IF YOU WANT to run for City Council and you don't have deep pockets, Democratic Party backing or a field organization, you can expect to do a lot of pounding the pavement and banging on doors in the cold, in an attempt to collect the hundreds of signatures from registered voters required to get on the May primary ballot.

Then, if you're able to hit the magic number (1,000 signatures for Council-at-large and 750 for a Council district seat) by the mid-March deadline, don't be surprised if an entrenched Democratic incumbent engineers a court challenge attacking the validity of each signature. Line by line.

And it's all uphill from there.

Just ask Council candidates Tony Dfax King, Lillian Ford, Karen Gordon and Billy Ivery. Each left the contest yesterday after seasoned election lawyers whittled away the number of signatures until they didn't have enough valid John Hancocks to remain on the ballot.

The painstaking task of deciphering signatures, verifying addresses and checking voter registration can take hours over several days. Lillian Ford, a candidate vying for one of the seven Council-at-large seats in the Democratic primary, said the process "can be traumatizing." Ford, 48, of Wissinoming, had never run for office before.

Ford acknowledged it's hard for political "rookies" like her to withstand a petition challenge by veteran election lawyers on behalf of an incumbent.

"They have professionals," she said. "They have a whole team of people that they bring out to check signatures line by line."

Ford decided to withdraw her name from the ballot after her 1,423 signatures got knocked down to fewer than 1,000. Another Council-at-large candidate, Karen Gordon, 58, who lives in West Philly, also withdrew from the race.

"It's all about money and power," Gordon said yesterday after hours spent in court. "I'm so tired."

Ford and Gordon represented themselves before a Common Pleas judge.

Council-at-large candidate Billy Ivery had his own attorney, Theresa Brunson, who cordially squared off against lawyer Charles Gibbs, who has scrutinized signatures on petitions for at least seven years.

Ivery, 57, a U.S. Marine and former city police officer from Northeast Philly, bowed out gracefully after Gibbs successfully challenged more than 200 of his nearly 1,200 signatures. Ivery, a first-timer, said the process was a good learning experience.

"I think it's something that should be taught in school," Ivery said. "We fell short because of signatures not being properly placed on the petitions and not getting enough of them, and I take full responsibility for that."

Common Pleas Judge Donna Woelpper ordered Tony Dfax King off the ballot after she struck scores of signatures from his petition. The judge also threw out King's challenge to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.

King, who lives in West Philly, said he would appeal Woelpper's rulings to a higher court.

"The judge didn't liberally construe the Election Code," King said. "This is how incumbents stay in office - the judges in the court of Common Pleas are too close to the councilpeople."

Common Pleas Judge Joel Johnson kicked a fifth Council candidate, Sabriya Bilal, off the ballot after she failed to appear in court, according to Timothy Dowling, supervisor of elections for the city commissioners.

Bilal sought to fill Councilwoman Marian Tasco's seat in the 9th District, which includes Cedarbrook, East and West Oak Lane, Fern Rock and Melrose Park.

That means state Rep. Cherelle Parker is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. Kevin Strickland is vying for Tasco's seat as a Republican.

On Twitter: @wendyruderman