Frank DiCicco has conquered many a controversy over the years.

He switched from Republican to Democrat in an allegiance with former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and years later was rewarded with a ticket to a federal grand jury to discuss Fumo's use of public money.

He survived the casino wars in his South Philadelphia district, tiptoeing around precarious and sometimes contradictory positions.

But to keep his job as councilman for the city's First District, DiCicco was now staring at a half-million-dollar campaign, a probable court battle over the controversial DROP retirement program, and some unfriendly ward leaders.

If he conquered all that, it would cost him yet another half-million - the four years of his salary that he had promised to give back.

But DiCicco's biggest fear was that his participation in DROP would forever overshadow his work as a city councilman.

Those factors, and a published cartoon, finally sapped his enthusiasm for the task, and DiCicco, 64, decided to step down from his post representing South Philadelphia and the river wards, which he has held since 1996.

At a news conference in his office Monday, DiCicco acknowledged that for months he had been contemplating stepping aside.

The last straw? An editorial cartoon that appeared in The Inquirer last week about the DROP program, depicting City Council as hogs. "It didn't make me feel good," he said.

Also pushing DiCicco was his old nemesis, John J. "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, head of the electricians union and leader of the First Ward in DiCicco's district. Dougherty had gathered 1,200 signatures for challenger Mark Squilla in his ward alone.

It all came down to a meeting Saturday night at the ward office of the Democratic City Committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, in West Philadelphia. The congressman said he brought a potential successor, Squilla, president of the Whitman Council neighborhood group, who agreed that in running for DiCicco's seat, he would not trample his accomplishments, notably his achievements in planning and development on the waterfront and through South Philadelphia and Center City.

DiCicco got out of his pajamas, went to the office about 9 p.m. Saturday, and gave Squilla his blessing, Brady said.

Dougherty and South Philadelphia ward leader Matt Myers were there as well, and apparently everyone was on board with giving DiCicco his due.

"You can't do anything but compliment him for what he's done on Passyunk Avenue," said Dougherty, who also credited DiCicco's work on waterfront planning and the 10-year tax abatement.

The councilman said he didn't make up his mind for good until last week, when he received the results of a $21,000 poll he commissioned, showing that he would beat three potential rivals, winning with 35 percent of the vote.

"But I know that would've taken a lot of time and energy - and a lot of money," DiCicco said. "It would have been one of the most negative campaigns I, and the people in my district, would have had to endure."

Driving the mudslinging would have been controversy over his enrollment in DROP, which he called "a mistake on my part."

Looking back to when he joined the retirement program, he said he did so after rough-and-tumble battles regarding the building of two casinos in his district.

"I was burned out by the casino issue," DiCicco said, "and reacted too quickly."

His consultants estimated that the campaign would cost $500,000. On top of that, he would likely have had to set up a separate fund to fight a legal challenge to his candidacy based on his DROP commitment to retire - at least an additional $40,000, he said.

DiCicco said his decision was influenced as well by the impact on his seven longtime aides, who were at his side as he spoke.

"They are probably the biggest reason I did not pull the plug on this years ago. . . . I couldn't find a way to protect them all," he said.

Also at the news conference were four political allies: Council President Anna C. Verna, Majority Whip Darrell L. Clarke, Councilman William K. Greenlee, and Councilman James F. Kenney.

DiCicco said he would rally behind Squilla. Squilla also has Dougherty's support.

"I think of myself as someone who can bring people together," Squilla said in a phone interview Monday.

Squilla will face at least three other candidates in the Democratic primary - lawyer Vern Anastasio, who had challenged DiCicco before; Joe Grace, a gun-control advocate who was spokesman for Mayor John F. Street; and Jeff Hornstein, on leave as an organizer with the Service Employees International Union. The deadline for filing petitions is Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.