Philadelphia has long produced big, bullyish political personalities. Anna Verna, the first woman to serve as president of City Council, could not have been more different.
Verna, who died Tuesday at age 90, took a schoolmarm’s approach to running Council’s often raucous City Hall chamber. “There is entirely too much noise in the chamber,” she would say in a firm, even voice as chatter filled the room and then ceased with her admonishment.
Verna had been in hospice care for about a week, her family said.
The long arc of Verna’s public service started seven decades ago when she went to work as a secretary for city treasurer Richardson Dilworth, who later became mayor.
City Hall was a family business. Her father, William Cibotti, hired her in 1967 after he won Council’s 2nd District, which includes parts of Center City, South, and Southwest Philadelphia. She won that seat in a 1976 special election after he died.
Verna was the longest-serving city employee and Council member when she announced in 2011 that she wouldn’t seek a 10th term. “I really think I have done what I wanted to accomplish in life,” she said then.
“Anna was not flamboyant in Council. She didn’t speak up a lot,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who was mayor when Verna was Council’s Democratic majority leader. “But she understood what was good for her constituents. She always fought for that. For her, that was far more important than politics or pleasing some donor.”
Rendell’s two terms as mayor are often seen as a partnership with then-Council President John Street. But he said Verna was just as critical to his success.
“They were a great team,” Rendell said of Verna and Street. “If John Street was rough on someone, as he could be because he had so much passion for getting things done, Anna would patch things up.”
Bob Brady, chair of the city’s Democratic Party and a former congressman, said he never made a political move in his personal career without consulting Verna.
“She had a very classy style. Very dignified,” Brady said. “It was a much different way of using power. She was someone everyone respected.”
Barbara Capozzi, a real estate developer in South Philadelphia, counted Verna as a friend for four decades.
“I never heard her curse,” Capozzi said. “I never heard her raise her voice. I wish there were more of her. She was a leader, but in a soft, gentle way. She was charming. And she was far, far brighter than people ever gave her credit for.”
Former Councilmember Marian Tasco, who retired in 2016, said she often disagreed with Verna but appreciated that she “always had an answer for why she was making a decision.”
“She was not abrasive, she was very calm,” Tasco said. “She wouldn’t necessarily give into you — but you got an informed answer. And she always tried to be fair.”
Former Mayor Michael Nutter, who worked with Verna during his entire tenure on Council, called her a “classic Philadelphian, through and through.”
“She knew the streets. She knew the top people in the city,” Nutter said. “She was comfortable talking to anybody. And she never, ever lost her touch, her connection with everyday Philadelphians.”
Nutter said he respected Verna’s directness when it came to bills up for consideration. She’d stand by a “yes” vote if she’d promised one — even if a bill was doomed to fail, he said.
“She didn’t play games,” he said. “If she was for it, she was for it. If she wasn’t, she’d tell you. If she was thinking about it, she really was thinking about it ... and if she gave you her word, that was it, you never had to worry about it.”
Born and raised at 22nd and Dickinson Streets in South Philadelphia, Verna was a graduate of John W. Hallahan High School. She received honorary degrees from Chestnut Hill College and the Community College of Philadelphia.
In 1975, she beat seven men in a primary for City Council, becoming one of the few women elected to city office at the time.
Verna took over the president’s lectern in Council chambers in 1999 after Street resigned to run for mayor. She was an advocate for affordable housing in her district and for the revitalization of the former Philadelphia Naval Yard.
Verna’s husband, Severino D. Verna Jr., operated a funeral home for a half-century from the South Broad Street house where they lived. He died at age 79 in 2009.
In her later years, Verna enjoyed Jersey Shore summers in Margate with her brother, nieces, and nephews — cooking crabs and macaroni for her family as the kids played on the deck.
Another colleague, former Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown, called Verna “a quiet storm” with the strength to lead a chamber with 16 other members — in a body that had never been led by a woman.
“She was kind but you were also clear about when she was drawing the line,” Reynolds Brown said.
Verna built consensus and relationships with lawmakers by identifying their strengths and interests.
“I appreciated that,” Reynolds Brown said. “She studied councilmembers and then made a good effort to align your interests with the need for Council.”
Reynolds Brown added that Verna “kicked the door open,” for whomever becomes the second woman to serve as Council president. “As women we are always excited about the possibility of when the next woman might receive that baton,” Reynolds Brown said. “She blazed the trail.”
Relatives and friends are invited to a viewing Friday, June 18, from 9:45 a.m. until 12 p.m., at St. Richard’s Church in Philadelphia, followed by a funeral Mass at 12:30 p.m. In lieu of flowers, family requests contributions be made in her name to St. Richard’s, 3010 S. 18th St., Phila., Pa., 19145.