Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Darrell Clarke’s departure opens the door to a major leadership shakeup on City Council

Clarke has worked in City Council for more than four decades, and the lawmaking body that Philadelphians know today is in many ways a reflection of his leadership style.

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke hugs Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson after announcing that he will not seek reelection.
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke hugs Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson after announcing that he will not seek reelection.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke on Thursday announced he will not seek reelection, ending a four-decade City Hall career that saw him rise from constituent services staffer to a leader who reshaped Council in his image.

Clarke told reporters of his decision following Council’s meeting on Thursday, ending weeks of speculation about his intentions.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s my time to do some other things,” Clarke told reporters after Thursday’s Council meeting. “I will continue to be involved in public service. I will max out the next 10 months as it relates to what I’m going to do on behalf of the City Council of Philadelphia. There will be no slowing down, because it’s important.”

His departure adds to a remarkable period of transition in City Hall. Next January, a new mayor and a new city controller will take office alongside a new Council featuring at least 12 members out of 17 who will have served one term or less.

The Council that Philadelphians know today is in many ways a reflection of Clarke’s conflict-averse way of doing business, with deals hashed out behind closed doors and lawmakers rarely clashing in public.

» READ MORE: Darrell L. Clarke’s retirement ends four decades of Philadelphia City Council leadership. Here’s why it matters and what happens next.

Over two mayoral administrations during his presidency, Clarke has helped to shift power away from the mayor’s office and toward the legislature, and he has greatly empowered Council members to control what happens in their districts.

”This has been the most difficult decision that I have had to make in my life,” Clarke said Thursday.

Clarke’s decision officially kicks off two succession battles — one for his North Philadelphia-based 5th District seat and another for the Council presidency, an enormously influential office that controls the flow of legislation and can make or break a mayor’s agenda.

Behind the scenes, candidates are already positioning themselves for those contests. All four veteran Democrats on Council — Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones Jr., Cindy Bass, and Mark Squilla — said Thursday that they’re considering running to succeed Clarke as president. But the race won’t start in earnest until after the May primary. Clarke said he will not intervene in the race for his gavel.

The 5th District Democratic primary race is also beginning to take shape. Clarke on Thursday endorsed his former chief of staff Curtis Wilkerson. Attorney Jeffery “Jay” Young Jr; Aissia Richardson, a staffer for State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Phila.); former ward leader John Scott; attorney Patrick Griffin; and Jon Hankins Jr., who according to his website is president of a fashion company, are also among the likely candidates.

Given the district’s heavily Democratic electorate, the winner of the May 16 primary is all but guaranteed to become Clarke’s successor.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who previously served alongside Clarke as a Council member, called him “a valued colleague and a friend throughout my time in office and on City Council.”

“Darrell has served our city unwaveringly for four decades, championing historic progress and also providing vital leadership amid unprecedented challenges,” Kenney said in a statement.

Bob Brady, chair of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee, said Clarke leaves behind “very big shoes to fill.”

“He was a great president,” Brady added. “I’m sorry to see him go. He kept City Council together.”

Brady said the party won’t get involved in the fight for the Council presidency, but ward leaders in the 5th District will select a candidate to endorse in that race.

“It will be a fight,” he said.

Early political career

Aside from his pride in his daughter, who is a doctor, and his well-known passion for auto racing, Clarke has largely kept his personal life private.

With his 6-foot-3-inch height and slender build, he looks younger than his 70 years, and he said Thursday that his age did not factor into his decision.

“I’ll challenge anybody — I was throwing a football this weekend. I still got 40 yards. I used to have 60,” he said.

A Strawberry Mansion native, Clarke got his start as a constituent services staffer for then-Councilmember John F. Street in 1980. He eventually rose to chief of staff, and Street rose to Council president before winning the 1999 mayoral election.

Clarke, who now lives in Fishtown, replaced Street as the Council member for the 5th District at that time. In 2012, he succeeded Anna C. Verna as Council president, winning a tense leadership battle against former Councilmember Marian Tasco, who had the backing of then-Mayor Michael A. Nutter.

Although Clarke was Street’s protégé, their personalities and approaches to governance diverged sharply. While Street was bombastic and confrontational in his rise to power, Clarke has been quiet, conflict-averse, and often unreadable.

Clarke’s style is reflected in how Council operates.

In the past, the body has been sharply divided between factions, often one aligned with the mayor and one opposed. As a young staffer, Clarke found himself physically in the middle of one of the more infamous moments of that era, when Street and former Councilmember Francis W. Rafferty nearly came to blows on the Council floor in the early 1980s.

Clarke’s Council

During Clarke’s presidency, disputes have almost never spilled into public settings, divided votes have become rare, and lawmakers have maintained high levels of autonomy within their own spheres.

The few major legislative showdowns that have taken place during his tenure have largely been initiated by the executive branch, such as Mayor Jim Kenney’s tax on sweetened beverages, or the “soda tax.”

Clarke often declines to take public stances on major proposals while undermining or reshaping them behind the scenes before joining the majority once one side has prevailed.

Clarke said Thursday that he believed Council had become more powerful relative to the executive branch. This happened, he said, through changes like his recent reform of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which gave Council more say over land-use decisions, or Council’s insistence that the Philadelphia school board be structured so that its members, who are appointed by the mayor, need Council approval.

“Since we’re gonna be held responsible for the outcomes in the neighborhoods, we should be a part of that process,” he said.

The shift in power has happened not just through procedural changes but on occasion through hardball politics as well. In Nutter’s second term, Council routinely had the upper hand over the administration. When Nutter proposed privatizing the Philadelphia Gas Works, for instance, the mayor could not convince a single member to even introduce his plan, which Clarke opposed.

Philadelphians can see the results of Clarke’s governance style in their neighborhoods, if they know what to look for. That’s because Clarke has taken the tradition known as councilmanic prerogative — in which individual lawmakers have near-total control over land-use decisions in their districts — to new levels.

District Council members now enjoy immense influence over zoning designations, sales of city-owned land, and even the shape of traffic lanes.

Critics say this impedes growth by creating 10 different sets of rules for the city and that concentrating decisions in the hands of a single lawmaker can open the door to corruption. Clarke contends that locally elected representatives know their neighborhoods best and shouldn’t be overruled by mayors or lawmakers from other parts of the city about what happens in their own backyards.

Clarke said he had confidence that Council’s newer members would guide the body well after he’s gone.

“I would like to hope that people think of my tenure as a Council person as a positive one, one that enhanced the quality of life of individuals’ personal situations and their neighborhoods,” Clarke said.