At least one thing is clear about the muddled race for the city's Eighth District Council seat: Plenty of voters would prefer that someone other than Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller win it.
Miller did not get half the vote in either of her last two primary elections. But in both cases she faced multiple challengers who split the "anti-Donna" vote, giving the councilwoman the plurality she needed for victory.
The same thing could happen again on Tuesday.
Her challengers are Irv Ackelsberg, a prominent legal-services attorney; Cindy Bass, a policy adviser to mayoral candidate and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah; and Greg Paulmier, a ward leader and real-estate developer who has tried twice before to knock Miller out of her seat.
Together, they present a more formidable field then any Miller has faced, and each is confident that the 11-year incumbent can be defeated despite the abundance of challengers.
"There's tremendous hope in the Eighth District that this is the year for change," Ackelsberg said. "There is an outpouring of excitement about a new day."
As in past elections, Miller's challengers have criticized her as ineffective and out-of-touch with her district, which stretches from Nicetown to Chestnut Hill. No district Council member has consistently faced as many challengers as she has.
"People want to be the council person. It doesn't mean I'm doing a bad job," Miller said. "It's America. People have a right to run."
Miller acknowledged that there is a "perception" in much of the Eighth District that her office is not active enough, but she said it was inaccurate. She said her office had done important work combatting blight and recidivism, and on finding jobs for residents.
The councilwoman has fewer big names behind her than she did 2003 and 1999. Mayoral candidates Bob Brady and Fattah supported Miller in the past, but not this time, due to her new alliance with State Rep. Dwight Evans, another mayoral candidate.
Fattah and his vaunted voting-day operation will be helping Bass.
"The dynamics of this race are very different. If there's ever been an opportunity to get change in the district, it's now," Bass said.
Bass has an extensive political resume. Before joining Fattah's office, she was an aide to then-State Sen. Allyson Schwartz. She has run successful citywide campaigns for candidates including Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, and has played significant local roles in presidential campaigns. Bass is also a former president of East Mount Airy Neighbors.
Ackelsberg is widely viewed as the other challenger with a legitimate chance to beat Miller.
For 30 years, Ackelsberg was a senior attorney at Community Legal Services, which has its offices within the Eighth District. The organization provides legal help to low-income Philadelphians and community groups, and in 2005 Ackelsberg was named the nation's top consumer advocate for his work there by the National Consumer Law Center.
"We're very optimistic that our message is taking hold, and that people are ready for the kind of experience and integrity and leadership that I bring to the table," Ackelsberg said. "I'm reaching out to communities that feel neglected, and they're realizing that I'm a person who's been with them for 30 years, and that I'll continue to be with them in this new capacity."
Ackelsberg is part of a loose group of reform-minded Council candidates who have made joint appearances during the campaign. His son, Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, is the founder of Young Philly Politics, perhaps the city's most active online political community.
Ackelsberg has a major financial advantage heading into the home stretch. According to campaign finance statements filed last week, Ackelsberg had $83,000 on hand to Miller's $22,000, Bass' $4,300, and Paulmier's $700.
Paulmier may lack cash, but he is the candidate with the most experience battling Miller.
A housing developer who finished second to the councilwoman in each of the past two Democratic primaries, Paulmier was temporarily knocked off the ballot following a challenge to his financial disclosure statement. It was not until late April that he was sure he would appear on the ballot.
"That was the biggest bump in my road," Paulmier said. "But we were victorious, and it will propel us through the tape at the finish line."