The nastiest campaign this election season isn't the mayor's race. It's in the city's First Council District, where a classic South Philly brawl - with a 21st-century twist - is entering its final stages.
Frank DiCicco is the 11-year incumbent, one of City Council's most legislatively accomplished members and a proud protege of indicted State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo. The challenger is Vernon Anastasio, an energetic, creative candidate who is a darling of the city's reform movement.
At stake is representation of a district that stretches from deep South Philadelphia to north of Fishtown, including both riverfront casino sites and neighborhoods as wealthy as Society Hill and as impoverished as Frankford.
The two candidates have been bitter rivals since Anastasio's aborted 2003 Council run, which ended when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court - ruling on a complaint filed by DiCicco's proxies - bounced Anastasio from the ballot for an error on his financial disclosure form.
Since then, the two have traded accusations of hypocrisy, plagiarism, and out-and-out corruption. Defamation suits have been filed. The feud has sucked in brothers and sons.
"Fumo and Frank see it as a personal affront that I'm challenging their dynasty, and I think that, unfortunately, set the tone," Anastasio said. "They can't buy me off or scare me off, and that offends them."
DiCicco, predictably, sees it another way. He recalls Anastasio coming to him for political advice, and then two weeks later announcing his candidacy for the 2003 election.
"The rest was history. It's been one never-ending battle ever since," DiCicco said.
With a huge war chest (DiCicco predicts he will spend $400,000 by May 15) and the backing of the Democratic machine, the incumbent is the clear favorite. A DiCicco staffer said internal polls showed he would cruise to an easy win.
Anastasio has countered with an avant garde Web-based media campaign. Drawing on the talents of campaign volunteer and documentary filmmaker James Doolittle, Anastasio's campaign has produced an extensive series of compelling campaign shorts that are posted on YouTube.
Some are simple reflections on life in the First District; others are slickly produced spots that take aim at DiCicco. In one, an "A-team" of Anastasio and his campaign workers shovel snow and scrape ice off an uncleared sidewalk in front of a DiCicco campaign office. The video has been viewed more than 7,500 times, according to YouTube.
Anastasio is also leaning on voter-targeting tactics, his own bank account (he's lent his campaign $40,000), and shoe leather to catch up. He claims his campaign has knocked on 10,000 doors in the district.
It might not be enough. In 2003, Anastasio was backed by Fumo rival John Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the electricians' union, but so far Dougherty has sat this race out. He declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.
Nonetheless, Anastasio said, he thinks he is "within striking distance."
There are some stark differences between the two candidates.
DiCicco has arguably become Council's preeminent deal-maker, winning agreements on such high-profile measures as the smoking ban and the 10-year tax abatement on construction. More recently, he cajoled reluctant colleagues into joining his opposition to the casinos and putting a major zoning-change question on the May ballot.
"Some people think the only way to get things done is to blow everything up and start from scratch. That's not my style," DiCicco said.
What DiCicco sees as a strength, Anastasio sees as weakness.
An early and vocal opponent of the casinos, Anastasio said DiCicco paved the way for their construction by not working to defeat them sooner. The councilman, Anastasio said, simply arranged meetings and acted as a neutral party.
"That's probably the biggest difference between us. He sees himself as a broker of information. You're there to lead, man," Anastasio said. "So lead."
Anastasio - who was endorsed yesterday by mayoral candidate Tom Knox - is basing his campaign on a call for "honest change." He talks about the need for a new generation of Democratic leaders who aren't beholden to the city's "broken" party apparatus - which he said DiCicco represents.
That charge was given a boost in February when the federal government indicted Fumo on 139 counts of conspiracy, fraud and other offenses. The indictment does not mention DiCicco by name, but it does refer to a "councilman" who received improper favors from Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, a nonprofit Fumo helped create and whose funds he is accused of misusing.
DiCicco acknowledges the indictment was referring to him, but he strongly denies any wrongdoing.
"I was never a target of the investigation, I was never granted immunity, I never pled the Fifth," DiCicco said. "If the feds had any interest in me, I would have been indicted."
Still, in an election season where voters seem intent on reform (consider the front-runner status of mayoral candidates Knox and Michael Nutter), DiCicco makes no bones about his role in the Democratic machine.
Fumo? "He's a friend. I don't abandon friends when they're in trouble."
Patronage? "I don't have a problem with it. I'm a product of patronage. It gets you in the door, but you still have to do the work."
What seems to irritate DiCicco most about Anastasio is how he casts himself as an reformer who hasn't benefited from the system.
"Independent?" DiCicco said incredulously during an interview in his office last week.
He reached into his desk and pulled out a file with his challenger's name on it. In it was a photo of Anastasio dining with Dougherty - one of the city's biggest political power brokers - and copies of letters of recommendation DiCicco wrote for Anastasio before he chose to run for office.
"Every job he's ever had is a patronage job," DiCicco said of Anastasio.
The challenger has held posts at the city's Human Relations Commission and its Redevelopment Authority (where Dougherty has enormous sway), and as chief of staff for State Rep. Babette Josephs.
"That accusation is just untrue," Anastasio said, while acknowledging that Dougherty had helped to get him a job at the RDA "for which I was extremely qualified."
He said he secured the jobs on merit, not on any "quid pro quo" basis.