controversial priorities.
Here are some key dynamics to watch that will shape City Hall over the next year:
What role will Council’s progressive bloc play?
As the leftward shift in Democratic politics reaches local government, Council has developed its own version of the “squad” in Congress — a group of outspoken progressive insurgents unafraid of being labeled socialists.
Although they are often joined in policy pushes by other members, the core of Philadelphia’s squad is second-term member Helen Gym and freshmen lawmakers Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier.
The first year of Council having a bona fide left-wing saw few instances of discord between the old guard and the new spilling into public view. But one dustup from late October showed the possibility of a more combative dynamic emerging.
In a hearing of the housing committee, which is chaired by Gauthier, Gym attempted to advance a bill that would have extended the city’s moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. Other members of the committee wanted to amend the bill so the eviction ban would only apply to renters who could demonstrate they were unable to make rent because of the pandemic.
In the conflict-averse Councils of recent years, members usually protect each other from difficult votes by negotiating compromises behind closed doors. But Gym wouldn’t budge, and Gauthier planned to let the vote proceed, potentially forcing members to choose between voting for a bill they didn’t like or appearing to support mass evictions in a public health crisis.
They ended up doing neither.
In a dramatic move, most members of the committee left the virtual hearing, denying Gauthier a quorum with which to hold a vote. In the end, the courts extended a ban on evictions anyway, making the debate moot. But Gauthier said the hearing proved to be an education of sorts.
“That was stressful. It wasn’t ideal,” Gauthier said. “I don’t have hard feelings about it. It was a learning experience for me about how difficult it can be to legislate on hard issues and to bring people to consensus.”
How will the city handle a looming budget crisis?
Difficult budgets often make for unpopular mayors, and for Kenney, there will be no shortage of political landmines as he crafts a spending plan to present to Council in March.
The administration hasn’t yet announced its projected revenue for the fiscal year that begins in July, and city leaders are hopeful that another federal relief package will help. But with the economy stalled and the city’s reserves nearing empty, the budget holes could be deep.
From spending cuts to tax hikes, Kenney’s options are likely to upset at least some members. Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said the city should avoid raising taxes when residents are hurting financially. Councilmember Allan Domb said the city needs to find efficiencies in the budget before it considers cutting services. Brooks voted against last year’s budget, saying it didn’t do enough to heed calls for progress on racial injustice, and can be expected to take a similar stand this year.
Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker said that the city avoided the worst-case scenario last year, and will need to be imaginative to avoid painful choices, potentially by working with neighboring counties to craft a recovery plan.
“What we didn’t have to do was a significant layoff like a whole lot of other places did,” she said. “Out of every crisis comes an opportunity, and while I, in no way, shape, or form, think that we are through with COVID, it does present us with an opportunity to do things differently.”
Will Philly ‘defund the police’?
One area of debate will be how to answer activists’ calls to “defund the police,” an issue Council largely punted last year.
Kenney is opposed to reducing the size of the police force, but is supportive of other reforms. In an interview, the mayor referred to what he calls “the ‘defund’ conundrum,” noting that some reforms require increased funding.
”If we increase a portion of the budget for police to buy body-worn cameras, we could be accused of giving the police more resources,” he said.
Gauthier said she wants the debate to focus on what alternative public safety strategies the city could invest in, such as community-based violence intervention programs.
“I don’t think you can have the ‘defund’ conversation without being very, very clear about what’s coming on the other side to keep constituents safe,” she said. “I’m definitely aligned with the goals and the vision of defund. I have been from the start. But it needs to be a complete conversation.”
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he expects Council to propose ways to redirect money into other initiatives.
“We have to have a new strategy,” he said. “It’s clear that just throwing money at law enforcement is just not going to work.”
Will would-be mayors make waves?
At least six members of Council are seen as possible mayoral candidates in 2023. Most likely won’t end up running, which would require resigning from Council. But a glut of ambitious members can mean bold policy proposals — and more potential for conflict between potential future political rivals.
Domb, Gym, Parker, Derek Green, Cindy Bass, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez are all said to be eyeing the race, although some may run for other offices.
City Hall lobbyist Mustafa Rashed said members’ ambitions don’t necessarily mean they will butt heads and can even lead to a more forward-thinking approach to their current jobs.
“They still have to govern collectively, and I think what has to be first and foremost is, ‘How we do that?’ This city is going through a recession,” he said. “You’re also knowing that the budget that you vote on in June is the administration you inherit three years from now because this recovery is going to take so long.”