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In mostly noncompetitive City Council district races, we recommend Lozada, Anderson-Oberman, and Phillips | Endorsement

The majority of this year's district Council races feature only one candidate on the primary ballot and no Republican challenger in the general election.

In City Council district races, The Inquirer recommends Councilmember Quetcy Lozada (7th District), Seth Anderson-Oberman (8th District), and Councilmember Anthony Phillips (9th District).
In City Council district races, The Inquirer recommends Councilmember Quetcy Lozada (7th District), Seth Anderson-Oberman (8th District), and Councilmember Anthony Phillips (9th District).Read moreHandout Images

In six out of the 10 City Council districts, there’s only one candidate on the ballot in the May Democratic primary and no Republican opponent waiting in the general election. That means voters looking for a wide range of options won’t find them — making these races more akin to coronations than elections.

Given the hold that Philadelphia’s Democratic machine has on local politics, perhaps that should be unsurprising (these seats have often been referred to as fiefdoms for a reason). Still, the dearth of competitive races means that no matter how voters feel about hot-button issues like the redesign of Washington Avenue, the University City Townhomes saga, the abrupt rezoning of Ridge and Girard Avenues, or the widespread restrictions on food trucks and medical offices in the 6th District, they won’t be able to make an impact using their vote.

A few districts managed to escape these pitfalls to offer a genuine choice this year. In the 10th District, longtime Councilmember Brian O’Neill will face Gary Masino of the Sheet Metal Workers union in November. The 7th, 8th, and 9th Districts all feature primary challenges that will be on the ballot next month.

7th Council District

In the 7th District, we endorse Quetcy Lozada. Lozada, who served as chief of staff to Maria Quiñones Sánchez before being selected by party leaders to replace her, knows and understands the challenges facing her district like few others. While challenger Andrés Celin brings energy, enthusiasm, and empathy to the race, these are not qualities lacking in Lozada. Lozada also has been more supportive of measures designed to help small businesses and commercial corridors by reforming the city’s tax code, while Celin has been endorsed by groups that are firmly opposed to these reforms. Voters in the 7th District, who have often felt ignored and mistreated by the party establishment, can be happy to have a race between two qualified and capable candidates.

8th Council District

In the 8th District, we endorse Seth Anderson-Oberman. While we admire some of incumbent Councilmember Cindy Bass’ legacy, particularly her advocacy on behalf of LGBT adoption rights and determination to fight for needed resources in the less affluent parts of her district, her tenure has been marked by far too many missteps. It was Bass who appointed a board member to the Germantown Special Services District who was later convicted of embezzlement. It was Bass who selected an unqualified, out-of-town developer to restore the Germantown Y. And it was Bass who proposed legislation eliminating bulletproof glass that this board said could get someone killed. That’s without getting into Bass’ attempt to ban desperately needed day-care centers. Anderson-Oberman still has a lot to learn about city government and policymaking, but he’s also pledged to run his office differently than Bass. That’s more than enough to garner our support.

9th Council District

In the 9th District, Anthony Phillips gets our endorsement. Despite serving for less than a year, Phillips has already established himself as one of the most engaged and effective members of Council. His legislation simplifying the process for traffic safety interventions is a welcome move, as is his determination to cut down on the red tape and inertia that have long held City Hall back.

While we appreciated Yvette Young’s experience in government and passion for her community, her approach to already scarce development in the district could impede the success of businesses and commercial corridors. James Williams, a former Republican with experience as a track-and-field coach and Council staffer, has taken a more pro-business approach. All three candidates demonstrated the requisite commitment to their district and thoughtfulness, but Phillips’ strong track record in such a short time frame limits the case for change.

That more districts don’t offer competitive races is a shame for voters, and yet another sign that it’s time to think about lowering the barriers that deter candidates from running for these seats.

While 28 candidates have stepped forward to run for the Democratic nomination for the five at-large seats on Council, and 11 have stepped forward to run for mayor, there are only 14 Democrats running for the 10 district seats. Despite whatever energy and enthusiasm may exist in Philadelphia’s political ecosystem, little of it has been directed at running for what are arguably the most consequential offices in the city.

That more districts don’t offer competitive races is a shame for voters.

The toughest challenge for would-be Council district candidates is the tradition of councilmanic prerogative, which gives sweeping powers to the holder of each seat. That means that many local stakeholders are unlikely to back a challenger’s campaign — even if they are dissatisfied with their current representation — lest it fails. What business owner wants to be known as having publicly sided against the person whose word will influence whether or not their zoning variance will be approved? What community leader would side against the person who helps pick which organizations receive city grant funding?

Another factor: The city, outside of the 10th District in Northeast Philadelphia, essentially has a one-party political system. This means that the kind of regular, bipartisan challenges that exist at the federal and state levels are missing in our local races. In some districts, the Republican Party has so few registered voters that even getting on the ballot would be a difficult task. The Working Families Party, which has billed itself as the city’s alternative opposition party, has not yet shown interest in contesting these seats in the general election.

One way to make life easier for challengers would be to look at the signature requirement. While citywide mayoral and at-large candidates need 1,000 signatures, district candidates are tasked with collecting 750 signatures to run in one-tenth of the city. In some neighborhoods, housing insecurity and literacy prove to be additional hurdles — residents may have moved without updating their registration status, making their signatures invalid; others may not be able to sign their names in cursive or spell their street names.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the 5th District. Expected to host a lively, wide-open race between multiple qualified contenders, this race ended up being decided in Common Pleas Court, rather than the ballot box. Although seven candidates filed to run, only one survived, attorney and former Council staffer Jeffrey “Jay” Young.

Another way to tackle this issue would be to consider combining the best parts of the district and at-large seats through multimember district elections. This would essentially apply the current process for at-large elections, which has produced an expansive and ideologically diverse field, to district elections. It would also ensure geographic and racial diversity, something that cities with only at-large seats have struggled with. Another bonus would be the permanent elimination of prerogatives; you can’t have one person making determinations if three or five legislators represent the neighborhood.

No matter what reforms the city pursues, it is clear that some change is needed. After all, the thin field of candidates is not unique to this election cycle. Since the enactment of the new City Charter in 1952, voters have seen many district councilmembers retire, resign to run for mayor, or depart government service for federal prison. Giving voters a competitive slate of candidates has, unfortunately, been far less common.